Critics have recently rejected the idea that building, expanding or strengthening a barrier or “wall” along our southern border would do anything to combat sex trafficking. Though many of these critics do noble work in various capacities, even in the human trafficking space, they all have one thing in common: they have never utilized the wall to rescue sex trafficking victims and therefore they do not understand its power for good, its power to rescue trafficked children.
In contrast to the critics, I worked 12 years as a special agent/undercover operator for Homeland Security Investigations, 10 of which included a tour combating sex trafficking on the southern border. Since that time I have continued the fight as CEO of the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad, or O.U.R. Furthermore, I have worked closely with the heads of every U.S. agency whose job it is to find and rescue children being trafficked across the southern border. In fact, I was with them all in the White House just a few days ago discussing how border barriers help combat trafficking.
Altogether, we are the ones — and the only ones — who have utilized or are utilizing the border wall to rescue children. We are the experts. And we all agree that the building, expansion and strengthening of the border wall has been one of many effective tools, and will continue to be an effective tool, in the rescuing of trafficked children.
The United States is one of the highest consumers of child sex in the world. It is also one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Simple economics tells us what follows. Child traffickers, who currently control millions of enslaved children worldwide, want to get these children into the United States where they can force them into this lucrative illicit market. The State Department reports that around 10,000 children are smuggled into the U.S. annually and forced into the commercial sex trade. Add adults, and that number almost doubles. And when these evil actors act, we don’t want to lose the opportunity to stop them and liberate their captives. The wall gives us an opportunity to do just that.
The story of one survivor of this transaction — let’s call her “Liliana” — illustrates the point. Liliana was kidnapped at age 11 from her village in Central America. After two years of grooming her for commercial sex, she was taken by her captors across the southern border at a location where no wall existed (approximately 70 percent of the border is wall-less). Her traffickers easily transported her to New York City, where she was raped for money up to 30-40 times a day for five years. She eventually escaped and my foundation is now caring for her as she prepares to testify in federal court against her captors. In accordance with U.S. laws, as a survivor of sex trafficking in America, Liliana has been granted legal status and will soon be a U.S. citizen. (The U.S. Attorney’s Office has requested that we not share more details about this case until the trial is completed later this year).
Having reflected on her tragic plight, Liliana has recently weighed in on the current national debate. “Had there been a wall for me,” she declared, “my captors would have been forced to take me to a port of entry. A U.S. officer might have seen my distress. I might have yelled out to them. I am currently working with Homeland Security agents on my case. I love them. I think they would have rescued me at the port of entry.”
Which brings us to another confusing point the critics continue to make. The wall is insignificant, they say, because traffickers don’t smuggle their children through wall-less sections of the border; rather, they take them through the ports of entry, for that is where the majority of arrests occur. (Do the critics also believe that drivers speed only in places where there happen to be great hiding places for police vehicles?)
Their argument illustrates how poorly they understand border enforcement. They tend to see ports of entry and the wall as separate entities. As long as you have ports of entry, they declare, you don’t need an extended wall. For those of us who have worked the border, we know that walls and ports of entry are not independent of each other. Rather, they act in tandem. If there were no walls, just stand-alone entry gates scattered every several hundred miles across the almost-2,000-mile border, do the critics really believe there would be as many arrests at these ports of entry? Do they believe traffickers would bring their enslaved children and their drugs to these small, stand-alone gates, while ignoring the vast, wide-open, unenforced space?
Their arguments about arrests at ports of entry actually prove our model. We want to rescue kids at the ports of entry. We want to seize drugs there. That is our whole point. But we need a wall to force them there. We need the well-armed and well-equipped ports of entry to be their only option. This “only-option” approach, of course, requires more than a wall. It also requires border agents, drones, sensors and tunnel detection technology.
The wall then, with its smart technology attached, becomes, in and of itself, an active law enforcement operation to facilitate arrests and rescues at the ports of entry. If the wall expanded the length of the southern border, imagine how many more children would be pushed through the ports of entry and subsequently rescued instead of being brought through where the rescuer can’t see, where law enforcement can’t easily intervene. (And if the critics are delusional enough to believe that the only children being trafficked into the United States are the ones we catch at the ports of entry, I will easily refute that idea below).
