Seeking Safe Haven: Central American children hope to find refuge across U.S.-Mexico Border

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US-Mexico border at Nogales. Photo by Jordan Glenn.

About an hour south of Tucson, on the other side of a fence that demarcates the United States from Mexico, a humanitarian crisis unfolds as tens of thousands of child migrants from Central America cross the border.

Over the past five years, more than 140,000 children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have made the more than 2,000 mile, two-week minimum journey on foot without a guaranteed source of food, water or shelter all in hope of finding a safe haven in the U.S. Along the way, these children are vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse in addition to innumerable hazards on the road.

Every day, more children arrive from these countries, and surpassed the number of migrant children from Mexico for the first time in 2013.

By 2014, the number of unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border, predominately comprised of Central American children, reached an all-time high. While the numbers decreased in the past year, 2016 is already on track to see high numbers of migration and perhaps set a new record.

This year, 18,558 children have already crossed the border, according to statistics from Customs and Border Protection for fiscal year 2016, which ranges from October 1, 2015 to February 29, 2016.

Reaching the border isn’t the end of the story for these young migrants. Once they set foot in the U.S., a new journey begins as they navigate their way through the federal bureaucracy and immigration court system, all against the backdrop of the emotional trauma of their journey.

With the resurgence of high numbers of unaccompanied minors once again seeking refuge in the U.S., it begs the question – what is causes so many children to leave their homes and make such an arduous, dangerous journey without the help of an adult?

Moreover, what happens to all of these children once they step foot on American soil?

‘A genuine, legitimate hardship’
The Northern Triangle of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras –  has been characterized by gang violence, drug trafficking, government corruption, poverty and a poor quality of life for decades, all of which can trigger the mass migration of minors.

Click to enlarge.

“I see the underlying driver of conflict and migration in so many cases around the world as being unequal access to insufficient resources,” said Mneesha Gellman, assistant professor of political science at Emerson University and an expert on conflict in Latin America. “So if we address the access question, and if we address the insufficient resources question, then we can start to address why someone would make such a huge sacrifice to undertake such a dangerous journey.”

All three Central American countries are stricken by gross economic disparities, such as high poverty rates exacerbated by extremely low average incomes per capita, as compared to the U.S.

This inequality could be the basis for the classic case of an economic migration as people seek better opportunities in another country.

“Most people are not saying goodbye to their families and communities just on a whim, just for the heck of it… Whether or not a child is leaving their parents behind to come on the trip, or trying to join a parent, something is going on there,” Gellman said. “There really is a genuine, legitimate hardship that would drive someone to do that.”

That hardship has been brought on by economic disparity and political unrest in large part caused by foreign intervention in domestic conflicts that has destabilize the region.

“We see a remarkably similar pattern of U.S. political and economic support for right-wing actors in these three countries and that support has facilitated ongoing economic and political strife,” Gellman said. This instability, she said, has led to intense, sustained violence in all three countries.

As the states broke down over the past few decades, an alternative form of organization began to rise.

“Gangs,” Gellman said, “are a form of social organization that people use when they can’t rely on more traditional forms of social organization like the family, like the state, like community institutions, so the rise of gangs really represents a breakdown of other social organization.”

Children are often recruited to join these gangs, and presented with the decision to join or face bodily harm. Some children decide to take a third option, to leave and migrate to the U.S.

Drug trafficking is another source of violence in the region, but it’s not the predominate factor in the surge in child migrants.

“The cartels are a problem, but they are a symptom. They are not the reason,” Gellman said. “The profit margin for transporting drugs are much greater than the profit margin for transporting tomatoes or some other agricultural product.”

Aside from the various political and economic motivations to leave the region, children might have a more personal reason, such as reconnecting with a parent who is already residing in the U.S.

If a parent is residing in the U.S. without proper authorization, they cannot legally foster a family member to come live with them. Faye Hipsman, a policy analyst from the Migration Policy Institute, points out that as a result, many children resort to crossing the border to reunite with their parents.

The network of resources available to unaccompanied minors once they arrive in the U.S. might also incentivize families to send their child on such a dangerous journey.

