AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Trump administration has been sounding the alarm about, quote, "fake families" amid the surge of Central Americans crossing the southern border. There has been an uptick in migrants traveling with minors who are not their children. The administration suspects foul play. But immigrant advocates say most of them are just trying to make it into the U.S. for a better life. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen had this provocative warning when she appeared before a congressional committee last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: Cases of fake families are popping up everywhere, and children are being used as pawns. In fact, we have uncovered child recycling rings, a process by which innocent child are used multiple times to help migrants gain illegal entry. As a nation, we cannot stand for this.
BURNETT: Nielsen singled out one particularly sordid case involving a Guatemalan woman living in South Carolina. She's been indicted on federal charges. Officials say she would pair immigrant children with adults who were not their parents. They would present themselves as a family at the border knowing that families traveling together are likely to be released to live in the U.S. until they get to immigration court. Adult immigrants who travel alone are usually detained or quickly deported. Border Patrol Associate Intelligence Chief Carl McClafferty described the South Carolina case in an appearance with Nielsen and the president last month at the White House.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CARL MCCLAFFERTY: One of the indictments was a woman who was being paid $1,500 a child to take the children back to Guatemala who were not part of actually the family unit. She claimed to doing this 13 times.
BURNETT: Child recycling cases are rare, what is a growing problem are fake documents. Up and down the Southwest border, federal agents are seeing them. In the Yuma, Ariz., sector alone, since October, they've had 450 instances of what they call fraudulent family units. In El Paso, Texas, agent Ramiro Cordero has noticed it too.
RAMIRO CORDERO: We've found cases where adults have been coming in with kids that are not their kids, yet they're claiming that they're their children. We found birth certificates that have been forged.
BURNETT: When agents in El Paso suspect something fishy, they sent the questionable birth certificates to the Guatemalan consul in the city of Del Rio. Officials there check its authenticity with a database in Guatemala City. The Guatemalan consul, Tekandi Paniagua, says he's not aware of any recycled children.
TEKANDI PANIAGUA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Unfortunately, he says, the consulate has detected lots of fake identity documents in recent months. Paniagua says in most of the cases they've looked into, the pair is an adult neighbor or relative who is not the parent, and the child is willfully travelling with them. In many cases, he says, immigrant parents already in the U.S. pay for fake documents for an adult travelling companion to bring their children.
PANIAGUA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: Paniagua says the price for fake documents ranges from 200 to $700. He says it's an additional service provided by organizations that work for human smugglers. In some cases, it's a bogus document with the wrong watermark, wrong stamp and wrong logo of the Guatemalan National Persons Registry. In other cases, the document is authentic, but a name or an age has been changed. Paniagua has also come across cases where a young adult altered their birthdate to under 18 so they could go to a child shelter, where conditions are more benign than adult detention. Even before they see the documents, federal agents say when they encounter some immigrant families, they can tell something's not right.
MONICA MAPLE: A young man has arrived with a small child - had no diapers, no bottle, nothing. He did not even know how to feed the child. So that tells me that's not your child. You're not a father who has been caring for that child.
BURNETT: Monica Maple is Assistant Agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in San Antonio. She's begun to explore whether the schemes are mostly a matter of illegal immigration or child exploitation.
MAPLE: Is it continuation of human smuggling? Is it worse - human trafficking? As an investigator, my mind is wide open.
BURNETT: In the current immigrant surge, officials in El Paso have apprehended as many as a thousand family members a day. A majority come from Guatemala. Tekandi Paniagua says, at most, the consulate is discovering around a dozen sham birth certificates every day. They're concerned but not alarmed. John Burnett, NPR News, San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.