Border children show up for court — this time for crimes
As the Obama administration prepares for a new surge of illegal immigrant children this year, some of those from previous waves are turning up on court dockets across the country, charged with serious crimes such as capital murder and aggravated rape.
The cases are exposing many of the holes in the immigration system and the way the U.S. has tried to grapple with children fleeing economic troubles, domestic abuse or gang violence in Central America — and sometimes bringing those very troubles to the U.S. with them.
From the law, which requires most of the children to be turned over to social workers, to immigration authorities and the court system, which allow most of them to abscond, never showing up to be deported, to the lack of a safety net to help the children once they’re free in the country, the cases suggest a broken process nearly from start to finish, with some children getting lost in the system and others being released because of overcrowding, only to reappear when they’re called before a judge to answer for a bigger crime.
“The eagerness of the administration to open our borders is not without consequence,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who has tracked the issue. “Now we’re seeing some of these same minors in the criminal justice system, and the crimes some are being brought in for are very serious, even heinous. The administration, with their approach, wants to assume everyone that shows up on America’s doorstep has good intentions, but that’s a dangerous assumption, and we’re seeing evidence of the fact.”
The administration admits it was overwhelmed by last summer’s surge, which officials said caught them by surprise, with more than 60,000 so-called “unaccompanied minors” — children traveling without a parent — streaming across the border in fiscal year 2014. The pace is picking up once again heading into the warmer months of 2015, according to the latest government statistics, and though it’s down from 2014’s frenetic rate, it’s still shaping up as the second-worst year on record.
Oftentimes the children don’t even sneak into the country but instead boldly seek out a Border Patrol agent to turn themselves in to, trusting that generous laws, crowded courts and bureaucratic confusion will give them a chance to disappear into the shadows.
That was the situation with Jonny Alberto Enamorado-Vasquez, whose journey from Honduras to a Houston jail, where he awaits trial on capital murder, is one of the more extreme cases.
According to government documents, Mr. Enamorado fled Honduras on Sept. 22, 2012, hoping to connect with his father, who was supposed to be living in New Orleans, presumably without authorization. He took buses across Guatemala and Mexico, ending up in Reynosa, a town directly across the border from McAllen, Texas, where he holed up at a safe house for a couple of days before jumping the border on Oct. 7.
He was immediately caught by agents doing line watch, who said they were unable to track down his father. From that point on, Mr. Enamorado was in and out of authorities’ custody, passed between the Border Patrol, detention officers at Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the social workers at the Department of Health and Human Services, and eventually released from detention in late October because of what the government described as “lack of space.”
Little more than two years later he was back in the criminal justice system, with Houston police accusing him of being part of a January homicide that saw three armed men burst into a smoke shop, find and confront owner Michael Phelan, which sparked a gunbattle that killed Phelan.
Mr. Enamorado initially fought extradition from Louisiana but caved and is now in Houston. The lawyer listed as defending him in his murder case didn’t return a message seeking comment.
Part of the difficulty appears to be Mr. Enamorado’s age. He initially was booked as a 17-year-old and processed as a juvenile and placed in an HHS home for illegal immigrant children. But it appears authorities realized he was actually a year older, making him an adult and thus not eligible for the special treatment afforded children.
HHS said it couldn’t comment on specific cases under its purview, while Customs and Border Protection, the agency that apprehended Mr. Enamorado, did not provide answers to questions submitted for this story.
But Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director at the Center for Immigration Studies, said it’s not surprising some of the children end up in trouble.
“Considering the countries they’re coming from and the prevalence of gang activity and recruitment of youth into gangs, and the fact that many of these children have grown up without at least one of their parents in difficult circumstances, you can’t discount the threat they pose,” she said.