“When children are apprehended here and reunified with their parents and are allowed to stay with their parents in the United States for a long period of time, it creates the incentive for others to come,” Hipsman said. “When families hear that their neighbor sent their kid to the U.S. and they’re still there a year later, living with their parents, it encourages more migration.”

Photo by Jordan Glenn

A New Journey Begins

In some cases, when a child makes it across the border, their first step is to find a Border Patrol agent. While that might seem counter-intuitive, it is often the best move a child can make, according to Hipsman of the Migration Policy Institute.
“It offers them a safe way to be reunified with their parents wherever they are in the country,” Hipsman said, rather than having the child continue on by foot.

Once a child is taken into Border Patrol custody, the process to unite the child with a sponsor in the U.S., such as a parent or family member, begins with the assistance of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

A child spends their first 72 hours in the custody of Customs and Border Protection at a station near where they were apprehended. During this time, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is notified of a child’s arrival and then arranges to transfer them to a short-term shelter.

As soon as a child is taken into a shelter’s care, which receives children 24 hours a day, seven days a week, they are assigned a case manager who begins the process of identifying a sponsor. The potential sponsor must go through a series of background checks, including fingerprinting and screening for a criminal record to determine their eligibility to take care of the child.

Temporary Safe Haven

In the mean-time, the child is safe and cared for at a short-term shelter specifically for unaccompanied minors from foreign countries.

One such facility is at an undisclosed location in the heart of Tucson. The shelter is managed by the Southwest Key, a private, non-profit organization that operates youth shelters across the southern border.

These shelters are funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and are highly regulated by federal, state and local government. Employees have to undergo rigorous background and identity checks in addition to participating in more than 80 hours of training before they can begin work at the shelter and interact with children.

Once a child arrives, the perils of their journey weigh heavy on their shoulders and are often at the forefront of their mind.

Alex Fernandez, Program Director of the Southwest Key’s unaccompanied minors’ shelter in Tucson, Ariz.
Alex Fernandez, Program Director of the Southwest Key’s unaccompanied minors’ shelter in Tucson, Ariz.

“A lot of them have been through a lot of trauma, either in their country of origin or through their journey,” said Alex Fernandez, the director of the Tucson shelter. “So that’s one of our primary focuses, to make sure that while they’re in our care they’re able to discuss anything that might be bothering them.”

The shelter receives children of all ages, and Fernandez estimates most of the children currently housed there are between the ages of 12 and 15. Occasionally the shelter will receive teenage mothers who have small children of their own.

Up to 283 children can be housed under the shelter’s roof for an average stay of 21 to 22 days, Fernandez said. Two children will share a single bedroom with two beds, complete with a shower, or a teenage mother will be housed in a single room with her child in a crib.

“The majority of our kids are just your average, normal child that’s trying to get a better life so they’re not really gang involved,” Fernandez said. ‘“Our shelter is not really for the high-intense kids, like at-risk youth or who have other behavioral health issues.”

The shelter seeks to provide the children with a vast array of resources in addition to health care and reunification services, such as education and socializing with other minors.

“When they first come, it’s very difficult because there’s not a whole lot of eye contact, and they’re kind of afraid because most of their interactions they’ve had has been with Border Patrol and they don’t really know who we are,” Fernandez said. “But usually by day two or three, you’ll start seeing them warm up and smile… It’s nice to see them come into their own little personality that has always been there, but because of the trauma of everything they have gone through, we don’t see that right away.”

A typical day at the shelter begins at dawn, with showers and breakfast, followed by six hours of schooling that follows the standard Arizona state curriculum, so a child at the shelter is getting the same education as a child at any elementary school in the state.

Classes such as science, history, and U.S. culture are all taught in English with the intent of teaching children the language to help them begin the assimilation process Fernandez said. This can be difficult because few speak fluent English, but translators are on hand to help the children understand what is being taught.

Once school is out for the day, the children have recreational time. They play football or attend a sewing class, which are favorite pastimes for the children.

The staff at the Southwest Key shelter also seek to provide guidance on social norms and customs in America to the children in their care to help them adjust to life in a new country.

“We help them make sure that they have a voice,” Fernandez said, “that no one should touch you that you don’t want touching you, kind of that whole stranger danger thing.”

