Children at the Border

The Dimensions of the Crisis

By José Fernando López

More than 50,000 children apprehended at the border. More than 50,000 children who, weary of the violence experienced in their countries, have set forth on their way to the United States. More than 50,000 children deceived by ‘coyotes’ and traffickers. More than 50,000 children tired of shuffling along the paths of hell. More than 50,000 children hoping for a better life.

President Barack Obama said it. Today the United States is living through a terrible humanitarian crisis. More than 50,000 unaccompanied children from Mexico and Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, in particular), have reached the United States in the last eight months *. Thousands have been returned to their country (mostly Mexicans). The others remain in immigration limbo, with the threat of deportation.

Yet not all who intended to reach the United States are present. Some, after suffering tortures and mistreatments (not only from criminal gangs, but from the authorities themselves); some even lose their lives. Many others, as shown by the following visual display, are detained somewhere along their journey through Mexico, and returned to their countries of origin.

The crisis surprised many, even the government, it would seem. But it was in no way unexpected. Last March 12th, almost three months before President Obama made his announcement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presented a study called “Children on the run”, which already showed the dimensions of the problem.

According to the UNHCR study, the total number of detentions, in the United States, of unaccompanied children arriving from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador jumped from 4,059 in the fiscal year 2011 to 10,443 in the fiscal year 2012, only to double to 21,537 in the fiscal year 2013.

When and how did the crisis along the border explode? Figures revealing the drama of the migrant children.

According to the same study, “although the gap has been closing since fiscal year 2013, the number of Mexican children has surpassed the number of children from any of the other three Central American countries. In fiscal year 2011 the number of detained Mexican children was 13,000, then 15,709 in fiscal year 2012 and reached 18,754 in fiscal year 2013.”

Two years ago, the Trans-Border Institute at the University of San Diego conducted a forum called “Children at the Border,” at which the increasing flow of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. southern border was noted. David Shirk, Director of the Institute, attributed this to changes in border security policy stemming from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in New York.

According to Univisión Noticias’ summary of the seminar, “faced with the difficulty of crossing, parents cross first, and then have the children follow, usually travelling by themselves, and meanwhile U.S. security agencies are not prepared to take care of them.”

Click here and see how the crisis of the unaccompanied children detained at the border has evolved.

At the same event, Professor Wayne A. Cornelius, of the Institute of Global Health at the University of California at San Diego, expressed his concern for the growing number of minors being arrested at the border. According to him, during the first few months of 2012 more than 8,000 children had already been apprehended. In total, the number reached 24,481 that year.

The big question is: why is this happening? Ángel’s case is illustrative.

Halfway There

By Luz Adriana Santacruz

His injuries have yet to heal. It has been two years since he fled El Salvador, the country where he left his friends and family behind, but also the place where he left behind the violence of the gangs that were hounding him. Tired and fed up with the horror surrounding him, he decided go over mountains, cross rivers and traverse countries. He had no money and he was not worried about what awaited him. He just wanted to get away.

With a lump in his throat and a deep sight, Ángel, a fictitious name used to protect his identity, now age 19, remembers that ever since he was a young boy he wanted “to go north.” That wish was his life’s inspiration, but it was really the problems he had with a gang that made him to emigrate urgently.

Ángel, a young man from El Salvador, who tried to get to the United States, but had to stay in Mexico, narrates his experience.

“They were going to kill me,” he tells It’s hard for him to say it. Having to recall it is painful for Ángel.

He admits having been a gang member. He belonged to one of the Maras that were ravaging his neighborhood. He says he did not meet with them too often but they did send him to do errands: go to Guatemala to get drugs intended to be sold in El Salvador.

Even though he knew those “favors” were felonious acts, he was able to handle them. But there was one, the most terrible of all, which made him decide to cut ties.

“They told me they wanted me to silence my brother, to kill him. I felt the world was caving in on me. I told them ‘no’, that I was going to talk to him, that I was going to give him some advice but he [the brother] didn’t pay attention,” Ángel relates.

Ángel’s younger brother was a member of an opposing gang. The Maras killed him.

“They silenced him. They didn’t bother me for a while but there came a moment when they needed me again. They had picked a fight with another gang and called on me as reinforcement,” Ángel recalls.

The year was 2012. Angel was only 17 and had a few coins in his pocket. He and a friend summoned the courage to venture out towards that world that seemed ideal: the United States.

First, they crossed by bus until they were halfway through Guatemala. They got off in central Guatemala. At that point they had no money, not even for food. They had no choice but to walk.

“We came in through the mountains. We hiked through them day and night. It took about five or six days. That’s how it was. The only water we drank was from water troughs where the cows drink and bathe,” he recalls.

