CHANMAGUA, Guatemala — To mark attendance in Diana Melisa Contreras’s kindergarten classroom, students place tongue depressors into little white cups painted with their names.
There were 29 cups at the start of the school year. Then Contreras’s students and their parents began leaving their small village in the coffee-growing hills of southern Guatemala, joining the torrent of migration to the United States. With more families preparing to depart in the coming weeks, Contreras has been told her class will only have five students next term, and she will be transferred to teach at a different school.
“They’re all going to the United States,” she said. “I’m being left without kids.”
More than ever before, if you look at the current surge of Central American migrants to the United States, you will see the face of a child. The past five years have rewritten the story of who crosses America’s southern border: It is no longer just the young man traveling alone looking for work. Now that man, or woman, will often be holding the hand of a young boy or girl.
Last month, 23,121 members of “family units” were arrested along the U.S. southern border, the highest number on record and a 150 percent increase since July. With the number of single adults attempting to sneak into the United States declining, families and underage minors now account for more than half of those taken into custody by U.S. border agents.
Thousands more children are coming in the migrant caravans President Trump has likened to “an invasion,” carrying toys and stuffed animals and collapsing, at times, from exhaustion.
This is happening because Central Americans know they will have a better chance of avoiding deportation, at least temporarily, if they are processed along with children.
The economics of the journey reinforces the decision to bring a child: Smugglers in Central America charge less than half the price if a minor is part of the cargo because less work is required of them.
Unlike single adult migrants, who would need to be guided on a dangerous march through the deserts of Texas or Arizona, smugglers deliver families only to the U.S. border crossing and the waiting arms of U.S. immigration authorities. The smuggler does not have to enter the United States and risk arrest.
The Trump administration tried to deter parents this spring when it imposed a “zero tolerance” family-separation policy at the border. But the controversy it generated and the president’s decision to halt the practice six weeks later cemented the widely held impression that parents who bring children can avoid deportation.
In villages such as Chanmagua, where years of depressed coffee prices have pushed families to the breaking point, young children and teenagers are seen as boarding passes to the flight for economic survival. Their absence is evident on soccer teams with too few players and coffee farms with thinner staffs at harvest time. Just this year, 100 adults and children have left, including 17 from the town’s only kindergarten class, local officials said.
Within this exodus, a small number of cases have particularly troubled the town. Some parents have given up their children to other adults — sometimes for cash — to help the adult enter the United States, according to town officials, charity workers and residents. These transactions sometimes involve a minor traveling with a relative or godparent; in other cases, they say, the adult has no relation to the child.
Such arrangements are referred to, euphemistically, as “adoptions.”
“This is the most serious problem that we have,” said Juan Jose Arita Rivera, the town’s mayor.
U.S. border security officials say they, too, are concerned by the growing number of adults showing up with children who are not their own, a symptom of what they call a worsening humanitarian crisis that puts families and children in the hands of predatory smuggling networks.
Between April 19, when U.S. Customs and Border Protection began tracking the increase in suspected cases of fraudulent parentage, and Sept. 30, the end of the 2018 fiscal year, CBP agents had separated 170 families after determining the child and the adult traveling together were unrelated.
In Guatemalan villages, community leaders fear more children will be exploited. “This is a crime. This is human trafficking,” said Marleni Villeda, 46, who helps run a school for at-risk children, one of whom, she contends, recently left for the United States with a man who may not be a relative. “What is happening here is a tragedy.”
Often, these cases can be more complicated than they first appear. The families involved face hunger and threats of violence. There are disagreements about paternity and allegations of abuse. Far from a common practice, illicit “adoptions” seem to brand the participants with a scarlet letter in their own community.
For three months, Denys Adelmo Mejia lived like a fugitive. Gang members wanted to recruit the 23-year-old auto mechanic. He hardly ventured outside.
“One night, he told me, ‘Mom, I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to talk to the girl’s mother, and if she wants to give her to me, then I’m going to go,” said his mother, Teresa de Jesus Luna.
The girl’s mother was Gilda López, a 33-year-old maid who lived a few doors down, in a dirt-floor shack, the walls a patchwork of burlap bags and boards with exposed nails. Her five children, including the eldest, Elizabeth Dayana, 9, slept alongside her on a ratty slab of foam.
López, a single mother, left each morning at dawn to clean houses and came home 12 hours later. A month of this would bring in $60. In her home, there was rarely enough food.
When Mejia came asking for a child, López was willing to let her daughter go.
“I don’t have any support here,” she said, tears in her eyes. “And so I made the decision that my girl should leave.”
That decision has shaken this village of some 3,000 people, where gossip travels quickly. Town leaders, such as the mayor, and the head of the Catholic charity foundation, say Mejia, who left earlier this year, has no relation to Elizabeth Dayana, and they are concerned for her welfare.
“As an organization, what worries us most is: What’s going to happen to those kids over there?” said Josue Villeda, who runs the foundation in honor of Sister Maria Caridad, an American nun who spent much of her life in Chanmagua. “If someone isn’t a relative or anything, who is going to watch over the child’s education in the United States? Their health? Their basic needs?”
López, the mother, and Mejia both say Mejia is the girl’s father. López said Mejia, who would have been about 14 years old when Elizabeth Dayana was born, for years denied he was the father but now says that he is.
Reached by phone in Kansas City, Mejia said he saved thousands of dollars by traveling with a child. His smuggler would have charged $10,000 if he had been traveling alone, he said; with Elizabeth Dayana, it cost $4,500 for both of them. He has three years to pay this off — in monthly installments — or his mother could lose her house.
“When you come with a child, [the smuggler] only delivers you to the Border Patrol,” said Mejia. “When you’re coming alone, they have to take you all the way across the desert.”
