The Children’s Journey: Will They Be Allowed to Join Our Nation of Immigrants?

When Pablo was just 15 years old, Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang members came to his high school and tried to force Pablo to join them. Pablo did not want to be part of a gang and repeatedly told the older boys he would not join them. But the gang would not accept no for an answer and told Pablo they would kill him if he refused.

Pablo’s story, told in a document released by the Freedom Network, is also the story of thousands of young girls and boys traveling to the United States from Central America.

Headlines reading, “Border Centers Struggle to Handle Onslaught of Young Migrants” and “Stop this march of children. Stop it now” dominated newspapers, websites, and social media feeds in June and July of this past summer. The flow of unaccompanied minors trying to enter the United States is by no means a new issue. However, these headlines highlight the nation’s inability to keep up with the increasing masses of children and teens apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Why do children leave their homes?

Due to gang violence, many teenage girls and boys like Pablo are forced to leave their homes in order to survive. Over two-thirds of unaccompanied minors are from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, nations where gang violence is a part of day-to-day life. Teenage boys are expected to be in gangs and those who are not part of gangs are often mistakenly assumed to be members of gangs and killed by other gangs or the police. Girls are also drawn into gangs or face retaliation for dating members of certain gangs. Gangs recruit new members by threatening young boys and their families if they don’t join. Another case study, Saul, was attacked with battery acid and repeatedly beaten up when he refused to join a gang.

Terrified for his life, Pablo begged his parents, who had come to the United States when he was young, to bring him and his younger brother to the United States as well. He knew that he would never be safe in El Salvador because of the threats against him. Pablo’s parents arranged for a coyote to bring him and his brother to the United States.

The dangers of the journey: 

The journey to the U.S. can be as dangerous if not more dangerous than the lives the children are leaving behind. As a result, most parents will hire coyotes to take their child at least part of the way to the border. Coyotes can charge up to $10,000 to smuggle immigrants from Central America to the border.  However, a coyote does not ensure a safe journey nor does hiring a coyote guarantee that the child will make it to the United States. While coyotes traffic both adults and children, some coyotes are beginning to specialize in children. One of the benefits for a coyote of smuggling children is that the coyote dosen’t have to sneak them across the border as they do with adults. Children can be left at the border to be picked up by border patrol, because unlike adults, they will not immediately be sent home but instead detained and given a trial.

The coyotes will pick up dozens of children and adults from towns in Central America and guide them on the journey. Although some coyotes will smuggle children in cars and trucks, the vast majority accompany the children north on buses or trains.

According to NPR, every year up to half a million children ride on top of freight trains from Central America, through Mexico, to the border. Nicknamed La Bestia, The Beast, these trains are unpredictable and unsafe. Passengers riding atop the trains can be thrown from the train on sharp turns and suffer dehydration from being exposed to the sun all day. The trains are often inspected when they leave and arrive at stations, meaning these illegal riders have to jump on and off of the moving trains. It is during this transition that most accidents occur. Children, with shorter legs, are especially challenged while jumping onto and off of the trains and some don’t make it, getting run over by or caught in the train’s massive metal tires. Those who survive the accidents usually lose limbs and are permanently deformed, making another attempt to reach the border nearly impossible.

Other travelers can also pose a threat to unaccompanied minors. Children are generally ideal targets for exploitation and many are assaulted and robbed of what little they have. Girls, whose numbers have been on the rise in the past year, are sexually assaulted or kidnapped and sold into the sex-trade. As Pablo’s story reveals, coyotes and gangs will kidnap children, holding them for ransom from their families or forcing them to do work. Cindy Liou, Co-Chair of the Policy Committee of the Freedom Network to Empower Trafficked and Enslaved Persons (USA), approximates that 20% of unaccompanied minors are trafficked at some point during their journey to the United States. For most victims of trafficking, the only way out is arrest by the police if they are smuggled over the border.

Instead of bringing Pablo to the United States, they [the coyotes] forced him to work for them in Mexico, making him spend long hours cultivating squash in the fields. Fifteen-year-old Pablo was denied food if he did not work, kept isolated and alone, and told that he would be arrested and deported if he did not do everything his traffickers said. Meanwhile, his traffickers attempted to extort additional money from Pablo’s parents.

What happens when they arrive at the border?

