Smuggling of children remains a problem
By JJ Hensley
The Arizona Republic (Phoenix), July 17, 2009
Four Phoenix residents detained at the border in the past month have highlighted a persistent problem: child smuggling.
Border Patrol agents detained Manuela Para-Herrera, 62, and Malissa Marie Gonzales, 22, on July 4 as they attempted to cross through the Douglas checkpoint with two children but presented birth certificates that belonged to other children, officials said. The children were reunited with family members, and the women began federal-court proceedings.
Five days earlier, Border Patrol agents detained a couple, ages 22 and 21, as they attempted to smuggle two young girls through the same checkpoint. The couple, who claimed they were smuggling the children 'for financial gain,' were detained and released. In both cases, agents detected the fraud by inspecting documents, questioning witnesses and when possible, talking to the children.
The motivation for parents is simple, said Vincent Picard, Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman:
'It would be a challenge to walk small children through the desert, so it's not uncommon to see them come through ports of entry,' he said.
But the dangers for the children and the penalties for the reputed smugglers can be severe.
The U.S. Attorney's Office was so alarmed by the trend that in March 2007, the agency announced a concerted effort to pursue the harshest penalties for suspected child smugglers. Sentences since then have averaged about 15 months in federal prison.
At the time, there was concern that harsher penalties could encourage families to take more dangerous measures to sneak children across, but the trend of strangers posing as family members hasn't subsided.
Last year, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona initiated 49 cases against suspected child smugglers and an additional 21 were launched through the first six months of this year.
The penalties for smugglers hardly compare with the dangers the infants and small children face when they're brought across the border with strangers, said John Roll, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Arizona.
'They don't know where the children are coming from, and they don't know what awaits the children,' Roll said of the smugglers. 'It's all the difference in the world smuggling an adult vs. a 4-year-old or a 6-year-old.'
Roll personally sentenced 70 people for child smuggling during a 5-year period in his Tucson courtroom, and he said the trends were disturbing.
'None of those cases involved family members who were smuggling children. Every case that I had involved individuals who were paid to smuggle,' he said. 'Most of the time, they didn't know the parents.'