He and the girl now share a duplex with Mejia’s brother and his brother’s wife. Mejia wears an ankle bracelet as he waits for his asylum case to move through immigration courts. Because he cannot work legally or get a driver’s license, he said he cannot enroll Elizabeth Dayana in school.
“Since she had never lived with me, at first she was rebellious,” he said. “But I told her that I’m the father — and it wasn’t that her mom had just given her to me — I was her real father. And now she has been behaving well.”
A federal judge in California this week blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to deny asylum to migrants who enter the United States illegally, including those traveling with children, saying the measures were a violation of U.S. immigration laws allowing anyone who reaches U.S. soil to seek humanitarian protection.
Infuriated by that ruling and other legal setbacks to his immigration crackdown, Trump threatened Thursday to close the entire Mexico border. U.S. immigration authorities are instead moving forward with a plan to require asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while their claims are processed, a move that could leave families waiting in dangerous border cities for months or longer.
Over the past year, U.S. agents arrested more than 107,000 members of migrant “family units” along the Mexico border, up from 15,000 in 2013, according to Homeland Security data.
The Trump administration blames “loopholes” that incentivize parents to bring children north, referring to laws and court rulings intended to protect underage migrants.
The 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act shields minors who are not from Mexico or Canada from rapid deportation and orders the government to transfer them to shelters run by Health and Human Services as quickly as possible to reunite them with relatives.
Then there is the Flores Settlement Agreement, part of a 1980s class-action suit over the treatment of minors in immigration custody. A 2016 federal appeals court ruling in the case upheld a 20-day limit on their detention by Immigration and Customs and Enforcement.
“Our nation’s legal framework for immigration has created a border security and humanitarian crisis,” said CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan, the country’s top border security official. “One tragic consequence is the tens of thousands of families that put their lives in the hands of smugglers and make the dangerous journey from Central America to the United States.”
Since the surge began this spring, U.S. border agents have been scrutinizing purported family relationships through “enhanced interviewing” to detect potential fraud, according to two senior CBP officials. Agents look for warnings signs such as birth certificates or other notarized documents that appear to be brand new.
When agents suspect potential fraud, CBP refers the case to specialized investigative units, and if it is determined an adult and a child traveling together are not related, the child is transferred to Health and Human Services.
In 90 of the 170 suspected fraud cases, CBP referred the adult for criminal prosecution. But officials also acknowledge they are unable to detect every instance of deception. Agents may only have a few minutes to assess whether a purported family may be fake, they say. CBP does not use DNA testing at the border, citing the lack of an established system for conducting tests expeditiously.
Under the Flores settlement, CBP holds children in Border Patrol stations for no longer than 72 hours.
“Seventy-two hours is such a short amount of time to interview, and in places such as the [Rio Grande Valley of South Texas], you interview people as quickly as you can,” said one senior CBP official who works on fraud detection.
In recent weeks, the agency has processed nearly 2,000 people a day along the border with Mexico, more than half of whom are women and children. After turning themselves in to U.S. agents, most families can expect to be assigned a court date months or years away and released from custody after a few days. With existing detention facilities near capacity, the government has virtually nowhere to put them. In recent weeks, U.S. immigration authorities have been dropping off hundreds of newly arrived parents and children at church shelters and charities in Texas, Arizona and California.
Instances of adults traveling with minors who are not their biological children are not necessarily human-trafficking cases or fake “adoptions,” said Alejandra Colom, an anthropologist at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala who works with adolescent girls in rural mountain areas facing high levels of emigration.
“In these small communities, a lot of people are related, and traveling with someone who is your cousin or distant family member is not the same as going with a total stranger,” Colom said. At the same time, she said, there is a “now or never” view that has taken hold in some rural areas where it is well-known that the way to gain entry to the United States and avoid immediate deportation is to bring a child. “They think they won’t ever have another opportunity again like this.”
In some rural areas of Guatemala, “adoptions” are viewed as both an economic necessity as well as a source of shame. The country was once a major source for foreign adoptions, which were sharply curtailed a decade ago amid widespread allegations of forged birth certificates, payoffs to lawyers and judges and cash payments to desperate mothers.
Dina Casanga is 19 and has four children. The eldest, Benjamin, is either 5 or 6 years old, depending on which of his birth documents is to be believed.
Such documents, issued by the Guatemala’s National Registry of Persons (RENAP), are at the center of the controversy over true parentage in the disputed cases in Chanmagua. The town’s mayor, and other officials, allege the RENAP office in nearby Esquipulas will issue, for a fee, documents establishing a parent-child relationship, particularly for single mothers who did not have a father initially registered.
RENAP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Elmer Oseas Moran, 20, left Chanmagua with the young boy, Benjamin, in October, headed for the United States. In an interview with The Washington Post, the mother, Dina Casanga, first described Elmer as “the father” and later as “an acquaintance,” and said she did not know his last name.
Casanga’s father, Héctor Casanga, 50, disputes Moran is the boy’s father and is pressing a legal complaint against his daughter. He said he raised the boy for several years and that his daughter had no right to give his grandson to someone else.
In his cramped home, he showed copies of two RENAP documents. The most recent one, dated Oct 12, listed the boy’s last name as Moran Casanga, taking the last name of the man who left with him. But the earlier document shows his name as Casanga Vasquez, the same as the mother, and it had no information identifying a father.
“She named him as her husband, so he could take the boy with him,” said Héctor Casanga, the boy’s grandfather. “She invented that to take him away from me, and RENAP gave her a paper.”
Dina Casanga, who is unemployed and illiterate, said her father was an alcoholic and abusive and that her son would be better off in the United States. The man with her son will provide for him, she said.
“He is going to pay for someone else to take care of him because he has to work,” she said.
Miroff reported from Washington.