CHDS alumna investigates “Faux Families” on the Southern Border

No matter how you consume news—via television, newspaper, radio, or online—you have probably heard reports about immigrants arriving at the Southern U.S. Border. But in the current climate of politically-charged reporting, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish real news from ‘fake news.’

One particularly concerning news report indicates that there is a growing trend of immigrants taking advantage of the system by posing as family units. And, the stats seem to validate these reports of what have been termed “Faux Families.” The number of adult male immigrants accompanied by young children has increased dramatically over the past few months. Is it mere coincidence or are they attempting to exploit a loophole in the system? As a result of the Flores settlement, immigrating families with children can only be held in detention for a maximum of 20 days. Due to a backlog of cases and limited capacity of detention centers, these families are often released and assigned a later court date.

As a DHS-ICE Homeland Security Investigator, that’s what Center for Homeland Defense and Security (CHDS) alumna Monica Mapel, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, is tasked with investigating. “I am challenged with huge political and social issues and these needed sound research and execution of facts to push through for solutions,” she summarized. Mapel credits her CHDS education as one of the reasons she is able to investigate this potential shift in immigration trends with an unbiased approach. Mapel received a Master of Arts in Security Studies from CHDS in 2014 (master’s cohort 1205/1206) and her thesis was titled “Protecting Those Who Protect Us: Federal Law Enforcement Deconfliction.” Her thesis research focused on federal law enforcement deconfliction processes within the United States and proposed solutions that reduce federal law enforcement inefficiencies while saving lives. In her current position, Mapel’s everyday work involves reviewing operational plans for a HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) group. “In every single ops plan, there is a requirement that a deconfliction should take place. I’m kind of a stickler, like most of us, and my guys know that I won’t sign off until I actually see the deconfliction occur. I think it’s critically important that all agencies do that. ICE always does it and we really believe that safety should always come before anything that’s case related. Ensuring justice isn’t a competition.

Monica Mapel

Monica Mapel, HSI Assistant Special Agent in Charge

While working with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Mapel has encountered many cases that have potential to affect the social fabric of our nation. Some of her more notable investigations of late include U visa victim fraud and the tractor trailer smuggling case in San Antonio, TX that resulted in 10 deaths. The U visa process helps law enforcement agencies investigate and prosecute cases of domestic violence, sexual assault, trafficking of aliens and other crimes committed against immigrants. The entire purpose of the program is to provide temporary residency for victims that could be helpful to law enforcement or government officials in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity. Mapel’s job was to ensure that the true victims were receiving the benefits instead of someone else fraudulently claiming to be a victim or falsely pretending to be the victim. A maximum of ten thousand U visas are authorized each year. But she would be the first to tell you that she doesn’t do it alone, “It requires lots and lots of listening. And, partnerships between all elements of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” Strategically positioned within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), HSI is the largest investigative arm of DHS, operating out of 26 principal field offices nationwide and 67 foreign offices in 47 countries.

As the Assistant Special Agent in Charge for the San Antonio region, Mapel is constantly looking for vulnerabilities in the immigration process, such as the one created or revealed by reported Faux Families. “We have a responsibility all the way from Waco, Texas to the Southern Border of Mexico and from the Gulf across to Del Rio, Texas. So we have a really big triangle pie wedge of south Texas.” Mapel has been doing this type of work for over 32 years. The first 16 years was in Chicago with the former Department of Justice Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) focusing on immigration work such as foreign transnational gangs, immigration benefits fraud, human trafficking, and terrorism until the split in 2003 when ICE became an entity and an agency. Since then, she has been with HSI at the San Antonio office. “I was immediately given two field offices in Eagle Pass and Del Rio, Texas, which gave me a huge firehose approach to customs law and it was a lot to take on at first—but I had a very quick learning curve due to my previous assignment.”

United States Customs and Border Patrol in Nogales, Arizona.

Mapel says her time at CHDS truly helped sharpen the critical-thinking skills necessary to perform her job at the highest level. The combination of Mapel’s lifelong experiences and the techniques she honed in CHDS make her a valuable asset to the HS community. The main crux of her job is to identify the anomalous trends, fill in the gaps, and do what is necessary to protect the children and others who are being preyed upon. “Without saying too much because we need to maintain the integrity of ongoing investigations, CHDS led me to find something that is now being reported on nationally as we attempt to improve the immigration process and secure our nation’s borders against people who want to exploit the system,” Mapel added. “I think I would’ve retired a long time ago if it wasn’t for CHDS. Some of my peers left 10 years ago. And, the reason is because I felt reinvigorated and given a chance to see what I had and then use it correctly. But also because I felt like I owed to it the government to return the favor after they provided me with such a wonderful education and experience.”

Mapel’s closest colleague from the Center is Robert Hutchinson, Chief of Police for Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, FL (master’s cohort 0903/0904). And Hutchinson has asked her multiple times “why are you still there at HSI?” But her answer is always the same: because she found her purpose. The lessons and techniques acquired during her time here have directly led to saving children’s lives. It was such a positive experience being in school that it motivated me to want to pay it forward. Through a formalized DHS program, she’s taken on three DHS mentees who are within the homeland security family and she makes sure to share techniques with them that she learned at CHDS. “Everyone in the mentor program gets the CHDS speech from me; I can tell you that.” On multiple occasions, Mapel has reached out to her cohort mates for help when she needed a subject matter expert and even if a classmate wasn’t the right person, the network of professionals is able to find the right person. “It is better than any application on your phone. In a time when there are so many ways to associate and connect with people, there is nothing better than having a fellow CHDS colleague available to help. It’s just the way we’re brought together and we feel like a family together. We are very supportive of each other. It’s a very unique brotherhood and sisterhood that’s borne from the CHDS experience.”