After about six weeks of trafficking and abuse, Pablo’s traffickers attempted to bring him to the United States, where they intended to make him continue to work for them against his will. Subsequently, Pablo was apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol [CBP]. He was terrified of his traffickers and afraid to share his trafficking ordeal with the CBP until it called his father, who encouraged him to share what had happened. Pablo spent a month at Southwest Key Detention Center for children before he was reunited with his parents in Southern California.

Pablo’s story highlights one of the biggest challenges that Customs and Border Patrol agents face: determining whether or not children have been trafficked and abused. When they are first detained, immigrants are taken to detention facilities where they can legally be held for up to 72 hours. These facilities are essentially prisons and are not meant to be occupied for longer than this 72-hour limit. However, due to the overwhelming number of immigrants that have been arriving at the border, the CBP has been unable to process the immigrants as quickly as they are coming in, and the vast majority stay in the detention facilities for much longer than 72 hours. Often, there are not enough beds for all of the detainees. One woman reported that the room in which she was held was so cold that her lip split overnight. As a result, many detained adults choose to self-deport back to their home countries. However, this is not an option for most of these children who are attempting to reunite with their families in the U.S. or have no families in their home countries.

While held in these facilities, immigrants are administered a credible fear test to assess whether or not their life would be at risk if they were returned to their home country. For the vast majority of these children, the test should be easy to pass. Many have been victims of violence in their home country or abandoned by their families. Others, like Pablo, have been recruited by gangs and know that if they return, they will be forced into these gangs or killed by them. In spite of their very real fears, many of these children fail the credible fear assessment. For some, lack of trust of the CBP prevents them from fully disclosing their past to the interviewer. Many victims of trafficking have been told by their traffickers that if they tell the CBP about their experience, they and their family will be hurt or killed. However, others don’t realize that they are the victims and as a result don’t present themselves as such. Because these children have been traumatized at a young age, it will take many of them additional time to realize that they are the victims. After being taken advantage of by adults, it will take them even longer to disclose this information to an adult. Children and adults who have been trafficked are eligible for T-visas, allowing them to bring their families to live in the United States. Trafficked children who are not identified usually fail to obtain a visa and are mistakenly sent home to dangerous situations.

Shortcomings of the legal process

Children from countries not contiguous to the United States are given a trial whether or not they have been trafficked. Additionally, trafficked children from Mexico are also entitled to a trial in the US. When these children are identified, they are taken from the detention facilities and handed over to the department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which places them in foster homes or reunites them with their family in the U.S. The HHS has been underfunded and is ill equipped to handle the surge of unaccompanied minors at the border. In 2014, the HHS reported having 60,000 unaccompanied minors to place into foster homes but just over 10,000 beds to place them in. As a result, many minors remain in detention facilities for extended periods of time.

The children who are placed into HHS facilities are also given a trial date for their trials. In order to accommodate the influx of unaccompanied minors, a number of cities have initiated faster legal proceedings for the children. These children are placed in “rocket dockets” where they can receive trials between 21 and 28 days after they are released from CBP detention centers.

The vast majority of unaccompanied minors apply for one of four types of legal status: T-visas for trafficking victims, U-visas for victims of crimes, asylum for groups who have been persecuted in their home country, or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS). Minors who cannot be reunited with either parent because their parents are abusive, have abandoned them, or are deceased, are eligible for SIJS. SIJS was created as part of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA) to protect these minors and give them a chance to grow up in the United States. Unlike other visas, children who obtain SIJS cannot bring other members of the their families to the United States.

The legal proceedings in order to obtain a visa are very complex. However, although criminals in the United States have the right to a public defender if they cannot afford an attorney, individuals in deportation proceedings do not have this right and many end up representing themselves. Detained immigrants, especially unaccompanied minors, are in no way capable of representing themselves in court. A number of the unaccompanied minors are illiterate in Spanish yet are expected to represent themselves in court in English. None of them have the legal background of immigration attorneys and most of the minors don’t even know what kind of visas they can obtain. Furthermore, some unaccompanied minors are simply too young to even understand that they are on trial. One attorney offered the anecdote of an unrepresented two-year old child appearing alone before the judge. Luckily, an attorney in the courtroom intervened and the child’s family was given more time to find it an attorney.