Furthermore, the existence of a wall acts as a deterrent. It disincentivizes some traffickers from kidnapping and smuggling in the first place. If they can’t get in easily, they won’t try. That keeps kids safe. But for those who will still be kidnapped, smuggled and trafficked, the wall provides hope for them.
For example, on July 3, 2006, my team and I rescued a 5 year-old boy. The boy had been kidnapped by American trafficker and child pornographer Earl Buchanan. Buchanan kidnapped and sexually abused his foreign-born victims, while filming his grotesque acts. Fortunately for this boy, and the 11 other children we subsequently rescued from his clutches, there is a significant border wall between Mexicali, Mexico (where he took the child) and Calexico, California. Buchanan was compelled to take his chances at the Calexico Port of Entry, which is armed with high-tech monitoring equipment and well-trained officers, who look into the eyes of every person seeking entry. Not surprisingly, Buchanan was singled out and arrested for kidnapping and trafficking. He was later convicted (Case 06CR1612-H). The boy is now breathing free with a loving family in America, thanks to the wall, which did its job.
The critics try to distract from the horrific plight of trafficking victims brought through the southern border by pointing out the fact that many (they like to imply most or all) victims are trafficked through airports, their captors utilizing passports and visas and abusing immigration laws. I agree with the critics that this happens and I applaud their efforts to point out the incidences and the immigration loopholes (in guest-worker programs, for example) that need to be fixed. But why ignore the children suffering through the southern border? Why act as though traffickers only use the means the critics are comfortable talking about? Why ignore or minimize child victimhood anywhere?
“I know many girls who came in like me,” Liliana says. “Why are the people who claim to want to help victims ignoring me and girls like me? We know a wall could have saved us. We understand, why don’t they? More kids will be hurt if we believe them.” Liliana, who has met with and told her story to Ivanka Trump, as well as members of Congress from both sides of the aisle, is working on her autobiography, which will release once her case is closed.
Paola Felix is a former Mexican congresswoman and current senior Mexican administration official working on anti-trafficking policies for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. After studying what the so-called experts have said about how a wall does little to stop child trafficking into the United States, Felix declared, “It is very disappointing to me that people in the United States who claim to be anti-trafficking advocates would ignore or downplay the many Hispanic children being smuggled into the United States outside of legal ports of entry and forced into the hell of sex slavery. Mexican authorities have uncovered at least 19 different land-based smuggling routes where victims are taken and trafficked for sex in the United States. Downplaying the crisis with disinformation puts our children in grave danger. It discourages U.S. officials from employing every tactic available to rescue them during the small window of time that they can — that is, while they are being crossed into the United States. After that they are gone, maybe forever.”
Why are the people who claim to want to help victims ignoring me and girls like me? We know a wall could have saved us. We understand, why don’t they?” – Liliana, a child trafficking survivor
Former Mexican congresswoman and leading anti-trafficking advocate Rosie Orozco agrees. “There is a horrific child trafficking ring from Tenancingo, Mexico, to New York City,” explained Orozco. “Please, America,” she pleads, “watch the documentary by Fusion productions called Tenancingo to New York. Please do not take the tools away that you need to rescue our children while they are smuggled into your country and placed into the evil hands of your pedophiles.”
Incidentally, just a few weeks ago, five members of a Tenancingo trafficking organization were sentenced in U.S. federal court to more than 20 years each for sex-trafficking children into the United States. During our briefing in the White House last week, HSI Special Agent Anthony Scandiffo testified that these gangs put their victims facedown on rafts and took them across the river, or drove them in the dead of night through the desert, taking them from safe house to safe house until they reached their final destination: sex slavery in Queens, New York.
If the critics need further proof of the crisis flowing through the southern border, we would refer them to official DHS data. Of the migrant children who have passed illegally through the southern borders and ended up in the care of U.S. officials, 10,000 came alone. “Which means,” according to DHS Secretary Nielsen, “10,000 of those kids were sent here, without a parent, without a legal guardian, in the hands of smugglers, in the hands of traffickers.”
