TIJUANA, Mexico — Some migrants in Tijuana are trying to purchase children from vulnerable single mothers in local shelters so they can more easily cross into the United States, according to shelter directors, migrants and Tijuana law enforcement authorities.
Migrants in Tijuana shelters said they are alarmed after reports of single mothers being approached by groups of men who have offered to buy children to improve their chances of safely crossing into the United States.
A decades-old legal document, known as the Flores agreement, says migrant children should only be held briefly in U.S. border custody, which often means they are released, along with the parent or guardian with whom they crossed while they wait for their asylum cases to make their way through clogged immigration courts.
Typically, when migrants are apprehended at the border with their children they are held in custody for a few days before they are released. Single adults who cross the border can face months in detention.
U.S. border authorities have been warning since June 2018 about people fraudulently using children who aren’t theirs to pose as family units and gain entry into the United States, a claim that critics said was overblown.
But now, authorities in Tijuana are warning migrant mothers to keep their children close by and supervised, after reports of men offering to purchase migrant children in order to cross.
“I can’t go to work because I can’t take my eyes off my boys,” said Antonia Portillo Cruz, a 44-year-old migrant from Honduras, who said the men have been targeting the shelter where she stays. She said she witnessed some of the men asking women in the shelter about purchasing their children, but none of them made the offer directly to her.
Portillo said the groups of men have been approaching the Iglesia Embajadores de Jesus shelter in Tijuana and offering about 7,000 pesos, or $350, to purchase a child to cross into the United States.
She said she fears the requests and the offers of money will turn into demands or kidnappings. Portillo said she never lets her two boys, aged 10 and 8, out of her sight.
“They want to rob our kids so they can cross into the United States,” she said angrily.
A spokesman for the Tijuana municipal police confirmed the reports and said federal authorities are investigating. The case was first reported by Tijuana journalists Yolanda Morales and Yuriria Sierra for Imagen TV.
Pastor Gustavo Banda, a Tijuana shelter director, said families at the shelter are terrified and feel forced to keep all their children locked inside at all times.
“These are cases of desperation,” said Banda, who runs the Embajadores shelter. “Of course, the women have not accepted any of these offers, but clearly this is a huge concern because of the danger to the children.”
Banda now keeps a chain lock around the fence to his shelter and said staff does not let the children outdoors unsupervised. He said some men, whom he believes are from Haiti or Central America, are also offering money to single mothers to pair up as a fake family unit and cross together.
It is unclear whether the men approaching the shelter are trying to use the children for their own passage or for others who wish to cross.
“Right now, the entire border of Tijuana is practically closed for the migrants, even those from Haiti,” he said. A 15-year-old from Haiti said she was afraid to give her name because she witnessed the men approaching the shelter asking for children to buy.
“It’s horrific,” she said. “I could not even imagine the horror before I came here. I just wonder what happens to the kids once they make it across. It’s not like their mom or dad who will care for them no matter what.”
Banda stressed that none of the mothers sheltered at his church have sold their babies. He said that as soon as he heard of the threat several weeks ago he called the police, who have been monitoring the shelter every day, sometimes visiting three times a day, to try to identify the suspects.
In June 2018, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen faced criticism for justifying family separations at the border by warning about adults falsely identifying themselves as parents of migrant children they were traveling with across the border.
“I’m sad to say that from October 2017 to this February, we have seen a staggering 315% increase in illegal aliens fraudulently using children to pose as family units to gain entry into this country,” said Nielsen to the National Sheriffs’ Association in June 2018.
Though her data was correct, The New York Times noted that instances of family fraud were only a small percentage of the overall number of families apprehended at the southwest U.S. border.
There were 46 cases of family fraud in fiscal year 2017 versus 600 cases in fiscal year 2018, which ended in September 2018, Department of Homeland Security data show.
Those cases make up less than 1% of the total families apprehended at the border. Embajadores pastor, Banda, said the trend was born out of unimaginable suffering and stems from recent changes in immigration policy that he called “inhumane U.S. border policies.”
“Whether they are bad people or not, I don’t know, but they are looking for ways to cross the border and end their suffering,” he said.
Banda said the shelter is taking security precautions such as keeping all the children in the back of the shelter or, keeping them with their fathers as much as possible.
“The mothers are very scared for their safety and for the safety of their children,” he said.
At the Agape Mission shelter in south Tijuana, Pastor Albert Rivera said he has been alerting authorities to criminal groups looking for unaccompanied minors. He said the criminals offer money to the minors to pair them up with an adult so both can cross into the United States as a family unit.
“One of the problems is the state government of Baja California has no system to monitor these unaccompanied kids, so they have no idea how many are here and would have no idea if some were missing,” Rivera said.
Mexico Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said last month the federal government is working with the United Nations Children’s Fund to develop protocols for caring for unaccompanied migrant children and adolescents in migrants shelters.
“This is heartbreaking, but the situation we are living is causing some to use unaccompanied minors to get to the United States and then they either leave them there or return them,” said Ebrard on June 12. “It’s all a very complex thing that we are reviewing.”
In May, Homeland Security officials announced they would start a pilot program to test the DNA of families arriving at the U.S. border to weed out fraudulent families and “rescue children from dangerous situations.”