In response to stories of children such as this child, cities are beginning to take action and provide attorneys for these children. The city of San Francisco recently budgeted 2 million dollars to provide legal counseling to unaccompanied minors.  New York City has also ensured that all unaccompanied minors will be represented in court. Additionally, many private foundations are also raising money to support these children. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a group which helps tech companies to reach out to the community, has helped over 6,000 immigrants with their immigration cases.

Representing the children in court is only half of the battle. The other half is getting the children to court. Many anti-immigration activists argue that many minors disappear after they are released to HHS and never make their court dates. However, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has reported that 85% of unaccompanied minors make their court dates. Minors with legal representation make their court appearances over 90% of the time. In spite of these high appearance rates, there are still many misconceptions in the immigrant community. Some immigrants believe that if they show up in court, they will be deported immediately. Others are distrusting of lawyers due to notario fraud, a practice that has been on the rise in immigrant communities in recent months. Individuals, who are no more qualified than the immigrants, advertise themselves as licensed attorneys and take the immigrants’ money. However, when it is time for the immigrants to appear in court, the notarios never appear and the immigrants are deported.

For those children who do obtain a visa, adjusting to life in the US provides new challenges. Learning English, catching up to their peers in school, finding a job, and adjusting to life with a new family are just a handful of challenges that these children face. Additionally, many children who are trafficked are traumatized and require therapy to reach closure with their experience. Victims of trafficking can also be developmentally delayed due to the trauma and function at the level of a younger child. Many organizations, including the San Francisco based Legal Services for Children (LSC), help minors with the transition to life in America. Healthy integration is one of LSC’s greatest goals. Founded in 1975, LSC helps children get housing, enroll in school, find jobs, and offers legal representation.

Today, Pablo is about to start 12th grade and is doing well. However, he still has nightmares about returning to El Salvador, where one of his friends was recently murdered by the same gang members who had threatened him.

What is the controversy?

Pablo’s immigration to the U.S. has allowed him to attend school and to grow up in a safe environment. Had Pablo not come to the U.S., he would likely be part of a gang or even dead, due to gang violence. In spite of the positive effect that immigration to the U.S. can have, reform to the immigration system is being called for from both conservatives and liberals. Many conservative groups argue that children like Pablo who are fleeing violence make up a small percentage of immigrants attempting to illegally enter the U.S. They contend that the vast majority of immigrants leave fairly stable living situations in order to pursue the American dream in the United States. They say this is made possible by immigration laws that make it easy for anyone to get a visa to stay in the U.S. Conservatives also argue that these immigrants are a burden to the U.S. According to the Heritage Foundation, the average unlawful immigrant household costs the U.S. $14,387 in benefits annually. Another common objection to current immigration laws is that they provide incentives for immigrants, especially unaccompanied minors, to try to enter the U.S. DACA, deferred action for children, allows children who entered the U.S. before 2007 to remain and to work legally in the U.S. Opponents to immigration argue that families who hear about DACA may not fully understand it but believe that it will allow their children to stay in the U.S.

Proponents of immigration believe that programs like DACA that give opportunities to children are the solution, not the problem. Some of these pro-immigration groups point out that our nation was built by immigrants whose stories are very similar to those of immigrants today. Many of the first colonists to come over on the Mayflower were forced to flee their homelands because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs. The vast majority of immigrants seeking visas in the U.S. are also fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries. These groups also believe that it is our humanitarian duty to welcome these immigrants, especially the children. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have the world’s first, fourth, and fifth highest per capita death rates respectively due to the lack of a stable government and the presence that cartels and gangs have in everyday life.

In 2004 the U.S. gave temporary visas to those affected by the tsunami in Thailand. Groups lobbying for more lenient immigration laws argue that the crisis in Central America is just as dire, and individuals seeking to relocate to the U.S. should be able to do so quickly and easily. Furthermore, the fact that so many of these immigrants are children adds another layer of humanitarian duty to the issue. As Liou points out, “They’re just children.”

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About Maddy Nakada

Maddy is currently a senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School and Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Paper Tiger. Maddy began writing short stories in second grade and enjoyed writing both stories and essays all throughout elementary school. Maddy first became interested in journalism in sixth grade and started a middle school newspaper. While not writing, Maddy runs both cross-country and track and is part of ASIA Club.

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