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Why so many migrant children are braving the journey across the U.S. border alone

June 20, 2014 at 6:19 PM EDT
Hoping to stop the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S., Vice President Biden visited Guatemala to get support from Central American leaders. The NewsHour’s P.J. Tobia reports on why kids are coming and what happens to these child migrants when they arrive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Vice President Joe Biden is in Guatemala today meeting with Central American leaders. He’s hoping to get their help in stopping the surge of unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. The flood of children has become a crisis for the government as it scrambles for solutions.

NewsHour reporter P.J. Tobia prepared this report on why these children are coming and what’s happening to them once they arrive.

P.J. TOBIA: Last year, 11-year-old Nodwin survived a journey that has killed many adults. He traveled from Honduras to the U.S. border over land almost entirely by himself. He almost drowned crossing the Rio Grande River near Texas in an inflatable raft.

NODWIN, Child Migrant (through interpreter): The boat suffered a puncture, and I went under the water, but I managed to grab onto a piece of wood, and that’s how I saved myself.

P.J. TOBIA: He says he made this dangerous journey because his hometown in Honduras has been overrun by criminal gangs.

NODWIN (through interpreter): Big people force the children to sell bad things, and if they don’t do it, they rape them or they kill them.

P.J. TOBIA: Nodwin once witnessed a boy his own age gang-raped in a neighborhood park after the child refused to join a local drug gang.

NODWIN (through interpreter): They were stripping a kid naked, and I went to tell the kid’s mom. Later, I went home, but I didn’t want to leave my house, because they could have done the same thing to me.

P.J. TOBIA: He was living with his grandmother at the time and his parents, undocumented immigrants who live here in Northern Virginia, quickly hired a coyote, or human trafficker, to bring their son through Mexico to the U.S. border.

His story is not unique. The government says that by May of this year, more than 47,000 unaccompanied children were caught crossing the U.S. border. Between 60,000 and 90,000 are expected to come in 2014, according to the White House. That’s more than twice as many as last year, three times as many as in 2012.

They come alone, because many have parents here in the U.S. who are undocumented and can’t easily leave and return to the country. The majority come from the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. They enter through the Rio Grande Valley section of the Texas border.

JENNIFER PODKUL, Women’s Refugee Commission: There have been an increase in gang activities in those countries and there is also not very strong rule of law in those areas, in those countries.

P.J. TOBIA: Jennifer Podkul is senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission. She’s interviewed hundreds of children who’ve made the journey from Central America.

JENNIFER PODKUL: They’re seeking children of this age, and they’re recruiting at schools, they’re recruiting at youth centers, they’re recruiting and going after children who are participating in youth groups and churches.

So they’re really targeting a particular age group.

P.J. TOBIA: The government says that, compared to previous years, more of the children are under the age of 13.

Roger Noriega is a former assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere. He says the worsening violence in Central American countries is drug-related.

ROGER NORIEGA, Former Assistant Secretary of State: They sit in this corridor of cocaine trafficking northward to the U.S. market. Weak institutions in most of these countries. They don’t have the capacity to resist the criminality and violence that’s associated with drug trafficking.

P.J. TOBIA: For children trying to escape the violence, the journey can be deadly.

JENNIFER PODKUL: Many of them, particularity if they don’t have a lot of money, they will ride on top of a train. They refer to train as la bestia, the beast, that travels through Mexico.

A lot of people fall off the train. And there have been accidents. Children have talked to me about seeing people fall asleep and then they fall off the train or limbs getting cut off when somebody falls off of it.

P.J. TOBIA: After crossing the border, most children are caught by Customs and Border Patrol Agency. Many just turn themselves in. So many are now coming that temporary shelters are being used. These images are from a Border Patrol facilities in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, Arizona.

JENNIFER PODKUL: These stations are designed as short-term hold rooms. It’s a very small room. It’s just concrete. It has no windows to the outside. There’s no bed. There might be a toilet, but it’s in a public area. And the children are just sitting there. Some are not given blankets. Some are not given any hot meals. They’re only given cookies or juice. And they’re up — they’re there for up to 10 days, even two weeks.

