KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested hundreds of parents who are in the country illegally. They are suspected of paying smugglers to bring their children to the U.S. Federal officials say those parents are putting their children in danger. Immigrant advocates say this latest crackdown is hampering efforts to reunite families. NPR's John Burnett reports.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Abel Urbina (ph) is a 61-year-old construction worker from Honduras who's living and working illegally in Kenner, La. Earlier this year, he paid a smuggler to bring his son and his daughter, both 17, to live with him. He says they were being threatened by street gangs in their home of San Pedro Sula. Immigration agents interviewed his kids after they were apprehended at the border. And now they're looking for Urbina.
ABEL URBINA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "I see that they're accusing me of being a human smuggler," he says, "because I helped my children."
Urbina says federal agents have come by his house twice, but he was at work both times. He fears his days in the U.S. are numbered. He says his wife died, and he's the sole provider for his teenage children.
URBINA: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: "You can imagine," he says, "they'll be alone."
For the past 10 weeks, ICE has pursued a controversial operation that uses immigrant children to target their undocumented parents and guardians. Investigators say these adults are aiding and abetting criminal smuggling networks. Since the surge began in June, ICE reports it has arrested more than 400 heads of households. Phillip Miller is with ICE's enforcement and removal operations.
PHILIP MILLER: It's remarkably inhumane to pay to turn your child over to an organization that smuggles heroin, cocaine and human beings and say, I trust you to bring me the child. The fact that we're going to take an enforcement action, whether it's criminal or administrative, against somebody who would do that, I think, is a good public safety act.
BURNETT: The operation put two federal departments at cross-purposes. There is Health and Human Services, which is charged with taking custody of underage migrants who fled violence and poverty in Central America. The agency finds them trustworthy sponsors, often a family member who lives in the U.S. Then there's Homeland Security, which is charged with shutting down international smuggling rings. One former government official says the enforcement operation is hindering the placement of immigrant children in households because sponsors are afraid to pick up the kids.
ROBERT CAREY: My former government colleagues are telling me that these actions have had a chilling effect on the willingness of sponsors to come forward.
BURNETT: Robert Carey left in January as head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the agency in charge of so-called unaccompanied children.
CAREY: It's not an ideal situation for any young person to stay in institutional custody for an extended period of time.
BURNETT: The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been swamped with immigrant children in recent years. From 2014 to June of this year, the agency took in 170,000 unaccompanied kids. By law, the government must feed, shelter and provide medical care for them. ICE says that smugglers cynically take advantage of this hospitality. They know when these young travelers surrender at the border, the U.S. has to accept them and deliver them to a sponsor. That's less work for the smuggler. Jack Stayton (ph) is acting assistant director for Homeland Security Investigations.
JACK STAYTON: That's not what the system was ever set up for. The system was set up to ensure the protection of children, not to finish a smuggling conspiracy.
BURNETT: Last week, more than 300 civil rights groups, churches and others signed a strongly worded letter to Elaine Duke, acting secretary of Homeland Security. They expressed their deep concern over the impact the ICE operation is having on immigrant families. One of the signatories was the Women's Refugee Commission, where Emily Butera is senior program officer.
EMILY BUTERA: If a desperate mother gets a terrified call from her daughter in Honduras, who says that somebody is going to rape her or kidnap her or kill her, that mother is going to find a way to keep her daughter safe on what she knows is a dangerous journey. And these parents who have acted to try to save their children's lives are now being punished for being a good parent.
BURNETT: Of the more than 400 sponsors arrested, the vast majority have been hit with civil and criminal immigration violations. Only a handful were charged with a federal smuggling crime. Jennifer Podkul, policy director at Kids in Need of Defense, says the arrests of parents have not broken up smuggling rings. They're just another ICE roundup.
JENNIFER PODKUL: Instead, they're really targeting kind of this low-hanging fruit and using children as a tool for immigration enforcement.
BURNETT: As of today, ICE is concluding what it calls the domestic phase of its human smuggling disruption initiative. ICE tells NPR that investigators will now shift their focus to the transnational smuggling organizations that brought the unaccompanied kids to the country. John Burnett, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: In the audio version of this story it’s said that all 400-plus arrested were sponsors of unaccompanied children. Immigration and Customs Enforcement clarifies that the arrests included both sponsors and collateral arrests -- other unauthorized immigrants encountered during the course of the operation. ]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.