Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal
CIUDAD JUÃREZ, Mexico – For many of the thousands of young people crossing the border into the United States, their journey north is linked inextricably to their parents’ migration a decade or so ago.
The United States is being flooded with young migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries of Central America.
But a decade ago, Central American migration jumped in a similar way as is happening today. The number of Central American-born immigrants living in the U.S. rose 51 percent in the decade through 2010, surging to 3.1 million from 2 million, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
An unknown number of those migrants left young children behind, who are now coming of age and say they want to reunite with the parents they can hardly remember.
“It’s our understanding that most of the kids are coming via paid smuggler, and the families here are the ones sponsoring them,” said Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the Migration Policy Institute’s U.S. immigration policy program. “It’s a family reunification migration flow in disguise.”
Their decision to make the treacherous journey north is being reinforced by the perception that the U.S. is no longer deporting unaccompanied Central American children apprehended at the border but instead reuniting them with relatives here – which is only partly true.
It’s a perception President Obama is trying to dispel, dispatching Vice President Joe Biden to Guatemala on Friday to warn of the perils of the trip and to stress that children are not automatically allowed to remain in the U.S.
The young migrants are being apprehended, and although they are often being reunited with family members in the U.S., they leave with orders to appear at immigration court – where deportation is a likely outcome.
Thirteen-year-old Jairo is among the tens of thousands of young Central Americans trying to reach their families in the U.S.
This week, he was within striking distance of the U.S. border when he faced the final dilemma of illegally crossing alone with smugglers or head home to El Salvador. His goal was clear and his resolve steely, despite his age and his uncertainty about how he would make the leap from this Mexican border city over to Texas, Arizona or New Mexico.
“I want to be with my father” who lives in Maryland, he said.
Blanca Rivera at the Casa del Migrante shelter in Ciudad Juárez – where Jairo and men from Mexico and Central America rested last week before making their first, second or sixth attempts at crossing illegally into the United States – warned him of the dangers he would face and urged him to return home instead.
“He is a child still,” said Rivera, who administers the Catholic-run shelter. “But he has made up his mind. He wants to be with his father.”
Border agents have apprehended more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors in the first nine months of fiscal 2014, double the number apprehended in all of fiscal 2013, many from the “northern triangle” countries of Central America: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The largest number of unaccompanied minors – more than 37,000 so far this fiscal year – are being picked up in the lower Rio Grande valley of Texas. The El Paso sector, which includes New Mexico, sees a much smaller number, but that number has jumped. Border agents here apprehended 742 unaccompanied minors during the first nine months of the fiscal year, up by a third compared with the prior year.
There are “push” factors that drive young people from their homelands, and in Central America those are fueled by an upsurge in brutal gang violence and the economic crises that help perpetuate organized crime.
Then there are the “pull” factors, including the desire to reunite with long-absent parents, the promise of economic opportunity and the impression – reinforced by the U.S. government’s handling of the influx of young Central American migrants – that minors traveling alone will be delivered to their families.
And for now, that impression is true to an extent: U.S. immigration authorities have been releasing unaccompanied minors from Central America to parents and relatives around the country, with orders to appear before an immigration court sometime in the future. The wait to get before an immigration judge can be as much as two years, according to Rosenblum.
Analysts say it’s unclear how many of those young people will show up for those hearings, or how many will simply stay in the U.S. and try to evade authorities.
“One way to understand the problem is, you have all these Central American adults here who can’t bring their families legally,” Rosenblum said. “Then there is the fact that so many kids are being placed with their families and face a hearing in the future, which is reinforced by smugglers who can say that if you get to the border, you get a free pass.”
The policy dates to the 2002 Homeland Security Act, which transferred the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant youth to the Department of Health and Human Services from what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The idea was to move to a model of care focused on child welfare, not the adult detention model.
In the two states most affected by the current rising flows of young migrants and families, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer are lashing out at the federal government’s handling of the influx, particularly of families who are being transferred to different points along the border. On Friday, the Obama administration announced it will open new detention centers to house those immigrant families caught at the border.
Still, most of the young migrants are reunited with parents or relatives – Jairo’s dream.
At the Casa del Migrante in Ciudad Juárez, Rivera recounted how she tried to convince Jairo not to cross into the U.S.
“I told him, you’ve got this idea that you are going to reach your father. But what if you don’t arrive, like so many others do not?” she said. “He said it was all the same to him, because if he returned to El Salvador, he would be killed. He said he would rather die trying. The maras (gang) wanted him to work for them, and he said he doesn’t want to be a gang member. He said, ‘I’d rather be with my dad.’ ”
Rival gangs in El Salvador fight for control of neighborhoods, or entire towns, and often recruit young members by force to deal in drugs, extortion, kidnapping and other organized crime. A tenuous truce between the powerful Barrio 18 and MS-13 gangs fell apart earlier this year, and homicides in El Salvador have risen sharply.
In the cafeteria at Casa del Migrante, more than a dozen men and Jairo crowded around a long table for a hot lunch. They stood and prayed for “the brothers still on the path” and for the migrants’ families. Jairo bowed his head.
That same afternoon, men sent by Jairo’s father – likely smugglers or men working for smugglers, Rivera said – picked him up for the next, and perhaps riskiest, leg of his journey.
For those migrant youths who don’t make it across and are stopped in Mexico before they reach the U.S., the disappointment can be deep.
A button-nosed 16-year-old from Honduras, Angel was traveling with four friends to a smuggling point when Mexican immigration agents stopped him at a checkpoint in Chihuahua state near the border. They sent him to a Ciudad Juárez shelter run by Mexico’s family services agency, known as the DIF.
His parents left Honduras 10 years ago and started a new life in Miami, he said, while he grew up with his grandmother.
“They asked me if I wanted to come, and I said yes,” he said.
Wearing a gray T-shirt and blue track pants issued by the shelter, Angel is one of the 500 or so unaccompanied minors who will spend a few days or a few weeks in this shelter this year before the Mexican government returns them to their communities or deports them to their home countries. About a fifth of them are from Central America.
“They are grieving,” said Gabriela Gutierrez, a staff psychologist at the shelter. “It’s a loss of something they wanted to accomplish, whether reuniting with their family or achieving a better quality of life. They were so close, and they had come so far, over so many days, living in fear. We try to tell them that maybe they didn’t make it, but they had courage. That maybe one day in their lives they will get a chance to reunite with the family again.”