July 21, 2014

Unaccompanied Child Migrants: A Trafficker’s Windfall

by Angela Wu

The surge of undocumented, unaccompanied Central American and Mexican children crossing the southern border of the United States is overwhelming Border Patrol facilities. Between October 1, 2013 and June 15, 2014, over 52,000 undocumented minors have been detained along the border, according to Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Much of the recent influx has been attributed to rumors that the United States is offering amnesty to children who make it across the border. Although the Obama administration denies this, the misperception of leniency may be motivating parents to protect their children from rampant gang violence at home by entrusting them to coyotes, hired guides who promise to bring the children safely across the border.

Therein lies the peril facing these thousands of children. Central American and Mexican parents, hoping for the chance that their children will safely cross the border, have placed the welfare of their children into the corrupt hands of coyotes with known ties to drug cartels and gangs in the region. Drug cartels have diversified their portfolios to include profitable networks of human trafficking. For example, the Zetas, a violent Mexican drug cartel, has turned human trafficking into one of its main revenue streams. According to Amnesty International, “Every year, thousands of migrants are kidnapped, threatened, or assaulted by members of criminal gangs . . . extortion and sexual violence are widespread and many migrants go missing or are killed.” White House officials say that the organized crime networks are much to blame because they are persuading families to send their children to the border.

On June 20, 2014, the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report confirmed that “the United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children . . .  subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor, including domestic servitude.” Furthermore, last year, the top countries of origin for federally identified trafficked victims included Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Foundation of Social Assistance and Humanitarian Aid (ASAHAC), a Mexican NGO, estimates that more than half of Central American and Mexican migrants on their way to the United States become victims of some form of trafficking. 

How Can You Help?

Because the minors who are smuggled across the border are in a desperate situation, they are extremely vulnerable to false promises. You can help by being alert to the red flags that indicate human trafficking (Identify and Assist a Trafficking Victim, The U.S. Department of State). If you suspect that a person is a victim of trafficking, you should report the matter to the State Department’s special hotline or to local law enforcement.[1] Human trafficking can be greatly curtailed by the effective identification of human trafficking victims.  Victims often go unrecognized by bystanders and law enforcement. In addition, joining or starting a local anti-trafficking awareness coalition, volunteering at established non-profits who are already working on this issue, writing local government representatives about your concerns, and raising awareness in the local community will assist these youth, as well as others trapped in these trafficking networks.[2] Greater awareness of this insidious crime has become increasingly necessary as rising numbers of children attempt to cross the border searching for freedom from violence, only to find themselves victims of human trafficking.


[1] In the United States, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888 (24/7) to get help and connect with a service provider in your area, report a tip with information on potential human trafficking activity; or learn more by requesting training, technical assistance, or resources. Call federal law enforcement directly to report suspicious activity and get help from the Department of Homeland Security at 1-866-347-2423 (24/7), or submit a tip online at www.ice.gov/tips.

[2]See La jaula de oro, a Cannes Film Festival award-winning film that follows the fortunes of four Guatemalan teenagers on their dangerous journey across the Mexican border into the United States. Watching a movie is an easy way to engage with a topic.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images via WUWM.com. Detainees sleep in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility, on June 18, 2014, in Brownsville,Texas. Brownsville and Nogales, Ariz. have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1.)