P.J. TOBIA: By law, 72 hours is the longest children can be kept in CBP custody. After, the children are turned over to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which tries to reunite them with family. If they have no family, they remain in HHS custody.

MAN: Our focus is moving the children out of the facilities and to a sponsor for this period. While they are with the sponsor, they are still fully subject to removal proceedings.

P.J. TOBIA: After these kids arrive in the U.S. and are reunited with a parent or guardian, they usually end up in a juvenile immigration courtroom, like this one, to see if they qualify for asylum or a visa. If they don’t, they’re supposed to be deported.

Last month, Nodwin sat right here. His attorney is preparing an asylum claim. But because of the number of children and adults coming to the U.S. every day, getting a hearing can take years.

Meanwhile, Republicans like Senator John Cornyn of Texas say the Obama administration has enticed children to make the journey. Last week, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified before Congress about the surge of child migrants.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN, R, Tex.: There is this perception that the executive branch of the federal government is not enforcing the law because of talks about easing deportations.

JEH JOHNSON, Secretary of Homeland Security: I’m not sure I agree that that is the motivator for people coming in, for the children coming into South Texas. I think it is primarily the conditions in the countries that they are leaving from.

P.J. TOBIA: Conservatives argue that White House policies, like deferred action for childhood arrivals, which allows some younger undocumented immigrants to stay in the country, have sent the message that now is the time to come to the U.S. illegally.

Mark Krikorian is the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for a tougher immigration policy.

MARK KRIKORIAN, Center for Immigration Studies: The administration doesn’t really oppose illegal immigration. I mean, the people in charge of immigration policy-making in this administration don’t really, in their heart of hearts, believe that we have a right to keep people out of the country who aren’t murderers or drug dealers, in other words, sort of regular illegal aliens who just want a job.

P.J. TOBIA: As a senior adviser to President Obama for domestic policy, Cecilia Munoz is one of the people in the administration Krikorian is talking about. She denies White House policy is encouraging kids to come.

CECILIA MUNOZ, White House Domestic Policy Council: That argument would have you believe that these folks are leaving their countries, crossing all of Mexico, alone, and entering into the United States in order to benefit from programs that they’re not even eligible for.

P.J. TOBIA: She concedes there’s a perception in Central America partly responsible for pushing families to make risky decisions.

CECILIA MUNOZ: There are false rumors that if you can get to the United States, maybe you can stay. Those are false, and we’re doing everything we can to make sure that people in those countries understand that there are no provisions in the law to provide for these children to stay, that the border is not open for children.

P.J. TOBIA: According to a 2012 study by the VERA Institute, a nonprofit that researches court systems, many children are not granted relief from removal, despite having legitimate claims to a visa or asylum. Immigration attorneys and experts say that most children are placed in removal proceedings within one year of arrival. Some of those who have been released can be difficult to track down and physically deport. Those with attorneys continue to fight.

CECILIA MUNOZ: The borders of the United States are not open, not even for children who come on their own, and the deportation process starts when they get here, and we expect that it will continue for the vast majority of these kids.

P.J. TOBIA: Back in Northern Virginia, Nodwin is getting to know his parents, who left Honduras when he was just five-and-a-half months old. They didn’t want their faces shown in this report.

NODWIN (through interpreter): When I saw them, I ran towards them and hugged them, and they told me, “Welcome to your parents’ home.”

P.J. TOBIA: He’s allowed to stay in the U.S. while his asylum claim makes its way through the courts. He’s also just finished his first full year of American school.

NODWIN (through interpreter): On my first day at school, I made a lot of friends. And from that day forth, I made even more friends.

P.J. TOBIA: His father told me he wants Nodwin to one day play in the World Cup, but not for Honduras, for team USA.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This afternoon, the White House announced tens of millions of dollars of additional funding for security, economic and repatriation programs in Central America.

Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner urged the president in a letter to immediately send the National Guard to help deal with what he calls the national security and humanitarian crisis along our Southern border.

You can read more about the challenges facing these young migrants on our home page.