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Children as passports, the phenomenon behind the humanitarian crisis on the border

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In a time of “zero tolerance,” arriving at the US border with a child in hand has become the best passport for tens of thousands of Central American migrants. While President Trump tries by any and all means to close the border to those desperately fleeing their country because of violence and lack of opportunities, the border area is overwhelmed by the massive arrival of families. Civic and religious groups are trying to handle the humanitarian emergency.

Central America's future is fleeing to the United States

MCALLEN, Texas.- Suany Yisel is eight years old, with light skin and freckles and braided dark hair. Her long and thin arms hold on tightly to her mother's waist as they walk through the brush. A fallen tree blocks their path and Yessenia Teruel, 23, picks up her daughter's legs to help her over it.

Lorena Arroyo / Univision

Since they left their village in the Santa Barbara department in Honduras, through their long trek across Guatemala and Mexico and into the United States, Teruel has been the eyes of Suany Yisel, who's blind.

They have just crossed the Rio Grande on a raft, along with about 30 other undocumented migrants, to surrender to the U.S. Border Patrol. But unlike the others, mother and daughter don't smile. “She's very tired. She did not want to eat in the last few days,” Teruel said as Suani Yisel rests her head on her mother's chest and looks like she's about to faint.

The mother doesn't look happy either. She says she left her two-month old baby in her village of La Fortuna, because the desperation of being unable to offer them a better future in Honduras forced her to leave with Suany Yisel . She hopes to be allowed to stay in the United States so her daughter can get the proper medical treatment and go to school – for the first time in her eight years.

It's just past noon and the group that includes Teruel and her daughter is the second with more than 30 migrants to turn up that day at Rincon Landing, a remote area of the Rio Grande Valley where the Border Patrol has reported the highest number of detentions of undocumented migrants in recent years.

But far from the “hordes of criminals” that President Donald Trump has alleged to justify his declaration of a national emergency along the border, the majority of the undocumented migrants who enter from Mexico look more like Suany Yisel and her mother: what the Border Patrol calls family units, made up of at least one minor and at least one parent or legal guardian.

During March alone, more than 53,000 family units arrived at the border, an all-time record. And although the Border Patrol told Univision Noticias that it does not have precise figures on how many undocumented minors cross the border, the number in March had to be at least 26,500 – at least half the family units that arrived – plus the other minors who arrived unaccompanied.

Apprehensions by the Border Patrol in March

The Rio Grande Valley sector is the area that has for years registered the highest number of apprehensions of undocumented migrants both in general terms as well as unaccompanied minors and family units.

Rio Grande Valley
Southern border total
Family units
Unaccompanied minors
Adults on their own
Source: CBP. March 2019

Family units * apprehended at the border

During the corresponding period in fiscal year 2019 (Oct 2018 to March 2019)

Source: Border Patrol (*Number of people – minors, parents or guardians - apprehended with at least one family member).

Just before 11 am on a recent Friday, the first undocumented migrants of the day started to arrive at Rincon Landing. A bus is visible on the other side of the Rio Grande, probably one of the vehicles that people smugglers use to bring them to the river, after they paid hundreds of dollars to cross on rafts. From the US side, a colorful line of people can be seen advancing through the brush.

Lorena Arroyo / Univision

Minutes later, they show up in Texas. They are dozens of Central American adults accompanied by minors, some of them babies who have been carried by their parents throughout the trek.

Most are the same: a father or mother with a son or daughter, although some adults have more than one child and some minors are unaccompanied.

“We are happy because God has given us permission to reach this place, and we come with one goal. We come to look for work because the family is poor and, you know, we have to look for a better future for our children,” said Donato Llanes Ulloa, a Honduran who added that he decided to leave his country after his brothers were murdered.

Ulloa arrived with his son Ever, about 10 years old, and like the majority of immigrants traveling with children they don't try to evade Border Patrol agents. They want to find them and surrender.

Lorena Arroyo / Univision

One group of arrivals included Maria and her children Juan, 13, and Victoria Alejandra, 17.

She used to work in an information booth at a bus station in the Honduran capital city of Tegucigalpa, and tells a Border Patrol agent that she left because of the lack of economic opportunities and the violence. “If they don't get rid of those governments, every one of us will leave,” she said.

Like Maria, the majority of the families that arrive at Rincon Landing are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They feel that leaving is the only way they can offer their children a future because of all the problems there, from gang violence and poverty to the impact of climate change on some parts of Central America.

Esther Poveda / Univision

Two hours after the first group turned up at Rincon Landing, nearly 100 migrants are already waiting alongside a Border Patrol vehicle. The arrivals don't stop, and the agent who first spotted them calls for reinforcements to process them.

By the end of the day, the Border Patrol had processed more than 1,100 arrivals in just that one sector of the border on the Rio Grande Valley, according to agency figures. It was said to be a typical day, reflecting the massive arrival of family units.

