Advocates of immigration reform often argue that sweeping new laws are needed because "the system is broken." But a newly released court opinion suggests the system is broken in part because the Obama administration stubbornly refuses to enforce immigration laws already on the books.
United States vs. Mirtha Veronica Nava-Martinez is a human trafficking case. On May 18, Nava-Martinez was caught trying to smuggle a 10-year-old Salvadoran girl across the border checkpoint at the Brownsville & Matamoros International Bridge in Texas. According to an order signed last week by U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, this is what happened: The girl, identified only by her initials, Y.P.S., is the daughter of a woman named Patricia Elizabeth Salmeron Santos, who is an illegal immigrant living in Virginia. Salmeron Santos left her child to come to the U.S. illegally, then hired smugglers to bring Y.P.S. illegally from El Salvador to Virginia. She paid $6,000 in advance, with another $2,500 due upon the girl's arrival.
The accused smuggler, Nava-Martinez, tried to bring Y.P.S. into the United States using the birth certificate of one of Nava-Martinez's own daughters. It didn't work. Nava-Martinez, a resident alien with one felony (food stamp fraud) on her record, was arrested at the Brownsville checkpoint, and Y.P.S. was taken into custody.
Nava-Martinez told Department of Homeland security investigators that she had been hired by Salmeron Santos. Since the case involved a lot of lawbreaking -- an illegal immigrant hiring smugglers to bring a child into the country illegally -- the expected course of action would be for the authorities to reunite mother and daughter in Texas before deporting them. But DHS instead escorted the girl to Virginia to join her mother.
"Instead of arresting Salmeron Santos for instigating the conspiracy to violate our border security laws, the DHS delivered the child to her — completing the mission of the criminal conspiracy," wrote Judge Hanen. "It did not arrest her. It did not prosecute her. It did not even initiate deportation proceedings for her."
Hanen, a judge for the Southern District of Texas in Brownsville, had seen the situation before. "This is the fourth case with the same factual situation this court has had in as many weeks," he wrote. "In all of the cases, human traffickers who smuggled minor children were apprehended short of delivering the children to their ultimate destination. In all cases, a parent, if not both parents, of the children was in this country illegally. That parent initiated the conspiracy to smuggle the minors into the country illegally. He or she also funded the conspiracy. In each case, the DHS completed the criminal conspiracy, instead of enforcing the laws of the United States, by delivering the minors to the custody of the parent illegally living in the United States."
Hanen asked DHS to explain its actions. Officials pointed to an agreement stemming from a 1997 Supreme Court case, Reno v. Flores, that requires the government to release minor children to family members, often family members living abroad. The answer did not satisfy Hanen, who noted there is nothing in the law preventing authorities from taking legal action when those family members are here illegally, especially when they engage in more illegal conduct.
To some, Hanen's position might seem harsh, were it not for his argument on the dangers of human smuggling. In recent months, Hanen noted, "two illegal aliens drowned, two more are missing, and a three-year-old El Salvadoran girl was found abandoned by smugglers — each event occurring just outside of Brownsville." There have been hundreds of smuggling deaths and thousands of rescues just along the Texas border.
In addition, Hanen noted reports that Mexico's drug cartels control human smuggling routes. Turning a blind eye to human trafficking helps fund the cartels, which is by all accounts a very bad thing.
Hanen also suggested that DHS, by arranging the taxpayer-financed reunion of illegal immigrants, "undermines the deterrent effect" of the law and encourages illegal immigrants to turn their children over to complete strangers often affiliated with violent organizations.
"[Salmeron Santos] purposefully chose this course of action," Hanen wrote. "Her decision to smuggle the child across the border, even if motivated by the best of motives, is not an excuse for the United States government to further a criminal conspiracy, and by doing so, encourage others to break the law and endanger additional children."
The case is a difficult and unhappy one. Clearly, a blameless child should be reunited with a parent as quickly as possible. But if the parent has abandoned the child and is in the United States illegally, it seems reasonable to suggest that they be reunited in their country of origin, without aiding drug cartels and human smugglers in the process.
"The DHS should enforce the laws of the United States," Hanen concluded, "not break them."