Stephen Dinan, Washington Times, November 16, 2020
They are known simply as Victim A and Victim B in court documents.
Both are girls. One was about 16 and the other about 10 when they were smuggled early last year from Guatemala to the U.S. Government authorities said a man and a woman used the girls to pretend to be families.
For the adults, that subterfuge earned them a pass into the U.S. For the girls, it meant abuse.
The younger girl was ordered to sweep the floors and feed and change a newborn. She was beaten with a belt and a phone charging cord when she didn’t obey. The older girl told police that she was forced to work as a roofer and then in a factory, becoming the sole provider while the fake “parents” took it easy.
The man who posed as her father, Santos Ac-Salazar, has pleaded guilty in an Illinois court to a child abuse charge. His partner, Olga Choc-Laj, is slated to go on trial soon in Kane County. They also face federal forced-labor charges.
“This is a lose, lose, lose scenario. Everyone gets the misery,” said Ronald D. Vitiello, who has served as chief of the Border Patrol and acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The case highlights the other side of the family separation issue that has riven the country in recent years.
Most of the attention has gone to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance border policy, which stepped up prosecutions in 2018 of parents who jumped the border with children. Federal jails have no family facilities, so the children were separated. The government didn’t have a good plan to reunite them.
Hundreds of children remained separated as of last month.
Another group included children like Victim A and Victim B, who ended up separated from parents — sometimes borrowed, sometimes outright sold, to Central Americans headed north who needed them to portray themselves as a family.
According to Homeland Security records, there were at least 432 fake families during a five-month period last year. Those were just the ones detected at the border. The Illinois case was missed and discovered only after a neighbor in Chicago reported the abuse.
“Kids are being separated every single day, not from the U.S. government but from parents,” Mark Morgan, acting commissioner at Customs and Border Protection and a former acting ICE chief, told reporters last month. “We see this tragedy happening to the kids, and we’re not talking about that enough.”
Children who show up at the U.S. without parents are known in government-speak as unaccompanied alien children, or UACs.
Under the confusing logic of U.S. law, UACs from Mexico can be quickly deported. If they are from Central America or farther afield, they are admitted and the government tries to find homes for them in the U.S.
A federal judge in 2015 ruled that the same policy should apply to children who show up with parents. She ordered release within about 20 days — not enough time to finish their immigration hearings.
Thus was born the “family loophole,” which sparked a surge of hundreds of thousands of adults and children at the border over the past five years.
Smugglers and parents in Central America quickly figured out that bringing a child meant quick release and a chance to disappear.
The two girls in the case appear to have won temporary victim visas to keep them in the U.S. while the cases are proceeding.
It’s impossible to say how many more cases like the two girls are out there, undetected.
ICE, using DNA testing, managed to flag 432 fake families at the border from July through November last year, at the tail end of the migrant surge. That was about a quarter of all cases in Operation Double Helix, the voluntary DNA pilot program.
“It’s bad enough that perhaps tens of thousands people have been released into the United States in recent years on the basis of a fraudulent relationship with a child, but it’s horrific when the child abuse goes beyond being used as an entry prop to more serious forms of servitude like this,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies.
She praised the Trump administration for proposing a rule that would allow DNA to be taken from a broader range of illegal immigrants, which could sniff out more fraudulent families at the border.