“In their countries there are told that it's easier to cross the border and maybe be released by the Border Patrol if they come with a child or a minor,” said Carlos Ruiz, Border Patrol spokesman in the Rio Grande Valley sector.

Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala y El Salvador interviewed by Univision Noticias confirmed that the word is out back home that migrating with a child is a “passport” into the United States, and some people smugglers are even offering lower prices to those who travel with minors because it's easier to cross them.

What's allowing the majority of undocumented migrants who arrive with minors to avoid immediate deportation are one U.S. law and one regulation: the 2008 TVPRA law against human trafficking and the 1997 Flores Settlement in federal court, which limits the time and conditions under which migrant children can be held.

Because of those two norms, arriving with minors in hand is almost a guarantee that adults accompanying the children will be released by the Border Patrol until immigration judges rule on their future, a process that is significantly backlogged and can last months or even years.

Border Patrol agents meanwhile complain that they are being overwhelmed by the quantity of migrants arriving with children, and are being forced to neglect the arrival of “bad people and narcotics” at other parts of the border, as Ruiz put it.

“When these quantities of migrants arrive in such large groups, more agents are required to process them and prepare them for transport,” said the Border Patrol spokesman. “That forces us to take agents away from an area … which opens the doors in other parts of the border.”

As Ruiz speaks, Border Patrol agents process the new arrivals. They are counted and given plastic bags for their shoelaces, belts, chains and other objects they can use to harm themselves.

Lorena Arroyo / Univision

Several buses and vans from a transportation company under government contract arrive later to take them to a Border Patrol station. The men and boys are searched, and names are called for the next group being transported to the processing center.

Among those already gone are Yessenia Teruel and her daughter, Suany Yisel. An agent trained in medical emergencies had to treat the girl because she was dehydrated.

The agent says he's been in the area two and a half years and never saw so many families arriving. “Probably nobody has ever seen anything like this,” said the agent. He recalled one case when he had to assist a mother found unconscious, with a 107 degrees fever and two children.

The arrival of so many minors is creating challenges for the agency, accustomed to dealing largely with adult males, as shown by the deaths of two minors in Border Patrol detention centers in December.

“No one is prepared for these quantities. We don't have enough agents, we don's have the facilities to hold them … even the city of McAllen is not prepared,” said the Border Patrol spokesman for the Rio Grande Valley sector, which was also hit during the mass arrival of undocumented minors in 2014. “The way we're going, we're going to pass the 2014 level by a lot.”

A humanitarian crisis managed by volunteers

A former home for the elderly is the first stop for hundreds of Central American families after they are released by the Border Patrol in McAllen. The building, austere and with walls peeling with use, looks more like a school between classes. Everywhere you look, there are children running, children playing, children screaming or children crying.

Esther Poveda / Univision

Other children sleep on blue mattresses in the many rooms used as bedrooms, or they stand in line with their parents in the cafeteria, the showers, the rooms where they can get donated clothes and the desks where they can get information about travel to their next destination.

“Don't leave the children alone,” Alma Revesz, a grandmother who volunteers, shouts through a megaphone before announcing that a van would soon leave for the bus station. The green Catholic Charities vest she wears says “Disaster Emergency.”

Volunteers like Revesz are on the front lines of the crisis unleashed by the massive arrival of families at the border. Once officials process the adults and children, they are sent to a Catholic Charities shelter in McAllen run by Sister Norma Pimentel. Migrants arrive with documents showing the date of their appearance before immigration judges, usually somewhere in the United States where a relative has promised to support them during the process.

“They get all the help to connect with their relatives, who buy their bus or airplane tickets, and while they wait for that they can take a bath, put on clean clothes, eat, see a doctor if it's necessary … until they can be put on a bus or an airplane,” said Pimentel.

Since the unaccompanied minors' crisis in 2014, the goal of Pimentel each day is to help the hundreds of families freed by the Border Patrol. But she's never seen so many arrivals. She's getting about 5,000 immigrants per week, more than half of them children under the age of 10.

Esther Poveda / Univision

The massive arrival of families led her organization to move the shelter to a bigger building n December, but the new place is already too small because of the continuing increases and it is already planning to move to a bigger locale.

The increase also led the Border Patrol to start to release migrants in the nearby cities of Brownsville and Harlingen to take the pressure off McAllen – something not seen until now.

The Border Patrol claims it provides food, showers and medical care to the arrivals, but many migrants and volunteers say they are hungry, have not been able to bathe or change their clothes and have little information about the legal process they face.

Some arrive at the shelter sick from the trek or after spending several days sleeping on the floors of Border Patrol processing centers known as “ice chests.”

