MANHATTAN (CN) — As a federal judge shines a light on a program that targets children accused of smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border, immigration advocates may have reality television to thank.
Customs and Border Protection set up the Juvenile Referral Program in 2014 to investigate how criminal organizations exploit children to avoid prosecution for smuggling people and drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Seeking to learn more about the program, the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation joined a group of immigration advocates in bringing a 2015 lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act.
They have received more than 1,000 pages of records so far, detailing many of the program’s standard operating procedures, including the revelation that agents have a list of questions they ask children to incriminate themselves.
Because the government refused to divulge those 30 questions, however, U.S. District Judge Robert Sweet looked at whether its claim of law-enforcement privilege held water.
Finding no Wednesday, the Manhattan judge noted that customs officers already broadcast the program to millions of viewers.
“In the ‘Border Wars’ series, CBP agents were filmed apprehending and interrogating suspected foot guides and smugglers, some of which were children,” the 36-page opinion states. “‘Border Wars’ shows many unique details about the people who are apprehended by CBP , including their bodies, hair, voices, and clothes. CBP publicized ‘Border Wars,’ which is widely available online.”
A documentary TV series, “Border Wars” aired its final episode on Jan. 16, 2013, after five seasons on the National Geographic Channel.
The silver-screen version aside, the interrogations still live on in the memories of the children who lived through them.
“More than 800 Mexican children know these questions,” Judge Sweet wrote Wednesday. “Over 500 of these children have been returned to Mexico. Many of the children who were in the [Juvenile Referral Program] resumed their guiding and smuggling activities upon return to Mexico.”
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection refused to comment on pending litigation, but the ACLU Foundation has exposed troubling details about its program.
It says customs officials often refer children’s cases for prosecution based on the answers they give. And when prosecutors refuse to open cases, the procedures force customs officials to initiate deportation proceedings or transfer the children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. There, the children have reported being physically and verbally abused by guards.
Children caught up in the Juvenile Referral Program are often incarcerated in high-security facilities, where their answers to their interrogation questions can be used to prevent them from challenging their detentions.
The ACLU Foundation also did not return an email seeking comment.