Joe Biden's Reversal of Trump's Border Ban on Solo Children Increases Cartel Profits

President Joe Biden's reversal of the Trump-era policy of turning away unaccompanied migrant children has offered smugglers greater leverage in exploiting the desperation of migrant families seeking safe passage for their children into the United States.

Tom Wong, founding director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California, San Diego, said that as the administration reworks the nation's immigration policy, smugglers are able to take advantage of the uncertainty to get a greater number of families to make the $6,000 to $10,000 investment to send their children to the U.S.

El Salvador Immigrants Illegal
U.S. Border Patrol agents help a mother and child from El Salvador after they crossed the Rio Grande illegally into the United States on July 24, 2014 in Mission, Texas. Tens of thousands of immigrant families and unaccompanied minors crossed illegally into the United States that year and presented themselves to federal agents, causing a humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. (PHOTO CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images)

"That's what may be factoring into the increase in younger unaccompanied minors coming to the southern border, relative to previous months," Wong told Newsweek. "Smugglers have to be attuned to policy conversations in the U.S. in order to really maximize their profits, and that's part of what we may be seeing right now."

The story of "Maria," told to Newsweek by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), reveals the depth of the problems exacerbated by the previous presidential administration's asylum policies that the agency says worsened the mounting crisis in Central America and its symptoms felt at the border.

Maria (a pseudonym to protect her identity) was 8 when the Mexican drug cartel abducted her. It happened during her journey from El Salvador to the United States in search of asylum. She was denied entry to the United States three times prior to her abduction.

She left El Salvador with her father, who was facing extortion by a local gang. When Maria's father fell behind on the payments, the demands for payment turned into death threats. One day, he arrived home in dire condition following a beating at the hands of the gang.

It was time to leave El Salvador.

Fearing for his life and that of his daughter, Maria's father grabbed what he could and started the journey to bring his daughter to the United States. Three years prior, his wife had made that same journey alone, planning to live with her American relatives, after the gang made clear its intentions to harm her. Maria's father thought that having relatives in the United States might make it easier to enter the country.

U.S. Mexico border Tijuana
The U.S.-Mexico border (looking west, Pacific Ocean in background), with Tijuana, Mexico on the left, and San Diego, California on the right. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alex J. Rouhandeh)

He could not have been more wrong.

Not only were he and Maria denied entry those three times, but having ties to the U.S. made the duo a target. The Mexican cartel discovered it, captured the pair and held them for ransom. They demanded a payment of $10,000 from their American relatives in exchange for their freedom. During their time in captivity, Maria had to watch as cartel members repeatedly beat her father.

Maria's relatives could not afford the ransom, but they were able to come up with $5,000, which the cartel decided to accept. Maria's father knew they would both be denied if they tried to cross together again. Fearing a repeat of their previous experience, he decided to send her to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor (a child without a biological parent or legal guardian).

Maria's father arranged for her to go with a woman who was taking her family across the border and had agreed to bring Maria with her. On her fourth try, Maria was permitted to enter the U.S. as an unaccompanied child at McCallen, Texas.

More than 100,400 people attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in February, a 28% increase from January. Former President Donald Trump has called the situation "out of control," while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has blamed the situation on President Joe Biden's "sweeping left-wing amnesty plan."

Nogales, Mexico Border Wall
People parking on the Mexican side of the border wall in Nogales, Mexico. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alex J. Rouhandeh)

But historical data suggests a simpler explanation, one that is beyond politics: Spring.

Wong told Newsweek the February increase corresponds with typical seasonal migration shifts. While the 2020 pandemic year brought a decrease in overall migration, the months of January and February in 2019 saw a 31% increase in crossings.

2018's Spring occurred a bit later, with a 37% increase happening between February and March. While demand for seasonal agricultural labor brings the same patterns each year, Wong said there is a new element emerging this year.

"The extent at which younger children, so not teens, but preteens and younger [are crossing]—that would be a new phenomenon," Wong told Newsweek.