Several anti-trafficking cases I have personally worked along the border shine additional light on the issue. In March 2011, we obtained intelligence that U.S. resident Leonel Gonzalez was attempting to smuggle children into the United States from Mexicali, Mexico, for the purposes of selling them to Americans for sex. We learned that, because of the giant wall separating Mexicali and the United States, he was having a hard time figuring out a way to get them in. We preempted his actions by sending undercover operators posing as American traffickers to negotiate with him. I personally led the undercover team on this operation. Thanks to the wall in place, it bought us time to coordinate with Mexican authorities, who arrested the Mexican traffickers and liberated the children who were being held in a house near the border. The U.S. government arrested Gonzalez and charged him with 18 USC 1591(a) Sex Trafficking of Children (Case 11CR1192). He pled guilty and went to jail.
In May 2012, our team at Homeland Security Investigation, along with local authorities, rescued a 14-year-old girl who had been smuggled into Texas outside of a port of entry. The American trafficker who kidnapped her and sold her for sex was later arrested and convicted (Case 12CR2259). Unfortunately, there was no significant wall or barrier that might have pushed the child to be brought through a port of entry, where her chances of being rescued before being sex trafficked inside the United States would have increased exponentially.
In another case from March 2013, we learned about a group of traffickers near San Pedro Sula, Honduras (where the current caravan to the U.S. originated) that had kidnapped seven children and planned to smuggle them through the wall-less portion of the border and then sell them for sex in America. Since we knew we would easily lose them on their trafficking route, especially since there would be no wall to control their movements, we acted fast. Posing as an American buyer, I went undercover and met the traffickers in Puerto Cortes, Honduras. I accepted their offer to sell me the children then and there. (I told the traffickers I would fly the children into the United States via private airplane). With the deal made and the transfer of money complete, the traffickers were arrested by Honduran authorities. Convictions followed. The children were liberated.
In this case, since there was no wall where they were planning on moving the kids into our country, we had to forward-deploy and, in essence, become the wall ourselves. Fortunately it worked, but it was very difficult to coordinate and execute, and we admit we were lucky to stumble upon the lead in the first place. It’s like catching flies with chopsticks. We will get some, but we will miss the majority. If only we had a wall as a constant backup plan. Then there would always be that last hope that we could rescue the children at the ports of entry.
Each of these cases demonstrate how the wall helped. When it was in play, we were able to preempt most of the abuse and make arrests quickly. When there was no wall, we weren’t able to rescue them in an easy or a timely manner, and unnecessary abuse followed. And of course, we cringe when we think of the thousands that nobody saw, that are living a life of sex slavery somewhere in our country right now amidst the millions upon millions of undocumented migrants. Children with no registered identity, easily manipulated, and always vulnerable to the black market of illicit sex.
I could go on and on with cases my team and I have personally worked. (And I was just one agent of hundreds working these cases every day). But how many cases do the critics need before they realize the crisis? Frankly, for me, if only one child could be rescued from a life of rape, it would be worth the cost of every tactic and technique, to include a wall. Do the critics agree? Or do they believe that, though I’ve demonstrated that the wall has helped rescue victims, whatever they don’t like about the wall is more important than a number of children being raped for money in America? What is that number for them? We would remind the critics that the cost of the wall as part of the larger budget is the equivalent of asking for $57 out of an annual budget of $44,070. What is a child’s life worth to the critic?
If you paid attention to the dates associated with each case I described, you will also note that they spanned through three U.S. administrations, representing both major political parties. In each instance, with the changing of the guard, our efforts and strategies did not vary in the least. Our opinions and use of the wall and ports of entry as an enforcement and rescue tool was the same in 2006 as it was in 2012 and as it is now. This is not political in any way. It is simply a strategy — one of many tools in our toolbox — that we know has saved children. And we cannot abandon it or deny it, for if we do we are abandoning and denying those children who are relying on us, often as their last hope.
We plead with those critics of the wall to consider their real, lived experiences. We ask them to honestly consider whether or not they have ever run rescue operations along the border and truly understand how the complexities of border operations function in the real world. We ask them to consider whether or not they have ever utilized the wall and accompanying ports of entry to rescue children. We ask them to consider why every agency and organization who has carried out child rescue operations at the border — the experts — support the building and construction of a wall or barrier. And finally, we ask them why — though they may be great advocates for anti-trafficking efforts in areas that don’t include border interdiction — why they would gamble with the lives of children by assuming knowledge and experience they don’t have and then actively work to deny law enforcement a powerful tool that demonstrably liberates captive children.