Families Are Paying Smugglers To Escort ‘Unaccompanied’ Children, Johnson Admits

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson admitted at a Tuesday press conference that nearly all the roughly 50,000 Central American youths who have crossed the Texas border since October are accompanied by smugglers hired by the youth’s parents or families.

“It is our observation and our experience that almost all of of them are smuggled,” he said. “Nobody is freelancing,” he added.

“The families are paying as much as $10,000,” he said.

Johnson’s admissions undercut the White House claim that the smuggled youths can’t be repatriated immediately, but must be protected by the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which automatically allows trafficked youths a chance to win a green card in court.

The White House claim has sparked a furious debate between Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress. Democrats are objecting to GOP-backed changes to the law that would make it harder for Central American young people to avoid immediate repatriation.

The act was originally designed to aid the small number of youths who are forcibly imported and abandoned in the United States by criminal groups, such as prostitution rings, said Jon Feere, the legal analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.

The administration is improperly applying the law to the smuggled immigrants, which only helps the young people win residency and helps the smugglers win more customers, Feere told TheDC.

White House officials “are hoping no one reads through what the 2008 law requires, and they’re happy to act as if their hands are bound by the 2008 law,” he said.

The Daily Caller asked Johnson to explain why his agency is choosing to process the young immigrants who pay for smugglers as “trafficked” and as victimized “unaccompanied alien children.”

Johnson, a lawyer, offered a vague response.

“The TVPRA … talks in terms of when a child is identified as an unaccompanied child, and in this circumstance, by Customs and Border Patrol, under our laws, within 72 hours, we are to transfer that child to the Department of Health and Human Services,” he responded.

“So that’s basically how the law works,” said Johnson, a lawyer with a degree from Columbia Law School.

“And under the TVPRA, the Department of Health and Human Services should act in the best interests of the child, and as you probably know, the administration has asked for a change in law and we are in active discussion with Congress right now about doing that,” he concluded.

The White House’s reliance on the 2008 law is also undermined by the fact that nearly all of the border-crossing children are handed over by federal agencies to their parents or to close family members who are living — often illegally — in the United States.

Federal immigration law excludes children with parents or guardians in the U.S. from being classified as “unaccompanied alien children,” and so excludes them from the 2008 law, said Feere.

So far, 96 percent of the 45,157 children who have walked across the border since last October have been transferred to the custody of sponsors, including parents, according to Kenneth Wolfe, deputy director of public affairs at the child and families administration in the Department of Health and Human Services.

More than half of the children and youths have been transferred to the custody of one or two U.S.-based parents, Wolfe told CNS.com on Tuesday.

Wolfe’s data is backed by media reports describing how Central American parents are using the relay of smugglers and federal agencies to deliver their children to cities throughout the United States.

In addition, at least 50,000 additional Central American migrants have crossed the border in “family units” — usually with the aid of smugglers — since last October, and have turned themselves into border police in the hope of getting permission to stay.

Obama’s deputies “are basically empowering this smuggling, and they’re encouraging more smuggling … [by] fulfilling the delivery,” Feere said.

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