McALLEN, Texas (AP) — A federal judge in South Texas said in a recent order that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is assisting in criminal conspiracies to smuggle children into the country when it helps reunite them with parents who are known to be in the U.S. illegally.
U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville made the comments in a 10-page order last Friday, at the conclusion of an immigrant smuggling case. Hanen expressed his frustration in having four cases in which a child who arrived in the U.S. illegally alone was reunited with a parent who was herself in the country illegally pass through his court in the past month.
In the most recent case, Hanen sentenced a smuggler to 10 months in prison. But he saved his most withering words for the U.S. government for not arresting and deporting the mother who hired the smuggler.
The order doesn't have the power to change policy, but it offers harsh criticism from a judge who regularly handles border issues but isn't known for being outspoken on immigration.
The case involved a woman who was arrested at an international bridge in Brownsville trying to use her daughter's birth certificate to smuggle in a 10-year-old girl from El Salvador. The girl was then reunited with her mother who was living illegally in Virginia.
"Instead of arresting (the child's mother) for instigating the conspiracy to violate our border security laws, the DHS delivered the child to her — thus successfully completing the mission of the criminal conspiracy," Hanen wrote.
Hanen's office said Thursday he would not be commenting on the order. Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Marsha Catron said in a prepared statement that the agency follows the laws when dealing with unaccompanied minors.
"DHS screens unaccompanied alien children for human trafficking, notifies the proper authorities, and then transfers children into the custody of Health and Human Services," she said.
The U.S. government for years has made it a priority to reunite unaccompanied children with parents regardless of their immigration status while awaiting their cases in immigration courts. Hanen's order did not mention that the children remain in deportation proceedings after they are reunited with their parents. Sending them to family members in the U.S. gets them out of government-funded shelters, which have been overwhelmed.
In recent years, the number of children apprehended by U.S. authorities without their parents has skyrocketed.
Between 2008 and 2011, the number of unaccompanied minors who landed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, fluctuated between 6,000 and 7,500 per year. That number shot up to 13,625 in 2012 and surged even more — to 24,668 — this year. Those figures do not include thousands of Mexican children who are routinely returned to that country through coordination with its consulates at the border.
The issue received national attention last year, when about 100 children were temporarily housed in a barracks at a U.S. Air Force base in San Antonio because sufficient beds weren't available in the shelter network.
Most of the children come from Central America. Nonprofit agencies that help provide the children legal representation say widespread violence perpetrated by gangs and drug cartels in their home countries are prompting more children to strike out on the dangerous journey north.
"It's not necessarily just because a family member is here and a family member is facilitating their travel to reunify," said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit organization that coordinates pro bono legal representation for unaccompanied children in the immigration system. "It's typically because the child is really compelled to leave the country because of conditions in the home country."
Hanen has been on the federal court since 2002, after being nominated by President George W. Bush. He spent several years handling the federal government's land condemnation cases to build the border fence, many times compelling government lawyers to slow down and take necessary procedural steps.
Hanen's Dec. 13 order said that when he brought up his concerns with federal prosecutors they referred him to a 1997 case Flores v. Reno, a settlement of which laid out guidelines for how the government would deal with unaccompanied minors. He said there's nothing in that agreement to keep the government from trying to deport parents who are in the country illegally and hired smugglers to bring their children.
The judge pointed out the incredible dangers for migration through Mexico. Human smuggling is a lucrative business controlled by organized crime groups — the same cartels that smuggle drugs into the U.S. By helping kids get to their parents in the U.S., Hanen says the government is providing additional customers, and thus revenue, to the cartels and putting children at risk.
Young said the so-called Flores agreement was put in place for a reason.
"What are the alternatives, locking kids into facilities for months and months?" Young said. "You have to look at the issue also from a child welfare perspective and what's good for the child."
Caldwell reported from Washington.