Over the past fiscal year, Customs and Border Protection saw close to 30,000 children attempt to cross the border. Nearly 3,000 of these children were below the age of 12. Of the 9,600 children the Border Patrol encountered in February, 98.5% of them came "unaccompanied." As defined by Border Patrol, an unaccompanied child is any individual under the age of 18 who arrives without their biological parent or legal guardian at the time of the encounter.

The crossing of unaccompanied children like Maria comes in large part due to the political and economic instability in Central America's Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

El Salvador Gangs
Alleged members of the Barrio 18 gang are detained by members of the National Civil Police during an operation in San Salvador on May 11, 2015. More than 10,000 gang members remain in Salvadoran prisons and another 60,000 are believed to be on the streets, according to authorities. (PHOTO CREDIT: Marvin RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images)

Of all immigrants in the United States from Central America, 86% came from these three countries. The Northern Triangle nations are among the six poorest in the Western Hemisphere and some of the most dangerous.

El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world, Honduras has the fourth, and Guatemala has the 14th. For child homicide rates, Honduras ranked first, El Salvador third, and Guatemala sixth.

"A lot of the children are leaving gang violence at home," Catherine Wegener, the children's staff attorney at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told Newsweek. "Because of their poverty they cannot remain safe."

Wegener says extortion by local gangs dismantles the home lives of many of her clients, as it did with Maria's family. As the economies of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, gangs took advantage of the situation to tighten and expand their territory and control. This phenomenon has increased the desperation of parents trying to secure the well-being of their children, even if it means sending them away forever.

The IRC has encountered children as young as 16 months being sent across the border, Wegener told Newsweek. She says the children sometimes arrive in groups, escorted by older siblings or extended family members. A 5-year-old boy who was fleeing an abusive home arrived at the border with his adult cousin. Because his cousin was over 18, he was denied entry, separating the pair.

Nogales Mexico 1
The city of Nogales, Mexico (above, right) ends at the border wall. The U.S. city of Nogales, Arizona lies across the wall. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alex J. Rouhandeh)

Despite the trauma that comes with separation, Olga Byrne, the IRC's director of immigration, says the parents view it as a safer alternative for their children than staying in Mexico or returning to their home countries.

"We are definitely seeing more desperation at the source," she said. "We are also seeing an increased number of internally displaced people in Central America."

Byrne said the increased rates of internal displacements may indicate a future continuation of the current immigration patterns. She said that people often move around their own country prior to making the decision to leave it all together.

As after-school programs, nonprofits, and community services shutter their doors due to the pandemic, parents may become even more desperate to protect their children, especially as the potential for successful immigration appears more viable.

While perceptions of the U.S. administration change may fuel greater optimism regarding the situation at the border, Customs and Border Protection said its handling of the situation remains relatively unchanged. Mark Morgan may be out as CBP commissioner and Troy Miller may be in, but the officers patrolling remain the same.

"Honestly for the agents, the boots on the ground, it's not a whole lot different," Jacob MacIsaac, a public affairs officer for the San Diego sector, told Newsweek. "My job is still the same."

Still, MacIsaac said the San Diego sector has seen a 61% increase in unaccompanied children over the past year. Some of these children are dropped off by vehicles near areas of the border where the wall is not present and told to walk forward, identification in hand, until they find an agent.

Storm Drain San-Diego-Mexico
A storm drain at the San Diego-Tijuana border. The storm drains are used by by human smugglers and immigrants trying to gain entry to the United States. (PHOTO CREDIT: Alex J. Rouhandeh)

In areas with the wall, children are lifted over the wall or told to walk through open storm drains until they reach the other side. Some of the children enter the country with frostbite or dehydration. In 2019, at least six children died trying to cross.

However, despite the risks and danger, the prospect of asylum in the United States remains enough of a reason for parents to make the decision to part with their child.

Not long after Maria entered the United States, her father went missing and has yet to be found.

In the United States, Maria received medical treatment, an education, and therapy, and she was reunited with her mother. She is not with her father, and she may never see him again, but she is beyond the reach of the gangs of El Salvador and the cartel of Mexico
—at least for now.

For Maria, and for her family, that is the American Dream.