Pres. Obama’s Shadow War Against Central American Child Refugees

(Beth Rankin/Flickr)

(Beth Rankin/Flickr)

UPDATE: Information on TCIUs role in deportations has been added to this article.

In the last days of August, ICE special agents assigned to the U.S.-led Transnational Criminal Investigation Unit in Mexico apprehended  24 children and 15 adults who were fleeing Central America for the refuge of the United States.

The apprehensions of the 39 Central American migrants was the result of Operation Lucero, an initiative of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson in June 2014 at the peak of the surge of unaccompanied minors crossing over the U.S. southern border.

In addition to Mexico, the governments of El Salvador and Guatemala aided the operation, culminating in the arrest of 36 individuals suspected of smuggling both unaccompanied children as well as those accompanied by a parent.

Speaking to Spanish-language media, Jeh Johnson was ecstatic in describing the success of his agency’s plan:

Operation Lucero signifies an important success in our efforts to continue to dismantle human smuggling networks and ensure the safety of our nation’s borders.

In the last year, when we experiences an increase in the illegal immigration from Central Americans that passed through Mexico on the way to South Texas, I instructed the law enforcement agencies of DHS to rapidly increase our efforts and focus on the smuggling networks that facilitated this illegal immigration.

In general, since the operations were implemented in June of 2014, [Homeland Security Investigations] has started 594 investigations of human smuggling, obtained 1,224 criminal arrests, obtained 927 charges, and seized $807,117 in American dollars.

TCIUs, or Transnational Criminal Investigation Units, are investigative units comprised of Homeland Security Investigations special agents working alongside foreign law enforcement for a variety of reasons. HSI is part of ICE.

For foreign police to be assigned to work with ICE,  the candidates are supposedly required to undertake a strict vetting process and complete three-week training course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

After training in the United States, the TCIU foreign personnel work alongside ICE agents to “identify targets, collect evidence, share intelligence and facilitate the prosecution of transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) in-country and through the U.S. judicial system.”

In Central America, TCIUs have caused an untold number of children to be killed or seriously harmed by directly acting on behalf of the United States government to seal off the escape route to the safety of the United States.

In a unflinching account of the Obama’s war on Central American refugees, Sonia Nazario wrote in the New York Times Sunday Review that:

In the past 15 months, at the request of President Obama, Mexico has carried out a ferocious crackdown on refugees fleeing violence in Central America. The United States has given Mexico tens of millions of dollars for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 to stop these migrants from reaching the United States border to claim asylum.

An expert on the ground in Mexico, Christopher Galeano added, “The U.S. government is sponsoring the hunting of migrants in Mexico to prevent them from reaching the U.S. It is forcing them to go back to El Salvador, Honduras, to their deaths.”

ICE agents are also directly hunting migrants to prevent them from reaching the United States. In other words, the U.S. government is enforcing foreign law to achieve a goal — deportation of individuals, including children — that is illegal under U.S. law.

In the August operation that nabbed 24 children who posed no risk to the safety of the United States, the ICE director confirmed that U.S. agents were direct participants in preventing children from reaching the United States, and presumably leaving them to be deported by Mexico to their native countries in Central America:

“This operation was the direct result of the partnerships we’ve built and we will continue working to reinforce and grow these partnerships,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “We are sending a clear message to human smugglers that crossing borders will not protect them from the long arm of justice.”

ICE agents directly participated, through its TCIUs, in enforcing Mexican immigration law by enabling the apprehension and possible deportation of 24 children and 15 adults back to their native countries in Central America.

In an October press release “Salvadoran human smuggler arrested,”  ICE went even further in describing the work of its special agents: “The Salvadoran Transnational Criminal Investigations Unit (TCIU) executed the search and arrest warrant at Acosta-Cortez’s home without incident.”

ICE agents enforced El Salvadoran law in El Salvador to prevent Salvadoran children from reaching the United States to seek asylum or other humanitarian relief they are entitled to under U.S. law.

In Guatemala and Honduras, ICE-led TCIUs are also working diligently to either bar children from escaping imminent risk of death or harm, or interdict children en route to the United States.

Glimpses of the TCIUs’ presence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries are evident from U.S. government purchases, as published on Below one can see that as recently as last month, the U.S. government has made significant purchases — such as vehicles, uniforms, cell phones, or computer equipment — for TCIUs in Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

TCIU Central America


TCIU Central America

TCIU Central America

TCIU Central America

Delegating the task of deporting Central American children to Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala gives the United States enough factual wiggle room to use the pretextual argument that the actions of the foreign governments are made under their own respective sovereign authority.

