In December 2010, Washington attorney Jennifer Podkul received a call from the Department of Homeland Security inspector general's office, asking to speak with one of her clients.
The client was a minor, 17, when Podkul, a legal aid group attorney, happened to meet him during a routine visit to a Virginia juvenile jail. The boy had been sent to the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center, which has an immigration wing, after U.S. Border Patrol agents caught him, unaccompanied by any family members, crossing into Texas from Mexico for the third time.
The first time the boy had crossed into the United States was in 2009, he was 16, with a backpack of marijuana a gang told him to carry. He told Podkul he had asked agents then if he could stay and offered to give them information about smuggling routes.
Instead, the boy told the lawyer, the agents had their own proposal: They told him to go back to Mexico and get more information, including names of smugglers. The request was a direct violation of the intent of 2008 federal legislation designed to help stop abuse of minors by human traffickers, Podkul told iWatch News.
Now it appeared that the IG's office wanted the boy to cooperate in their own investigation of how the agents had treated him.
"They wanted to show him photos of the agents," Podkul said, "and to talk to him." The boy, she said, had been "terrified of the Border Patrol," but he had also been terrified of not making his delivery of drugs for the gang that an uncle had allegedly forced him to enter into at 14.
Border Patrol spokesman Bill Brooks, who is based in Marfa, Texas, said he wasn't aware of the inquiry into Border Patrol agents in Texas that Podkul described. He added that he couldn't comment on pending legislation affecting the Border Patrol.
"Our agents are trained, and they're going to be on the side of the juvenile during the process," he said. "If we find signs of trafficking, we turn the case over right away to investigators at Immigration and Customs Enforcement."
But the inquiry by Homeland Security's inspector general serves to illuminate other, broader concerns about having Board Patrol agents undertake the sensitive interviews, or screenings, that Congress has mandated of unaccompanied minors, specifically Mexicans, who cross illegally into the United States.
Congress added the provision for screening youths from Mexico and Canada to the Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act in 2008 as a way to identify minors who may be under the control of drug or sex traffickers or who may face other threats if sent home. But its effectiveness has been questionable and child-welfare advocates say better screening and more reforms are needed to dissuade minors from repeat crossings, and prevent them from becoming prey of violent criminal gangs on the border.