Border Children Tell Their Stories: Why We Came to the US


Cesar was four years old when a group of men in his tiny hometown killed his father. He was a teenager when he says the same group of men began to threaten his older brother.

At age 17, tired of hiding in his house, Cesar left the poverty, violence and drug gangs of Guatemala behind and set out for the U.S.

“I wanted to escape all of that,” he said. “You arrive at a point where you can take no more.”

He joined a wave of Central American children crossing the U.S. border that is now overwhelming the federal government. Just four years ago, about 6,000 unaccompanied kids crossed the border annually. The numbers jumped in 2011 and have doubled every year since. More than 47,000 “unaccompanied minors” -- kids traveling alone or with other youths -- have been apprehended along the Southwestern border since October, and the number is projected to rise to 10,000 a month by fall. Many are now crowded into holding areas along the border, since U.S. law doesn’t allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be deported immediately.

Earlier this month, the White House called the influx a humanitarian crisis fueled by increasing violence and instability in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Widespread poverty, and increasingly unstable states are also fueling migration from the region, some say.

“This crisis to us is like the refugee crisis from Europe after WWII,” said Nancy Langer, interim vice president for mission advancement at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an advocacy group that works with migrants. “They cannot go back to their homeland for fear of death, persecution.”

Others say rumors and lax enforcement are driving the growing numbers. An internal report from Customs and Border Protection, recently made public by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited interviews with 230 immigrants detained at the border in May. According to the memo, detainees said they migrated because of a “new” U.S. “law” giving a “free pass” to unaccompanied children and mothers with children.

"To reject out of hand the notion that perception of lax enforcement is not a motivator is naive at best and destructive at worst," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R.-Arizona.

But in a 2011 report prepared by researchers at the U.N.’s refugee agency, the unaccompanied minors gave their own menu of reasons for leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The study noted only one instance in 404 interviews in which a child specifically mentioned the possibility of benefitting from U.S. immigration reform.

Many kids cited the dissolution of family networks, or a desire to reunite with family in the U.S., but violence was a recurrent theme. Many young girls reported being victims of sexual violence, including rape and assault by gang members. Both boys and girls talked of forced recruitment by street gangs and transnational drug cartels, and some had witnessed murders of family members, friends and classmates. The violence has spread from urban centers like Guatemala City to rural villages. Cesar said he “barely left the house” despite living far out in the countryside.

“I’ve had parents, and even some of the children tell me, ‘There is no childhood here,’” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who is currently researching the causes of child migration in Central America. “There’s not any calculated attempt to game the system. There’s just one last attempt to survive, and try to have some quality of life.”

In order to survive, however, the kids head north, and their escape is fraught with its own dangers.


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