Their journey along that path was not easy. Strange animal noises during the lonely nights would make Ángel’s hair stand up on end.

“It’s a bit scary. You hear screaming noises. We often heard howling monkeys that were frightening,” he admits.

Nothing held them back; neither the sun burning their skin, nor the unbearable heat, nor the grueling hikes, nor the hunger. They went as far as the border with Mexico. They crossed over by wading across a river. The water came up to their shoulders.

After they managed to cross the river, something unexpected came up: “My friend’s foot had been bothering him. He had suffered a cut [before he left] but along the way he bruised it and it got infected,” he explains.

His travel companion’s injury was draining pus continuously. They were very scared, and they were by themselves. All they had was the clothes they were wearing. Not even an extra set of clothes to change into.

His friend’s injury proved stronger than their other adversities. They went to a hospital in Tenosique, in Tabasco, without ever imagining that there they would be separated forever.

The fear that the Salvadoran Maras would kill him, as they did his brother, was the main reason for Ángel’s exodus.

“He stayed there and told me to keep on going. I waited for him outside the hospital to see what they would tell me. They said he couldn’t be moved, that he couldn’t walk, that [the injury] was much too nasty. It was very swollen,” Ángel recalls.

Feeling sad about having to leave his friend, Ángel decided to move on. But fear overwhelmed him: he borrowed 20 pesos (less than two dollars) and surrendered to Mexican immigration.

“I thought of moving on but said ‘no’. It is better to turn myself in. Why keep on struggling when I might not even get there? Or something might happen to me out in the desert. I didn’t want to go back because they want to kill me,” he says.

The violent situation faced by Ángel in El Salvador was sufficient reason for Mexico to accept him as a permanent refugee.

He had his moments of despair. “I got angry, I cried, I threw things around. I was shut in and was going mad,” he says.

A year went by full of bitterness and alienation. That is how he came of age in Mexico.

Ever since he was a young boy, Ángel has always fended for himself. He left his mother’s house when he was seven and his grandmother took him in. He lived there for a couple of years.

“I want to see my mother. I would apologize to her for what has happened,” he explains.

Even though Ángel believes today that his present and his future are in Mexico, he still entertains the idea of moving on toward “El Norte”: “I’d cross over that border again. I’ve had it worse before, but now I’ve pulled myself together.”

The Causes of the Problem

By María Arce

Ángel, the Salvadoran adolescent who crossed three countries in his attempt to reach the United States, fled his country having suffered harassment resulting from fights between Mara gangs that claimed the life of his brother and threatened to end his.

“Children simply do not cross international borders unless something terrible is happening at home,” says Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, KIND, an organization founded by Angelina Jolie and Microsoft to give legal assistant to migrant children.

Experts, politicians and victims speak. Who knows the truth about the reasons for the wave of Central American immigrants coming to the United States?

“The main reason (for this migration) is the violence in Central America. The violence has become more intense, more extreme, and is aiming toward the children,” Young emphasizes. “It is taking over communities, schools, homes. This is not a migration problem; it is a refugee problem,” she notes concerning the crisis that is inundating the United States as a result of the massive arrival of under-age migrants.

A report from the Vera Institute points out that in the 80’s the United States was experiencing a similar crisis. The number of children who escaped their countries was increasing as the civil wars in Central America intensified. Three decades later the phenomenon repeats itself, this time because of another kind of violence.

The Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees; it has stated that “violence and bad criminal actors have permeated all aspects of life in Central America and are one of the primary factors driving the migration of children in the region.”

Last November the MRS sent a delegation to Central America to evaluate the situation with the children: “…in each country—particularly Honduras and El Salvador—organized gangs have established themselves as an alternative, if not primary authority in rural areas and town.

“In many cases, the governments are unable to prevent gang violence and intimidation of the general public, especially the youth,” says the report which they shared with

“The report cites accounts of gang members infiltrating schools and forcing children to either join their ranks or risk violent retribution to them or their families. Even in prisons, incarcerated gang members are able to order violence against members of the community”. The delegation received reports indicating that even “law enforcement collaborated with the gangs.”

The violence and the lack of economic and educational opportunities lead to the disintegration of many poor families, leaving the children unprotected and forcing them to migrate.

“The escalation of violence, combined with the lack of jobs and quality education, has led to a breakdown in the family unit, as male heads of households—or sometimes both parents—have left for the United States, leaving children behind with relatives, often grandparents to protect them,” says the bishops’ report.

“Children flee, as a strategy to escape the gangs, to help support the family, and to reunify with their parents or other loved ones, from whom they have been separated for years,” the report adds.

