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Immigrants Are Borrowing Children to Cross the Border

April 5, 1996

BROWNSVILLE, Texas (AP) _ Illegal immigrants are borrowing or renting children as passports into the country, taking advantage of a U.S. policy against incarcerating families caught crossing the border.

``It was a scam, that’s what it amounted to,″ said Gus Garcia, assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector. ``We found out that some of the aliens were using minor children to ensure their release.″

Under a policy in effect for more than a decade, illegal immigrants caught crossing the border with a minor son or daughter are released into the United States rather than held at an INS detention center.

The family provides an address and phone number where it can be reached so it can be notified of a court hearing. But many just give false information and disappear.

Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, said the INS feels it is inappropriate to keep families, particularly children and their mothers, at a detention compound.

The facilities are surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by guards. Detainees wear bright orange uniforms and sleep in dormitories, men and women kept separate. Immigrants charged with crimes also are held there.

In the past five months, immigrants crossing the South Texas border have admitted borrowing or renting children, INS and Border Patrol agents said.

Agents noticed the problem in December, when the number of families caught crossing into the United States in the Brownsville area skyrocketed to 88 in less than one month’s time, from with the usual 10 to 15 a month, Garcia said.

``When you start releasing families, word gets out that all you’ve got to do is bring someone with you, a juvenile or child, to get released,″ he said. ``People realized that we were not doing anything with them.″

In response, INS in late December began detaining families at its holding center outside Brownsville. But the old policy went back into effect two weeks ago when family crossings ground to a halt, presumably because word got out about the policy change.

During the temporary change, about 100 children, ranging in age from a few months to 17 years old, were housed with their mothers at the detention center, said Roel Delgado, who oversees the facility. Most were from Central America.

Of those detained, about 15 had accompanied someone other than their mother or father, Delgado said. In some cases, he said, their parents already lived in the United States; they had let other adults ``rent″ their children.

No families remain at the detention center.

Immigrant advocates who oppose the detention of families said the small number of children found accompanying people other than their parents showed that the problem is not widespread.

``They’ve tried to rationalize the detention of families by saying they’re using children, but there’s no data to suggest that it’s a real major problem,″ said Jonathan Jones, coordinator of the Rio Grande Valley’s Refugee-Immigrants Rights Coalition.

Garcia said agents have no way of knowing how many children are used to cross the border. An investigation is under way.

At a homeless shelter in Brownsville, several recent immigrants said they had heard of the scheme.

``It’s everywhere, all over,″ said a Honduran who identified himself only as Alexis. ``You tell the kids, `You’re going to say you’re my family so when we cross they won’t stop us.′ It’s a way out for them, a way out of the country.″

If INS see another huge increase of families coming across, it will start detaining them again, Bergeron said.

But immigration officials said the only real solution is to change the policy permanently. ``To have a place where we could send a whole family, that’s the only way you can deter that from occurring,″ Delgado said.

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