One is unlikely to find a contract signed by the President of the United States and his counterparts in Mexico and Central America to deport X amount of Central Americans for X amount of money.

As a result, the allegation that the United States government is intentionally acting outside of the geographical territory of the United States to circumvent U.S. asylum laws and the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act to deport children and others whom Congress intended to protect could never be proven.

But Jeh Johnson’s zeal for locking up children in the burning nations of Central America could not be contained in a mere delegation of the task.

The White House and DHS needed to make sure that the job was done right by playing a direct, leading role in a shadow campaign to do whatever necessary to prevent Central American children and adults as possible from obtaining safety in the United States.

From a soulless yet practical perspective, it is a brilliant idea to employ U.S.-led police units to interdict human smugglers en route to the United States with children already in their care. A significant part of the high price tag that most smugglers charge — from $7500-plus per person for escort to the U.S. border with Mexico — is used to bribe local immigration officials for passage in the event the group is caught in Mexico or Central America.

In interviews with clients who made it the United States, we have learned that the largest obstacle in the United States’ contracting of deportation to Mexico and its southern partners comes down to low-level immigration officials allowing the smugglers to pass through in exchange for bribes.

The 24 children whose human smugglers were caught by the TCIU in Mexico were prevented from reaching the United States because specialized U.S. law enforcement agents under the scrutiny of senior DHS leadership did not accept a bribe.

The public reports by DHS on TCIUs are likely only the tip numerous other incidents where U.S. ICE agents direclty prevented Central American children and adults from completing their flight from their failed native countries to the United States. The TCIUs serve primarily as insurance on the U.S.’ multi-million dollar investment to prevent corrupt Mexican officlals from allowing children to pass through to the United States.

And what about the White House’s announcement in September of last year of in-country refugee processing for Central American children to “provide a safe, legal and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey that children are currently undertaking to join relatives in the United States”?

Eleven out of 4600 children who applied have been approved for refugee status in the United States through the Central American Minors program as of this month. The CAM program has failed as an alternative, legal means of escaping danger in Central America for 99.7 percent of the Central American children who were eligible to apply.

Lest the reader has any remaining doubt as to the malicious intent of the Obama administration to harm Central American children for domestic political goals, remember President Obama’s request to Congress last summer at the height of the humanitarian crisis to change the law to cut out legal protections so that DHS could deport unaccompanied children without a hearing before a judge.

The White House’s attempt to roll back legal protections for vulnerable children was firmly rejected by Congressional Democrats.

But where is Congress now? Where is the accountability for a President who has so brazenly defied Congress’s intent to protect refugees and vulnerable children by circumventing U.S. law with the use of U.S. government agents to deport children under foreign law instead?

Congress has failed.

The shadow war against children and refugees fleeing death and harm in Central America continues to rage on without any end in sight. How many have died as a result? How many children have been issued a U.S.-led ticket back to rape, beatings or other serious harm?

There is a shocking lack of courage in Congress to stand up to the tragic consequences of the Obama administration’s all-out assault on Central American children. Although many in Congress are still only vaguely aware of ICE’s activities in Mexico and Central America, they are fully cognizant of a parallel and equally unconscionable part domestic part of the war against refugee children — the incarceration of young children and their mothers in jail.

Members of Congress have called on the Obama administration to end family detention, citing reports from mothers of shocking child abuse and neglect. In a forum on family detention organized by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, Dr. Olivia Lopez, a former social worker at the Karnes County immigrant detention center, blew the whistle because she witnessed ICE and GEO officers commit child abuse as a matter of policy at the jail. She also confirmed the many reports from mothers of children being placed in solitary confinement for alleged minor violations of the rules by their mothers, as well as medical neglect that could have resulted in the death or serious injury of children as young as seven weeks old.

Despite this damning evidence of U.S. officials committing crimes against children in its custody, no one in Congress called for an investigation into who was responsible.

Ending the war on children and adults fleeing harm Central America is a laudable but ultimately futile goal if the individuals responsible — Barack Obama, Jeh Johnson and ICE Director Sarah Saldaña, for starters — are allowed to inflict such prolonged and severe harm with absolute impunity as individuals.

Without the threat of personal accountability for the current U.S. leaders’ acts that have and continue to directly harm tens of thousands of vulnerable children, the human rights violations of today will return with a vengeance tomorrow.


Bryan Johnson is a partner at the law firm of Amoachi and Johnson, PLLC in New York. His office represents over 300 Central American children in fighting their deportation by securing permanent legal protection through asylum and special immigrant juvenile status.

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