Another report from the Bishops Conference says that 85% of the migrant children have reported traumatic experiences prior to entering the shelters; that 58% had been physically abused in their countries of origin; that three out of every ten had been abandoned by at least one of their parents; and that 25% said they had been witness to violent crimes.

Violence is always present. The fact is that when youth “…manage to flee the violence they are then exposed to extreme danger and criminal mistreatment by actors along the migration journey. The journey north is increasingly dangerous and children find little protection in Mexico,” says the report headed by Mark J. Seitz, Bishop of El Paso.

Reports such as this one from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are in agreement: “Forty-eight percent of the displaced children interviewed for this study shared experiences of how they had been personally affected by the augmented violence in the region by organized armed criminal actors, including drug cartels and gangs or by State actors. Twenty-one percent of the children confided that they had survived abuse and violence in their homes by their caretakers.”

Many other causes have been mentioned to explain the immigration wave, including word-of-mouth rumors circulating among families or deceitfully by “coyotes” and criminals claiming that upon arrival in the United States minors would receive immigration benefits (which would allow them to be covered by the Deferred Action (DACA) program, or benefit from a reform that appears to become less likely by the day). But no cause is as strong as poverty and violence.

Since 2009, KIND has given assistance to more than 6,000 children and, according to Young, “none of them has mentioned immigration reform” as a reason for migrating to the United States. The violence suffered by the minors in their home countries is such that they are not afraid of the violence they will encounter on their journey northward.

A Harsh Journey

By Leonor Suárez

“It’s horrible…the things you see along the way are horrible,” says Zaira, holding back her tears as she recalls what has just happened while bringing her children to the United States. She accompanied her young ones on the journey others are making by themselves.

Most of these children set off on their own, or accompanied by a stranger, onto the untamed world of the Central American borders, riddled with predators who feed on the misery of others: the “coyotes,” for whom it is a business to take children back and forth.

A mother talks about her passage and that of her children on their trip from Honduras to the United States.

The “coyotes” take advantage of (some say create) the rumor that encourages their victims, fledglings longing for freedom, to embark on a journey that, though full of dreams, strikes one’s soul. They make them believe that at the end of the journey they will enjoy immigration benefits and they will be able to remain in the United States.

The children who arrive at their destination have little to say about this experience. “My son is very withdrawn and does not talk to me about anything,” says María, whose surname is not being revealed for security reasons. Her adolescent son arrived a year ago and still has not adjusted to his new life.

María paid several thousand dollars to have him brought over from his native Honduras as he had already been threatened several times and several of his friends had been murdered. “It was the Maras,” María tells us.

Her eldest daughter, Zaira, has just arrived together with her two youngsters, ages nine and four. She left Choloma, an industrial city near San Pedro Sula and the border with Guatemala.

Zaira is witness to the history lived by thousands of children and young people, but which few relate. “In the group with which I came there were two of us with our children, the rest were unaccompanied youngsters; it’s horrible.”

According to the National Migration Institute of Mexico, 14,907 minors have been apprehended at Mexico’s southern border just this year, and they have been repatriated, most of them being from Central American countries.

Still very nervous, Zaira explains that on the way to Palenque, near the borders between Mexico, Belize and Guatemala, she saw people strangling babies and trucks trying to run over migrants, “I thought they were drunk, I don’t know.”

A large part of the journey is by bus. Zaira tried to keep her children as comfortable as possible amidst their stressful reality. Yaritza, who is already old enough to understand what is happening, tells us her mother “often had to put up with being uncomfortable so that we [the children] could sleep. She would sleep in the middle of the aisle,” explains the proud young girl.

The children appear to be at ease and already brag about having learned a little bit of English. Zaira is the one who knows how harsh it was.

The arrival almost became a nightmare. At the border the migrants are handed over to the immigration authorities so they can ask for clemency. Zaira knew she could not return and pleaded with agents from ICE not to release her in Mexico. She says, and this is what she told the border agents, that there were criminals ready to kidnap her and seek ransom from her relatives in the United States.

Most Central Americans seeking to reach the United States use “The Beast,” a freight train that runs from Mexico’s southern border all the way to the border with the US.

This is not so unusual on this journey. “I finally told them [the children] we should continue on our own. I had a feeling the coyote we had hired was already asking too many questions about money. So it was best not to put them [the children] at risk any further,” she recalls. They made the last part of the journey accompanied just by the people who were already travelling with them.

“Papá Pitufo [known as Papa Smurf in English] helped us a lot.” This is not in reference to the lovable character from the comic strip, nor the sinister leader of the Mexican Self-Defense Militias who uses that alias. He is a person who helped them on their journey and to whom they are most grateful.

