A record number of children from Central America are crossing the Mexico-U.S. border unaccompanied by a parent. Many of them are fleeing drug violence at home, but here in the United States, they’re faced with a new set of challenges –- a border patrol system unequipped to handle them and a future filled with uncertainty.
In December, dozens of mothers converged on the central Mexican town of Tequisquiapan, where they laid pink paper flowers on a lonely stretch of train tracks to mourn their lost children. As the train passed, crushing the flowers, the mothers stood on the hot gravel siding and watched. They came from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Their children, among the tens of thousands who ride atop these trains each year attempting to cross the U.S. border, were the ones who didn’t make it.
Then there are the children who do. The numbers of child migrants who survive the journey across the U.S. border have surged in the past two years, overwhelming every system designed to process them, from the border patrol to the courts.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children were caught trying to cross the southern U.S. border in the first five months of this year. Between 60,000 to 90,000 such children are expected to have crossed by the end of 2014, and more than 140,000 are expected next year, according to the White House. That’s more than double the 24,668 that flowed across last year and triple the 13,625 children that came in 2012, according to a recent report by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense, an advocacy group for unaccompanied immigrant children.
And for the first time this year, most of these children are coming from three Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. government officials said that compared to previous years, a larger percentage of these children are girls and under the age of 13.
Vice President Joe Biden arrives today in Guatemala, where he is expected to announce stepped-up efforts to speed immigration proceedings in order to “return unlawful migrants from Central America to their home countries more quickly,” according to a White House statement. This comes the same day that the U.S. government announced hundreds of millions of dollars for new programs aimed at the root causes of the exodus, among them gang violence and poverty.
Here’s a look at why these children flee their homes, the dangerous trip to the border and the challenges they face on the other side.
Childhood under threat at home
Countries in what’s known as the isthmus, the region that stretches from Nicaragua to Guatemala, have the highest murder rates in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Data from that office shows Honduras is home to the deadliest city in the world, San Pedro Sula, where 169 out of every 100,000 people are murdered. The murder rate in Guatemala is nearly as bad and getting worse. And while El Salvador has seen a slight decrease in murders, it is still ranked fifth globally, according to the latest figures available.
“The gangs buy congressmen and political support” said Roger Noriega, former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere and Ambassador to the Organization of American States.
Gang violence in Central America escalated in 2006, when the Mexican army went to war with the cartels there, setting off a years-long street fight with thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire. The war squeezed out the weaker gangs and “the smaller ones were displaced to Central America” said Noriega, where they were able to take root and in some instances displace local governments and police entirely.
The MS-13 gang in El Salvador, is a violent exception to this trend. It started as a powerful criminal organization with a national reach in the United States but moved to Central America when many of its top leaders were deported.
In El Salvador “you have the current president admitting that he elicited the support of MS-13 for his get-out-the-vote effort,” Noriega said.
When Children Become Narco Targets
Children are among those targeted by narco gangs, along with women and the very poor, and they’re often pressured into service as drug-mules and even assassins, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Sexual violence against them is common.
Aura Perez was 16-years-old when she was kidnapped by a local drug lord in her small Honduran hometown. He repeatedly beat and raped her over a period of weeks, she told the NewsHour in a recent interview.
“The big people force the children to take their clothes off and also make them sell bad things, and if they don’t do it, they rape them or they kill them.”
“He ran a cartel in the area that I’m from,” she said. “That’s how he met me, he was from my neighborhood.”
Nodwin (last name withheld), an 11-year-old boy, traveled unaccompanied to the U.S. from Honduras last year. While in Honduras, he recalls watching gang members approach a boy his age while playing in the park, strip the boy naked and rape him.
“The big people force the children to take their clothes off and also make them sell bad things, and if they don’t do it, they rape them or they kill them,” Nodwin said.
Jennifer Podkul is an attorney and senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission in Washington. She said that the cartels are “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… It’s very similar to the child-soldier phenomenon in certain countries in Africa. It’s often easier to mold younger people.”
In 2012, Podkul co-authored a report on child migrants. In her interviews with hundreds of children who made it to the U.S., violence or threats of violence was the main reason they gave for fleeing Central America. Similar and more recent investigations from the UN and others echo this.
Refugee experts and the White House refer to this violence as a “push factor,” driving Central American children across the U.S. border. There are also “pull factors,” that is, reasons why children would choose to come to the U.S. once they leave their home counties.
The source of these pull factors and the role they play in a child’s decision to come to the U.S. is hotly disputed by lawmakers and experts. But most children who come to the U.S. have family here.
“if you’re going to leave your home, you’re going to try to go somewhere where you know somebody,” Podkul says.
She notes that outward migration to more stable Panama and Costa Rica is also on the rise. Most children travelling alone to the U.S., do so because their families are here illegally, and if they leave the country, they may not be able to re-enter.