“They arrive very dirty, malnourished, desperate to get to their final destination, where they want to restart their lives or seek that American dream that I also wanted,” said one of the volunteers, Juanita Almendarez, 72, a native of Mexico who lived much of her life in New York and retired in McAllen.

Almendarez works Monday through Saturday in the shelter's kitchen, preparing sandwiches and soup for the migrants for six hours per day or until her knees start to hurt.

Most of the food, clothes and medicines provided to migrants is donated. “Sometimes we don't have something, but when an announcement is made, people are immediately very generous and they contribute,” she said.

A Honduran woman with a baby in her arms asks Almendarez for the shelter's infirmary. The baby has a cold and a skin rash. Almendarez points her to a room toward the back of the shelter where they keep donated medicines, alcohol, gloves, IV fluids and vitamins for pregnant women.

Esther Poveda / Univision

The clinic has several small chairs and toys to entertain children while they wait their turn, but it does not have a fixed schedule. It opens only when a volunteer doctor or nurse arrives.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the clinic was full, mostly with parents and children with colds, fevers and stomach pains. Caring for them were Anne Leone, a nurse from Cleveland now living in McAllen, and Xiomara, a Mexican-born volunteer who turns up every weekend with her two teenage children.

While Xiomara and a daughter take down the information and handle the easier cases, Leone sees the pregnant women and delicate patients like Rodrigo Mancilla, a nine-year old Guatemalan boy with a 105-degree fever.

The volunteers give him a syrup and put a cold compress on his forehead to lower the fever while Leone calls Dr. Garza, one of the two pediatricians whose telephone numbers are displayed on a bulletin board in case of emergencies.

They give the child the prescribed medicines and advise the father to stay a couple of days in McAllen until the boy improves, but he's worried because he has an ankle monitor, has a long trip ahead to California – home of a relative who's sponsoring him – and fears arriving late for his scheduled court hearing.

Tens of thousands of families on waiting lists

At the McAllen bus station, it's easy to spot the migrants released by the Border Patrol because they carry envelopes where the volunteers at the Catholic Charities shelter have written the schedules of the tickets bought for them by their sponsors.

“Maryland,” “New York,” “Ohio,” and “Florida” can be seen on one side of the envelopes. The other side has the same message: “Please help me. I don’t speak English. What bus do I need to take?”

The migrants also carry a black plastic bag with food and snacks for the trip. Those going to cold areas also pack warm clothing and blankets donated to the shelter.

Luis is one of the migrants waiting on a bus station bench while his four-year-old daughter Brittany sleeps peacefully on his legs, wearing a multicolored cap and a coat way too big for her.

Esther Poveda / Univision

They were released by the Border Patrol the previous day, spent the night at the shelter and were waiting for a bus to Baltimore, where his mother lives.

Like many migrants, Luis starts his story by saying that he came to the United States looking for a better economic situation. But little by little, he mentions other problems in his home country of Honduras that compound his frustrations over his inability to offer his children a better future.

As he tells it, he was working in San Pedro Sula but moving often from place to place because gangs were trying to recruit him. They wanted him to sell drugs, and demanded part of his salary. There was talk of the caravans of migrants heading to the United States, and he wanted to give it a try.

He sent his wife and one-year-old daughter to the countryside, hoping they would be safer there, and he started the trek northward with his oldest daughter because he had heard that it was easier to cross the border with a child.

Luis said he heard in Honduras about the dangers of the trip, but not about what would happen once they surrendered to the Border Patrol. “In every cell the children were crying because they were hungry, and they didn't allow us to bathe,” he recalled. “Those who complained were told by agents that it was their fault.”

Similar tales told by other migrants do not surprise attorney Efren Olivares of the Texas Civil Rights Project, who said that with the increase in arrivals, his organization is receiving more complaints about abuses, irregularities and negligence by government officials, such as longer detentions during processing.

“There's no reason why a Border Patrol agent cannot detain a family, process and release it on the same day. There's no reason to hold them eight days, 10 days, in a processing center designed to hold families for a few hours,” he said. The Border Patrol can legally take up to 72 hours to process a migrant. “And speaking about the rights of children, they will not get needed medical attention there because they are jammed in with other families. Forget about the psychological social and development services that children of that age require,” he added.

The Border Patrol claims that, faced with the massive arrival of families, it's doing what it can “to simply avoid a tragedy” in its installations, as its director, Kevin K. McAleenan, said in March when he declared the border had reached its “breaking point.” Trump went further, saying that the United States is “full” and has no more space for immigrants and refugees.

And while Republicans and Democrats in Washington fail to agree on a solution for an overwhelmed immigration system, the southern border continues to see family arrivals that eventually join the list of 820,000 cases waiting for immigration court rulings.

Attorney Efrén Olivares complains that since the launch of his presidential campaign, Trump has demonized migrants and portrayed them as threats instead of trying to ease the process for those who knock on the country's doors to ask for asylum.