However, when reflecting on her first introduction to CHDS, Mapel described it as initially overwhelming. “I was in front of people who I knew were smarter than me professionally and academically. The caliber of individuals enrolled in the program is overwhelming at first. I came from a small farm community with no sidewalks and no stop signs; only cows, so getting up in front of that group felt intimidating. But once you overcome that and gain experience proving your point against people who can actually challenge you, it makes you feel so much more confident and stronger. I joke that you could probably throw me to the wolves and I could probably still survive.” And this is coming from someone who has been on a death-threat list from people who are opposed to what ICE and HSI do.

Maybe at the time, Mapel didn’t see all of the courses as being totally relevant to her job. But when she looks back, “they were all extremely relevant to what I now do on a daily basis. Even the courses that I felt like I struggled with.” The first such course was the Research Sequence. To fully understand an issue, you need to know where the information is coming from and why they may have been motivated to act or speak. Mapel cited Dr. David Brannan and Dr. Anders Strindberg as being strong influences on her ability to discern bias—knowing what your biases are and where they come from. “That course was life-changing because everybody realizes you may have come into this world with certain types of experiences but understanding what other peoples’ experiences are is very valuable, and especially relevant to what I’m doing today.”

Mapel also points to Dr. Chris Bellavita as having a profound effect on her modus operandi. Especially when it comes to the 3-minute thesis exercise. Although, she admits it wasn’t easy at first. Dr. Bellavita’s first question to Mapel was, “Why is crossing the border illegal?” To which she replied “because it’s a law.” But he wanted to know which law, and who created it and who enforces it, and why?” Mapel knows that her leadership’s time is at a premium (as is her time, too) so she needs to deliver information concisely, clearly, and accurately. “I tell my agents to use a 3×5 index card to contain all of the pertinent info for a briefing because it you can’t fit all the facts on the limited space, then you don’t know the subject well enough and you shouldn’t be briefing anybody.” She’s had several agents go on to promote or use this technique to brief leadership on a situation or incident. “I’ve worked with them and practiced with them—to the point where I think I get more nervous about it than they do.”

Mapel’s thesis advisor, Captain Robert Simeral, also played a role in shaping her thought process. She took an intel class with him and had to write a whitepaper on border patrol in south Texas. “I was so out of my element, it was eye-opening because as Federal agents we normally deal with factual things we’ve seen. We’re not used to doing papers on things that are projections like vulnerabilities or gaps in resources. But I did that paper and about 2 months after I graduated, I saw an issue that I was able to do something about and I wrote a multipage whitepaper providing an assessment of process vulnerabilities.”

travel caution

Travel advisory sign near the Southern Border.

Identifying vulnerabilities in the immigration process is a dynamic job. Because the world evolves and migrant movements evolve—but the immigration process is like a large, slow ship and it doesn’t turn very quickly. “One of the books I read talked about trim tabs and a trim tab is the little thing on a boat that helps it move more efficiently,” Mapel shared. “In my position, I may not be able to serve as the whole rudder, but by manipulating the trim tab, I can create changes that affect the direction and get to the port faster. I can make a difference and turn the entire ship with that little trim tab.”

When it comes to the subject of Faux Families, Mapel’s immediate focus in San Antonio was to locate stakeholders and establish partnerships where they can understand what the numbers and trends mean, then address it as a team. In 2014, less than 1 percent of males apprehended at the border had children with them, but in 2019, it’s a staggering 50 percent. Another alarming statistic: in April, May, and June of 2018, there was an average of 9500 family units apprehended, but the first three months of 2019 saw averages of 29,000 family units per month. Mapel and her stakeholders have been able to identify some gaps and create a better process for determining if someone is trying to exploit the system. “We always want to make sure that a child is with their parent and that the child isn’t with somebody pretending to be their parent. We cannot allow the kids to be used as pawns. It’s very concerning and you can imagine the pressure to get that right with all the eyes on you and the wellbeing of the children in mind. It’s a delicate position to be in because we are all human and we all care for each other.” The delicate nature of this issue is reminiscent of the situation that resulted from the tractor trailer smuggling case a few years ago—in that case, there were many illegal aliens crammed in the trailer and some escaped before the ambulances arrived. Health and safety are always the priority, so, while we want to make sure all of the survivors are not suffering long-term effects from the incident, the storyline of Federal law enforcement tracking down people who were abused and narrowly avoided death by heat exhaustion is a delicate situation. On a wall in her office, Mapel has photos of the children she’s helped. It serves as a reminder. Two years ago it was tractor trailers and now it’s Faux Families. Next year maybe it will be something else.

“The bottom line is every part of what I do every single day, CHDS is woven into the fabric of how I operate and hopefully I’m teaching the folks that I work with and those who come after me to do the same thing,” Mapel reiterated.