Conservative lawmakers argue that the Obama administration is not tough enough in securing the southern border and that has enticed children to make the dangerous journey.
At a June 11 hearing on the issue of child migrants on Capitol Hill, Senate Republican Jeff Sessions told Department of Homeland Security Director Jeh Johnson that he held him and the president personally responsible for the rising numbers.
“Your leadership and the president’s leadership has failed to send a clear message throughout the world that you can only come to the United States lawfully” Sessions said. “In fact, you’ve sent a message that conveys just the opposite.”
His colleague, Texas Republican John Cornyn concurred, saying “the perception is that there are no consequences to illegally entering the United States.” Cornyn and others argue that policies like the DREAM act and others give the impression that amnesty for undocumented immigrants is just around the corner.
Mark Krikorian is the Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative think-tank in Washington that advocates for a more restrictive immigration policy. He says that the problem runs even deeper.
“The perception is that there are no consequences to illegally entering the United States.”
“The administration doesn’t really oppose illegal immigration,” he said. “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.”
On June 20, House Speaker John Boehner wrote a letter to President Obama, calling for mobilization of the National Guard to the U.S. southern border.
“The National Guard is uniquely qualified to respond to such humanitarian crisis,” he wrote. “They are able to help deal with both the needs of these children and families as well as relieve the border patrol to focus on their primary duty of securing our border.”
The terrifying journey across the desert and the Rio Grande
It is a nearly 3,000-mile journey from Nicaragua to the southernmost tip of Texas, a region called the Rio Grande Valley, where most child migrants from Central America enter the United States.
Most children begin their journey by bus, often accompanied by a coyote, or human trafficker, which costs a few thousand dollars. They stop at safe houses along the way that are usually crowded.
Hamilton (real name withheld) was 16 when he fled El Salvador two years ago. He was too afraid of neighborhood gangs to walk to school alone, he said. His family raised money for a coyote who shepherded him and about 20 others to the border.
He remembers one safe house near Tamaulipas, Mexico, owned by a kind older woman.
“We spent a full week in that house,” he said. The owner “treated us like her sons. (She would ask) do you want to eat something? Are you hungry? So i didn’t feel so bad in that house.”
But the next house, closer to the U.S. border, was smaller and run by a man who disappeared shortly into Hamilton’s two-week stay there.
“This new house was horrible,” he recalled. He said that he and 20 others slept in a room not much bigger than ten square feet and there was little to eat. “It was unhealthy.”
Along this journey, children can be targeted by criminal organizations, who kidnap and hold them for ransom. Those too poor to hire a coyote to arrange transport are forced to walk and hitchhike much of the way. In Mexico they ride atop trains.
“The train is called La Bestia, the beast that travels through Mexico,” Podkul said. “A lot of people fall off the train. There have been accidents. Children have talked to me about seeing people fall asleep, and then they fall off the train.”
Many others are maimed and killed while riding The Beast.
The Mexican border patrol is increasingly vigilant about catching migrants on its southern border. Nodwin, for example, was captured by the Mexican border patrol and returned to Honduras. It often takes two or three attempts to successfully make it to the U.S.
Crossing the Rio Grande river is also dangerous, especially for a child. Nodwin forded the river in an inflatable raft that sunk when it was punctured on a sharp rock. “I went under the water,” he recalls, “but I managed to grab onto a piece of wood, and that’s how I saved myself.
Nodwin was clinging to that piece of wood when he finally entered the United States.
Children spend weeks in windowless “hold rooms”
After crossing the border, most children enter the custody of the Customs and Border Protection. Many are captured at the border by patrols; many others turn themselves in.
Because these children are from non-contiguous countries (not Canada or Mexico), they cannot be immediately deported, but must first go before a judge. This is according to U.S. law, as well as international refugee treaties to which the U.S. is party.
In the meantime, they continue through a system created to process minor migrants, which begins with a stay in U.S. Border Patrol custody.
By law, children must remain in Border Patrol custody for no more than 72 hours. But because of the massive increase in child migrants, children often spend weeks in what are essentially jail cells, Podkul said.
She describes these “short-term hold rooms”: “It’s a very small room, it’s just concrete, it has no window to the outside and there’s no bed. There might be a toilet but it’s in a public area.”
She adds that some children have no access to blankets or hot meals during this time.
Reuniting families comes under scrutiny
Once space is found in a more child-appropriate facility, children are transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the department of Health and Human Services. Some of these facilities, like the temporary one at Lackland Air Force Base outside of San Antonio, are run by private non-profits.
The facilities are akin to a daycare, with activities and trained childcare professionals.
“They looked after me,” said Nodwin of his time in ORR custody. It was “like having a nanny. We would call her ‘auntie’ and we had everything we needed to play, and if we were good she would take us (on field trips).”
