When I was a little girl, living in a filthy little shack in a very scary neighborhood about two hours north of the Mexican border, the house next door was what was referred to as a “way station” for immigrants coming into the U.S. illegally. There was a big barn behind the main house that temporarily housed lots of men who slept on the bunk beds that lined the walls. The men would be there for only a few days before their “fake papers” were ready, which enabled them to move on, presumably to find work and send money back to their families in Mexico.
Some of the men were nice. They seemed to be good-hearted people who were eager to work, get settled, and send for their families so they could start their new lives in a place that offered more opportunity than had their homeland. Some of the other men, however, were not so nice. I remember hearing my grandparents talk about how other little girls in the neighborhood had been raped. I had never heard that word before, and I was smacked for asking what it meant. I was five or six years old when I looked up the definition of that word, and it wasn’t long afterwards when one of the men from the barn next door tried to give me a personal understanding of the word. By the grace of God, I got away.
From that day on, I watched more carefully as I walked past that house to and from school every day. Over the following ten years, I paid attention to the cars that came and left at all hours of the day and night. I saw little bags of stuff being bought and sold, guns that were bought and sold, and cars that would show up in one piece and be taken apart with the individual pieces leaving in the backs of pickup trucks.
I knew the house was a drug dispensary because that’s where my grandmother bought her drugs, but it was years later that I learned that the house was also a “chop shop” for stolen cars. I didn’t realize until decades later that there was something else that had been bought and sold at that house.
I had seen men who had arrived with children but who left alone. It never occurred to me that the children were not their own, but I always wondered why the kids left without the men with whom they arrived. I wondered where the kids went when they drove away, often whimpering, crying, or screaming. It never occurred to me back then that the children were being bought and sold along with the drugs, guns, and stolen car parts. In hindsight, I can now see that throughout my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s, I was a witness to a whole host of illegal activity. It sickens me to think that I never spoke up… that I never helped a single one of those children. I was so focused on my own survival, and the criminal activity that surrounded me was so normalized, that it never even occurred to me that those children needed help, or that help could come from me. That won’t happen again.
Fast Forward To Present Day
In 2014 when I heard on the news about an influx of children at the border, I instantly flashed back to the kids who showed up at the house next door and then disappeared. I wondered how many of those children were being brought over the border by people who were posing as family, but who were not family at all—people who were planning to sell those children either to the highest bidder or to multiple people every night until the child was riddled with disease and no longer “profitable.”
Four years ago I was fairly new to the fight against the commercial sexual exploitation of children. I wasn’t an expert. I didn’t have the right initials after my name. So, aside from raising my concerns about traffickers posing as family in a couple of social networking posts, I remained largely silent. For the second time in my life, I was focused on my own survival, this time through some health challenges.
When the issue of separating children from family members (or those who are posing as family members) at the border arose again a couple of months ago, my concern was the same, but four years later (and older, wiser, stronger, and bolder), I have decided to raise my voice for the voiceless children who are trapped with nefarious bad actors who are posing as family members.
When I shared by concern about traffickers posing as family members in order to sell children, I was attacked saying “you’re just trying to defend Trump’s policy of separating families.” I was told that the statement of DHS Director, Kirstjen Nielsen, “From October 2017 to this February, we have seen a staggering 315 percent increase in illegal aliens fraudulently using children to pose as family units to gain entry into this country…” was a lie. I heard that the Department of Homeland Security had falsified information in it’s Myth vs. Fact: DHS Zero-Tolerance Policy. These allegations sounded like a Kennedy-assassination-type-conspiracy theory complete with Watergate-style cover-up! All because I dared to be concerned about children being brought into the US to be sold—something I had seen (but not recognized) in my own childhood neighborhood.
I was taken aback because I had shared my sincere concerns with life-long child advocates. I hadn’t mentioned Trump. I hadn’t mentioned Obama in my social media comments 2014. To me it wasn’t political at all. I understand now that while I was thinking about the children at the border who looked a lot like those kids who showed up next door in the 60’s and 70’s, the issue had become an explosive political landmine.
How many children who make the trek across hundreds of miles with little food or water hold out hope that Americans in uniforms will rescue them; but who, rather than being taken aside and asked if the person they are with is family, are left with their traffickers.
Since the official DHS statements had been dismissed as invalid, I sought out personal connections to individuals who have worked for Border Patrol to learn the truth. I was told in no uncertain terms that traffickers do “use children as passports” to cross the border illegally, and have been doing so for decades. I was told that because crossing with children has worked for them for years, traffickers now routinely pose as family to bring children into the US, often with the blessing of their parents.
Border Patrol Associate Chief of Enforcement Systems, Antonio Trinidade, told the LA Times in May 2018, “We believe that a lot of these kids are not part of a family, and they’re being trafficked and exploited.”
How can Border Patrol agents know when children are being brought into the US to be trafficked? They are trained to ask for birth certificates and identification, although they often suspect that documents presented are fake. They ask adults for dates of birth of the children, and they watch for hesitation or what looks like a guess. They watch the children for verbal and nonverbal cues to identify children who are being held against their will. Despite their training and best efforts, former Border Patrol and Customs Special Agent Jason Piccolo said, ”You can never really verify who the parents really are.”
If you read last month’s Connecting The Dots column, you may remember that some of the kids coming into the country with traffickers are doing so willingly, with the blessing, or even arrangement, of their family who desperately hope for a better life for their children. The child may not know yet the horror that awaits after they get through the border. In these cases, the child is motivated to collaborate with the trafficker. What clues might a Border Patrol agent pick up from a child and a trafficker who are cooperating to get the child into the US?
In the US, when police and social workers investigate child abuse concerns, they separate the child from the adults to give the children the freedom to express themselves, and to get a more accurate representation of whether or not the child is being mistreated. Shouldn’t we do the same for children coming across the border?