There's the lanky 16-year-old who wades the Rio Grande and ends up in Border Patrol custody. Or the frightened, wan little girl from Chiapas; she crosses with a coyote, seeking her mom in some mystery city called Topeka. Instead, she lands behind bars in Douglas, Ariz.
They are faces of the future, counted among the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children filtering across the U.S.-Mexico line. But they are also visages of controversy, amid allegations that the Border Patrol routinely mishandles these most vulnerable of travelers.
Despite rampant trafficking and exploitation of children along the international boundary, two agents contend that the Border Patrol routinely throws these kids to the wolves. "They're sending unaccompanied minors back to the port with strangers," says Ephraim Cruz, who's now on unpaid leave from the BP's Douglas outpost. "This is routine practice."
When unaccompanied children arrive in Douglas detention, "agents will actually go to (the adults') cells and ask whether anybody is willing to claim--falsely claim--that they're this child's father, brother or guardian," he says, "just so agents don't have to do a half-page memo for the Mexican Consulate to pick this kid up or meet (consulate representatives) at the border."
Another agent, currently working in the BP's Tucson Sector, agreed to speak to the Tucson Weekly on the condition of anonymity. "I've worked in stations (across the Southwest)," the agent says, "and I've seen it at every station that I've worked at. (Agents) will say, 'Does anybody know this child?' And if nobody raises their hand, (the agent) will kind of start coaxing them" to take the child. "That's pretty much the way it is. It's because they don't want to do the paperwork."
That possibility appalls Susan Thompson, of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico. Contacted in Arlington, Va., she says the Task Force focuses "on trafficking (of children). So to hear that children are just being released to someone who may or may not have a connection to them is scary."
But Border Patrol spokesman José Garza insists that unaccompanied, undocumented children are handled according to strict guidelines. Under agency policy, "we remand any juvenile over to the custody of the Mexican Consulate or to (Arizona) Child Protective Services," he says.
"Many times, if there is a loved one of a child, an aunt or an uncle (who) can provide documentation, (minors) are released to these people once they provide the proper identification, in conjunction with the Mexican Consulate. There are (also) special procedures we can do, to release them to family members (who) are already United States citizens or in the United States legally. But they are identified, and there is documentation."
Abuse of minors is only one of several allegations made by Cruz, a veteran agent who says he's being targeted for speaking out about harassment of detainees. Cruz also charges that exhausted immigrants are squeezed into vastly overcrowded cells at the Douglas station; that many--including pregnant women, children and the elderly--often go without food for up to 20 hours; and that direct physical abuse includes use of the notorious and painful "chair," in which people are forced into a chair-like position, with their backs pressed against the wall for long periods of time.
Each of these charges has been denied by Garza.
Cruz went public with his complaints, he says, after repeated reports to his superiors were ignored. As a result, he claims, the agency is retaliating; in July, Cruz was indicted for transporting an undocumented alien through the Douglas port. But the woman he ferried across is a familiar face on the Douglas Border Patrol's social scene. Or at least she was, until she charged her former boyfriend, Agent José Ruiz, with sexually assaulting her.
Charges against Ruiz were later dropped. But as Cruz prepares for a January trial, his allegations continue to reverberate.
Assertions that minors are mishandled is particularly troubling to Susan Benesch, acting director of Amnesty International USA's Refugee Program in Washington, D.C. "We have frequent and disturbing reports," she says. "about the treatment of unaccompanied children by the Border Patrol."
In its own 2003 report, "Why Am I Here?" Children in Immigration Detention, Amnesty researchers found that "unaccompanied children caught in the U.S. immigration system are routinely deprived of their rights," including the "right to contact their consulate immediately upon arrest. Of the facilities responding to AI's questionnaire," says the study, "several seemed unaware of the children's right to contact their consulate; only 12 out of 33 reported that they notify the children of this right."
The document also recommends broad reforms. "Unaccompanied children should receive legal representation," it says, "and, in the absence of a traditional caregiver, should be appointed a guardian."
Still, the sheer number of unaccompanied minors coming into the United States may overwhelm the system--and tempt Border Patrol agents to make shortcuts. While the rate of undocumented juveniles caught each year stands at approximately 85,000, the percentage of unaccompanied children is reportedly skyrocketing. Indeed, the number of unaccompanied children caught by Douglas agents in the first five months of 2004 jumped by roughly 27 percent, compared with the same period a year earlier.
The prime driver behind this increase, say experts, is attempts by undocumented families to reunite. Post-Sept. 11 border crackdowns have made many parents living illegally in this country more reluctant to leave. As a result, they are now sending for their children.
But when caught by the Border Patrol, those children find themselves in a statutory black hole until they are either deported, or processed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. That's according to Christopher Nugent, legal counsel for the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children in Washington, D.C. "What may be contributing to (the releases) is the number of children, and the (Border Patrol's) actual space and capacity to house the children temporarily," he says. "And the Border Patrol does have authority to release (children) within the first 72 hours."
However, legal technicalities don't override ethics, says Agent Cruz. "Any law enforcement officer is a mandated reporter of child abuse. But the Border Patrol is releasing unaccompanied minors to anybody who claims that they are this person's father, uncle or guardian. That's abuse, and it's become a regular practice."