But in the last few months, these facilities too have become overwhelmed. The government quickly arranged temporary facilities, and some volunteer groups have provided sanitary products and other needed items. In addition to the Lackland facility, HHS has leased in Oklahoma and California.
While in these child-specific facilities, agency officials track down any family or potential guardians who could take custody of the children. If a relative or guardian can be found, the child is transported (by plane if necessary), to that person’s custody, at the government’s expense.
In January 2013, Nodwin was flown to Northern Virginia, where his parents were living and his father had found a job in construction. He was raised by his grandmother and had no memory of his parents. They left Honduras when he was 5.5 months old.
The 11-year-old describes the moment he first saw his parents, ran to them and hugged them. “Welcome to your parents’ home,” they told him. “Then I went to see my aunt who I had never seen before, and on my first day at school I made a lot of friends and from that day forth I made even more friends,” he said.
The idea of reuniting these children with their families has come under scrutiny though. Last December, a federal judge in Texas issued an order in the case of a 10-year-old girl whose mother paid a coyote $8,500 to bring her to the U.S. from El Salvador. She was reunited with her mother through ORR, and the judge charged the Department of Homeland Security with “completing the criminal mission” of human traffickers. “The DHS, instead of enforcing our border security laws, actually assisted the criminal conspiracy in achieving its illegal goals,” he wrote.
The Obama administration insists that all children, with few exceptions, will eventually be deported.
Cecilia Munoz is the director of the domestic policy council at the White House. “The end result of this process,” she told NewsHour in an interview, “is likely to be that the vast majority of those kids end up going back. There may be some isolated cases where there is some basis for them to be able to stay, but 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.”
But it is unclear how many children are actually deported each year. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency responsible for deporting children and adults, declined a NewsHour request for these numbers.
Once children are placed in the custody of a guardian, they receive a court date.
At a press conference last week, HHS official Mark Greenberg made clear that deportation was the end goal of this process. “Our focus is moving the children out of the facilities and to a sponsor for this period,” he said. “While they are with the sponsor, they are still fully subject to the removal proceedings.”
The immigration court system is complicated, and many children do not have the benefit of an attorney. The government is not required to provide legal representation, as in criminal cases, because immigration is a civil matter.
According to immigration lawyers, if a child is picked up by Border Patrol in Texas, the venue for the first court appearance would likely be in the Lone Star State, even if the child has since been reunited with her family in Iowa. As a result, many children miss court deadlines and are automatically placed in deportation proceedings.
“It’s a very small room, it’s just concrete, it has no window to the outside and there’s no bed.”
These children may be eligible for a number of visas or asylum claims, though applying for them takes lots of paperwork that must be prepared in English. Further complicating the situation, the parents of most of these children are in the U.S. illegally and fear visiting a courthouse.
“If they had an uncle who went to court and was never seen again,” said one attorney, “there is going to be a fear of the whole system.”
Even if a child does have an attorney and can file for a visa or asylum claim, the process will take years. The average wait time for an immigration case to make it’s way through the system is 516 days from beginning to end, according to TRAC Immigration, a non-partisan, non-profit website based at Syracuse University that analyzes immigration data. In places with large concentrations of immigrants, it can be much longer. Phoenix, Los Angeles and New York City have the longest average times, at 1,022, 890 and 861 days, respectively.
No Status, Uncertain Future
At an immigration court in Arlington, Virginia, last month, some two dozen children went before an immigration judge one at a time. Their ages ranged from a one-year-old who came to the U.S. in the arms of his 17-year-old mother to 18-year-old teenagers. The judge gave those without an attorney a new court date and a list of pro-bono lawyers, ordering them to secure representation.
Juvenile immigration court is a traditionally adversarial process, with a prosecutor who usually makes the case that a child should be deported and, in the best case, a lawyer representing the child.
But if the child has no lawyer, there is little chance that she or he will be able to stay, even if they have a valid asylum claim.
In 2012 the VERA Institute of Justice published a report on unaccompanied minors in the legal system that found that as many as 40 percent are “eligible for a form of
legal relief from removal such as asylum, special immigrant juvenile status, or visas for victims of crime or trafficking.”
“But without an attorney,” says Meghan McKenna of Kids in Need of Defense, “there’s no way they can make a case for themselves.”
It is a Faustian bargain these children make to stay in the U.S. If they don’t go to court and instead opt to stay in the U.S. illegally, they will live in limbo. They can go to school but in most states will not qualify for in-state college tuition. In most places, a driver’s license is out of the question and any arrest or even police run-in could result in immediate deportation.
But for a child like Nodwin, who is lucky enough to have an attorney making an asylum claim on his behalf, all of this uncertainty is better than returning to the violence he left behind.
PBS NewsHour will have more on the influx of migrants and what it means for children who cross the border unaccompanied by a parent on Friday night’s show.
Justin Scuiletti contributed to this report.