“A big majority are families asking for asylum, escaping violence … who do not represent a danger to this country. That's why we should spend more resources on the asylum process,” said the director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “But the government is doing the complete opposite. It is refusing to allow these people to ask for asylum, as we have seen on the bridges.”

Since entering the White House, the president has tried by all means to dissuade Central Americans from coming, with a “zero tolerance” policy that makes it a crime to enter the country and which led to the separation of thousands of children from their parents along the border. He also tried to tighten the criteria for asylum and rationed access to legal ports of entry, generating long waiting lists on the Mexican side of the southern border. But, far from scaring away the migrants, the last few months have seen an increase in the number of arriving families who see the children as their best card for entering the United States.

Esther Poveda / Univision

“Almost the majority of the people come with children because they say that the child is the passport for crossing,” said Alexander, a Guatemalan migrant just released by the Border Patrol in McAllen. With his wife and eight-year-old Elvis, he was waiting for a bus to Kansas City, where his first court appearance was scheduled for April.

The migrants “are coming because they have no other choice. They only try to survive and take care of their family, and the saddest part for me is that in this country we don't realize how we helped to create those problems, and then you have angry people asking why are they coming,” said Anne Leone, the volunteer nurse at the Catholic Charities clinic. For Leone, the solution to the migration crisis includes understanding the true size of the crisis, dedicating more resources to the border and looking at the problem in “a much more humane way.”

Sister Norma Pimentel also talked about humane treatment when she spoke about solutions. “I hope the government is aware that those people we're dealing with here are human beings, they are people, they are families, they are innocent children and mothers who are suffering, and that any process, any solution we find should take that reality into consideration,” said the director of the McAllen shelter.

For her, what is happening on the border is a “humanitarian crisis,” and the only way to avoid the “tragedy” mentioned by the Border Police chief is to cooperate with the countries of origin in order to try to eliminate the causes for migration.

“The tragedy comes when we turn our backs and we make like it's not our problem, and like we don't want those people to come,” Sister Pimentel said. “They are here. We need to deal with it, embrace them, take care of them so they suffer the least possible, and so that the agencies in charge of determining yes or no on their right to remain here can do it more easily,” she said.

Mario, 26, and his daughter Sindy, 3, crossed the US southern border after more than two and a half months on the road. "The hardest thing has been hunger, but I made this decision for my daughter who has a heart disease," says this Honduran who is a single father. He says that employment in the Honduran banana plantations did not provide enough to buy the girl's milk. He left Honduras with only 1,000 lempiras (about $40) and had to stop to work in Guatemala and Mexico to raise more money to be able to continue the journey.
Carlos Humberto and Nubia Alejandra come from the same village of Coral in the province of Lempira province of Honduras. Once they are processed at the border, they hope to get together with a relative who lives in Houston. "Have you seen Houston on television?" Asks the Border Patrol agent. "No sir. We do not have that privilege. In my community there is no electricity," the father replies. Carlos Humberto was a coffee farmer in Honduras, but he says that his harvest was affected by drought and rust fungus.
Susely Álvarez is 27 years old, from Escuintla (Guatemala) and crossed the border with her two sons, Alexander and Justin. She says she is fleeing gender violence and looking for treatment for her older son who has autism. While waiting for the Border Patrol, the child becomes impatient. "I want to go home," he tells his mother.
Genesis Antonia, aged six, and her mother Reyna Vega, took a little over a week to get from El Salvador to Texas. "I had to take the girl out of kindergarten because I worked there in the dining hall and they were asking me for money and they threatened to do something if I did not give them the money," says the mother. Now he wants to reunite with an uncle who lives in Virginia.
Some babies are so small that their parents have to carry them all the way in their arms, as did this Honduran migrant who arrived in the United States with a 10-month-old.
Many migrants claim not to have paid coyotes until they reached the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. This group of Hondurans and Salvadoran says they arrived a short bus ride away from the border. Two of them left Honduras and ended up crossing the river with a group of Salvadorans who they teamed up with. Most of them come from Usulután and say they are fleeing violence.
Among Salvadorans who arrive escaping from violence, there are also unaccompanied minors such as Alfonso, 16, who says he fled from gang threats. "After leaving school, they grabbed me and threatened me because I didn't want to do drugs. We are from a church and they called me a sissy because I did not want to take drugs, " he says. In the U.S. he hopes to be able to meet up again with his grandmother who lives in Los Angeles.


PRODUCTION: Lorena Arroyo &Esther Poveda
TEXTS: Lorena Arroyo
EDITING: Jorge Cancino, Maye Primera, José López &Mauricio Rodríguez Pons
SOCIAL MEDIA: María Carolina Hurtado & Carolina Astuya
TRANSLATION: Juan Tamayo & David Adams