One particular topic the shelter makes sure to address is a cultural difference in what constitutes as an appropriate relationship.

“A lot of times, these kids, girls, they have relationships there that are normal or common with adults [in their country of origin],” Fernandez said. “So like a 40-year-old with a 16-year-old, and it’s hard for staff to wrap their brains around it, but to them, it’s normal, their parents are okay with that, so we let them know that here, in the United States, that’s not allowed and we tell them what it’s called.”

By the end of a child’s stay at the shelter, Fernandez said she notices a remarkable change in them from when they arrived.

“It’s really beautiful, just to see them kind of grow and talk about their dreams and what they want to do,” Fernandez said. “They basically tell us that there’s so much gang violence where they’re coming from that their parents would rather take their chances with them coming here rather than staying there because they know there’s no actual hope for them to actually become anything, mostly because of the drugs, the gang violence and because they’re starving.”

Often, children are sad to leave the shelter at the end of their stay and say they wish they could stay longer, Fernandez said.

A Day in Court

That sense of security and safety a child might find at the shelter is only temporary. They must appear in immigration court to determine if they are eligible for a visa, residency permit or can be granted asylum.

Immigration court can be a stressful experience for a child from a foreign country who might not speak the language of those passing legal judgment upon them.

“Immigration is a very complicated system,” said Golden McCarthy, Program Director for the Children’s Program at the Florence Project. “It’s not easy for a regular adult to understand exactly what’s happening.”

Navigating the court system can be further complicated for an unaccompanied minor because they are not entitled to a public defender if they cannot hire an attorney. And sometimes, the daunting idea of appearing in court alone can dissuade a child from showing up.

“If a child doesn’t have a legal service provider walking them into court, they may not go for a myriad of reasons, either they’re afraid or their family gets afraid, maybe it’s hard to figure out transportation, or asking a thirteen-year-old to remember to go to court six weeks from now might be a lot to ask,” McCarthy said.

As a result, they are issued removal orders in absentia.

However, the children at the Tucson shelter, and all unaccompanied minors at shelters across the state, are provided legal counsel from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Program, a pro-bono firm that provides legal counsel and assistance to immigrants detained in Arizona.

The project helps connect a child with a sponsor alongside the shelter’s efforts and assist the child throughout the course of their immigration proceedings, McCarthy said.

Even if a child has representation in court, being granted permission to stay in the country is still hard to come by.

“A lot of the children don’t have claims to a visa and so many of them are issued removal orders,” said Hipsman of the Migration Policy Institute.

Few are actually deported, though. Hipsman estimates about one-fourth of the children are forcibly removed from the country after they have been told to leave.

Fading into the Distance

Once a suitable sponsor is found for the child, a relative if possible, the shelter staff begins to prepare them for travel to their new home, many of which are out of state.

Travel is not a problem, despite a child’s unauthorized status in the country, Fernandez said. Shelter staff will escort them and provide identification paperwork.

“I think airport security is starting to understand what’s going on,” she said. “We’ve never had any issues of them not allowing them to get on the plane.”

Once a child leaves the care of the Southwest Key, that is the last contact the shelter has with them, Fernandez said.

“I don’t know what happens with them after, and I think that’s the part that I struggle with because I don’t know where they go,” she said.

Shelter policy dictates and the staff is not allowed to have any contact with a child after they leave their care, even if the child reaches out.

“Some of them will get your name and want to reach out to you on your Facebook page,” Fernandez said. “As soon as that happens we have to report it to our supervisor and we actually have to not engage in any kind of conversation or exchange with them either through Facebook or any other social media outlet.”

And so that’s it. The child leaves the care of the shelter, and they go off to live their lives, for better or worse.

Maybe they show up in immigration court and gain a residency visa or are granted asylum status. Or they chose to fly under the radar out of fear of being forced to return to the horrors they fled in their home country.

Perhaps they escape whatever caused them to flee their country of origin only to find more hardship and economic strife in America.

Or, maybe, they will be able to attend school and work towards achieving their dreams.

Julianne Stanford is a reporter forArizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at jestanford@email.arizona.edu.

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