Union Tribune

November 9, 2003

Smuggled children among struggles played out at border
Desperate families try to reunite using risky, illegal method


Nine-year-old Rosa struggled to be brave as she described how a smuggler had tried to take her from Tijuana into San Diego and on to Pomona, where her mother was waiting.

The man gave her another child's passport, put her in his car and told her to be quiet. But when they approached the inspection booth at the border "the man got very nervous." Before long, Rosa said, he admitted everything. And so did she.

A small girl with big eyes and long brown hair, Rosa told her story to an official of the Mexican Consulate, which keeps an office at the border.

"I want my mother!" cried Rosa, who said her mother had fled to Pomona to escape Rosa's physically abusive father.

At San Ysidro, the busiest border crossing in the world, Rosa is just one character in the drama of human dislocations and immigration violations that is staged along the jagged, 1,950-mile border between Mexico and the United States.

Many of the dislocations involve children like Rosa, whose parents hire smugglers to bring them to the United States, where the parents have found work.

Mexican authorities, alarmed at the dangers the children face and concerned that many smugglers aren't prosecuted by U.S. authorities, want to get tough on the smugglers. They're asking for U.S. cooperation so smugglers who would otherwise be released into Mexico can be detained and prosecuted there.

In the past 12 months, Mexican consular officials have received 2,085 smuggled children from U.S. authorities, who intercepted them at the San Ysidro port of entry.

The children are turned over to the consulate, which finds them shelter in Tijuana until they can be reunited with their families.

How many more slip through is anyone's guess.

"That's like trying to say how many fish you didn't catch," said one U.S. official, who was unable to be quoted by name because of agency restrictions on speaking to the news media.

The business is less risky than it may seem because those who are caught stand a good chance of being released immediately. The U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego is so busy with more serious border-related crimes that it usually prosecutes only those smugglers who are repeat offenders or have risked the lives of their human cargo by cramming them into dangerous compartments or abusing them.

The number of smuggled children discovered at the San Ysidro border has dropped slightly in recent years, but the flow appears to be picking up at other parts of the border. The Mexican Consulate in Douglas, Ariz., for example, said the 136 children intercepted last year at the border crossing there represent a 20-fold increase from 2001. Consul Manuel Escobar said he expects this year's total to rise again.

Escobar's office recently received two children from U.S. authorities after a Phoenix woman tried to present them as her own.

"The kids acknowledged that she wasn't their mother," said Bill Molaski, interim director at the port of entry. "Children are not good liars."

Eager to reunite
Typically, child smuggling is arranged by parents who have established themselves in the United States after entering the country illegally. They are eager to reunite their families but reluctant to risk the round trip to Mexico themselves.

Sometimes, the smugglers are relatives with U.S. citizenship and no smuggling history. Often they are organized hustlers in a lucrative, frequently underground business that papers its moves with counterfeit documents.

Smugglers sometimes buy visas from people who obtained them legitimately and report them as lost after turning them into cash. Smuggling bands have also hired homeless people , elderly Americans driving motor homes and even U.S. high school kids who want to make a quick buck to drive children across the border.

According to U.S. and Mexican officials and immigrants, smugglers' fees start at a few hundred dollars to take a child to a relative waiting at a restaurant parking lot just across the border. The fees reach a few thousand dollars to deliver the child to parents living in far-away states.

Sometimes the business turns bizarre, as with 12-year-old Floriberta Jimenez Tomas, who was hidden in a secret compartment in a van driven to the San Ysidro crossing in August.

U.S. authorities confiscated the van after finding a woman hidden in the dashboard. But neither the smuggler nor the woman mentioned that Floriberta was hidden in another compartment. Two days later, after the van had been in a storage facility on Otay Mesa, she climbed out.

Sometimes the business is ugly with greed. In Victoria, Texas, last spring, 19 migrants died after smugglers crammed them and 55 others from Mexico and Central America into a stifling tractor-trailer. Among the dead were a 5-year-old boy and his father.

Many smugglers, like a streetwise 18-year-old Mexican woman arrested the day Rosa was caught, go about their business with the confidence that U.S. authorities won't prosecute them.

"You have to do this a lot of times before they'll send you to jail." She was as nonchalant as Rosa was traumatized. Asked how many times, the woman responded with a shrug, "I'd say five times."

That day's arrest was her third. She was released into Mexico under an "expedited removal," an administrative procedure that could raise the penalty if she enters the United States again.

One U.S. official at the San Ysidro border crossing said he knows of smugglers who come to Tijuana with the idea of earning some money and returning home before their luck runs out.

"They've told me, 'It's a business and I'll leave after I get caught so many times,' " the official said.

Selective prosecution
In San Diego, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mike Lasater acknowledged that his office doesn't prosecute many smugglers caught at the border.

"We concentrate our prosecutions on cases that involve enhanced endangerment," he said, using a term that generally describes situations where smugglers cram immigrants into dangerous compartments.

Lasater's office filed charges in September against a pair of U.S. citizens, charging that they had given cough medicine to a 9-month-old infant "in order to put the child to sleep and facilitate the illegal entry."

According to court documents, the drugged infant had to be taken to Chula Vista Medical Center for care.

Lasater said such endangerment cases and other border-related crimes involving drug smugglers and criminal aliens already make up about 85 percent of his office's caseload. Lasater's office simply doesn't have the resources to prosecute all the people smugglers, too.

Adele Fasano, San Diego director of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said other forms of punishment are available for offenders who are not U.S. citizens. A non-citizen can be punished administratively with confiscation of a visitor's visa, she said. Permanent residents can lose their right to live legally in the United States.

"We can't do that with a citizen," Fasano said. "We can't take away someone's citizenship for smuggling."

Mexican consular officials think more child smugglers should be prosecuted.

"If they are not prosecuted, they get a message that they can try again," said Lozano, the Mexican consulate official.

And if the U.S. can't handle the caseload, Miguel Martinez of the Mexican consulate in San Diego says, smugglers who are citizens of Mexico should be turned over to Mexican authorities rather than set free.

Consular officials and law enforcement officials from the two countries met in August and again in September to discuss that possibility. They have agreed to meet again.

Some officials shake their heads at the dangers and desperation involved in the smuggling of children.

"It's amazing to me that parents would turn their children over to a smuggler," Molaski said.

Escobar, the Mexican consulate in Douglas, offered an explanation: "Parents will always try to have their children with them."

Jerry Kammer: (202) 737-7681; jerry.kammer@copleydc.com