Zaira, Yaritza and Naúm were released in the United States and are now in Miami living together with María. The children saw their grandmother for the first time upon their arrival on US soil.

Zaira feels more at ease and Yaritza says that “there are no bad people here” as in Honduras, as she eats some chocolate cake.

Despite the journey, the risks and the dreams, they may have to return to the reality from which they escaped. They do not have papers and their luck is uncertain to say the least.

And What to Do with the Children?

By Jorge Cancino

Nobody knows for sure what is going to happen with all the unaccompanied children who have been detained at the border. The law requires that within 72 hours the authorities must determine whether this has to do with a minor, whether he or she is unaccompanied, whether he or she has family in the United States or whether he or she has been abandoned. Meanwhile, the child is examined by a physician.

If the child is of Mexican origin, then an accelerated repatriation process is initiated, as stipulated in an agreement signed with that country. If the child is not Mexican, then a deportation process is initiated, which can last months.

Children whose parents are present in the United States are reunited through the issuance of a summons to the parents to appear before an immigration court and a deportation process is initiated. Those without relatives are transferred to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shelter.

If the parents—documented or undocumented—appear after the minor has been transferred to an HHS center, they can claim the child, and the child is released along with a summons to appear before an immigration court. Consulates or persons having legal custody or power of attorney over the child may also claim the child.

“If nobody claims them, then it is possible to initiate a process whereby the State becomes responsible for the child,” explained attorney Ezequiel Hernández. “Ironically, this path offers more possibilities of being able to stay as an immigrant,” but the petition should be filed by a lawyer.

Abandoned children may file an appeal to gain Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) that protects impoverished minors who are victims of violence and abandonment.

Attorney Aileen Josephs explained to the daily La Opinión that this has to do with an effective method, but requires experienced lawyers to prepare each case.

Hernández, in turn, warned that court summonses are “sacrosanct.” Anyone who does not appear loses his or her right to remain in the United States since the court will then issue a “deportation order in absentia.”

Minors also have other legal options such as “U Visas” for victims of crime. But as in the case of gaining SISJ status, or asylum, they will need lawyers to present and win the case. This step is also complex.

In December of 2013 it was reported that immigration courts were in a state of crisis. And that, of the 300,000 cases that had accumulated in 2010, the number had increased to 350,000 in 2013, plus the 52,000 unaccompanied children at the border as of now in 2014. Some cases are currently taking years to be settled.

In late June, a group of Democratic legislators proposed treating the thousands of unaccompanied children as “refugees” in order to accelerate the proceedings. They pointed out that under this rubric they could be defended and due process would be respected.

The DHS also explained that some of the 52,000 cases could present a petition for asylum and of those some would be able to stay but warned that the path is difficult and not everyone wins; some end up being deported.

Despite the warning, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has said that minors who have migrated to the United States may present a petition for asylum that would grant them protection under international law.

Thousands of children are waiting in shelters, hopeful of being contacted by some family member.

“Almost 60% of the (detained) children would fear for their lives if they returned to their homes,” says Leslie E. Vélez, head of the Protection Unit of the UNHCAR.

What is clear is that there is no single solution for tending to the 52 thousand detained children; there are many options and most are complex and difficult.

On June 30th, President Barack Obama asked Congress for 2 billion dollars for addressing the problem and for legislators to “present” proposals that would help to find a solution to the crisis.

He also asked for additional authority for the Secretary of Homeland Security to exercise his discretion in processing and repatriating unaccompanied minors who come from countries that do not border on the United States, such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This would mean accelerated deportations.

In his letter to the Congress, the President also asked for an increase in the number of immigration judges, and that legal processes be hastened “in order to repatriate and reintegrate migrants returned to their countries.”

Organizations that defend the rights of immigrants warned that accelerated deportations violate human rights and damage due process. And they asked Obama to treat the children as refugees.

That same day Obama gave an unexpected response. He said the children were being “apprehended, but the problem is, that our system is so broken, so unclear, that folks don’t know what the rules are.” And he announced a few days later they he may take executive action if the Congress does not soon solve the migration issue.

* In mid-July the figure provided by the government exceeded 57,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the border. The number of children returned to their countries of origin was not known, nor how many remained in the hands of the authorities.

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Editorial Concept: María Arce. Project Management: José Fernando López. Journalistic Production: Jorge Cancino. Video Production and Editing: Selymar Colón, Leonor Suárez. Cover: Joel Mejía, Getty Images. Programming: Caridad Tabares, Edmundo Hidalgo. Videos: Univision Noticias. Photos:Getty Images.

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