Alison Griffith recalls feeling stunned by the small size of the 8-year-old girl from Guatemala who walked into her immigration law office in Minneapolis.
With her tiny feet dangling from a high-backed chair, the girl, who was accompanied by an aunt, calmly recounted how immigration officers at the U.S.-Mexican border had separated her from her father, who was later deported to Guatemala.
“It was the most traumatic moment in this young girl’s life, and she described it like it happened yesterday,” said Griffith, a staff attorney with the Advocates for Human Rights, a Minneapolis nonprofit that represents the girl.
The child, whose family declined to disclose her name for safety reasons, is among a small number of unaccompanied migrant children who have arrived in Minnesota since the federal government began taking a harder line against illegal border crossings. Recent arrivals also include a 7-year-old boy separated from his parents who were fleeing violence and poverty in Guatemala.
They are among the first in an expected surge of unaccompanied minors, forcibly removed from their parents, who are now making their way to distant relatives in Minnesota and surrounding states. It is unclear how many of the children will end up in Minnesota, but immigration law experts say the numbers could reach into the dozens by this fall.
Even as President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending his policy of separating parents and children who have crossed the border illegally, the fallout from the border crackdown has already spread to other states, which are seeing an influx of unaccompanied migrant children being placed by federal authorities.
“As long as there is a crisis at the border, those numbers [of unaccompanied minors arriving in Minnesota] will continue to go up,” said Linus Chan, a University of Minnesota law professor who leads the campus Detainee Rights Clinic, which represents immigrants facing removal and being detained in the Twin Cities.
‘Layers of trauma’
The cases of unaccompanied migrant children present unique challenges for legal advocates.
Sarah Brenes, director of the refugee and immigrant program at Advocates for Human Rights, said children who are fleeing their home countries have already suffered “layers of trauma,” even before being separated from their parents. At times, lawyers for Advocates for Human Rights will encourage children to draw pictures of what has happened to them and their families if it’s too difficult for them to talk about their experiences. It can also help attorneys piece together a chronological account that can be presented to an asylum officer.
Many of the children may be eligible for asylum, but they are so desperate to return to their parents and families that they will insist on returning to their home countries, even if that means returning to the violent conditions they fled, say legal advocates who have represented migrant children.
“So many of these children, they just want their parents,” said Margaret Russell, managing attorney at the Immigration Law Project at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “They really, really, really want to be reunited with their families.”
The Advocates for Human Rights currently represents two unrelated young children from Guatemala forcibly removed from their parents after crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. The children are now living with relatives in Minnesota. One of them is a 7-year-old boy who fled desperate poverty, which prevented him from having adequate access to food or being able to attend school. He is living with his aunt and attending school in northern Minnesota, while advocates seek to protect him from deportation.
The other child, the 8-year-old girl, has indicated that she wants to return to her family in Guatemala and does not want to remain in the United States, said attorneys with Advocates for Human Rights. At one point, attorneys arranged a telephone call between the girl and her father in Guatemala, who both described being separated by immigration officers at the border, said Griffith, their attorney.
The father “begged the officer to be able to stay with his child. He was crying. She was crying,” Griffith said. “It was very heartbreaking to see this kid tear up as she described it.”
She added, “We can’t treat children as little adults. They aren’t little adults.”
In order to stem the flow of migrants, the Trump administration in April announced a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings. The hard-line policy led to an immediate spike in prosecutions and, as a result, an increase in family separations. In just seven weeks, more than 2,300 children have been taken from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, resulting in an influx of young children requiring placement and government care.
But even before the zero-tolerance policy, Minnesota saw an increase in unaccompanied migrant children, propelled north by gang violence, poverty and widespread abuses in Central America.
“It’s clear that the violence and the economic hardship in Central America are a driving factor in what’s happening,” said Chan of the U. “It was true in 2014 and it’s true in 2018.”
‘No other choice’
Maria Celeste Delcid was 15 when she said she had little choice but to leave her family and flee violence in Guatemala. She had been forced to marry a man who threatened to kill her family and later beat her. The Guatemalan authorities gave her no help.
“I got pregnant and he didn’t want the baby, and he beat me,” Delcid, who lives in the Twin Cities, said through an interpreter.
Her father found relatives in another town to hide her until she could find a way to the United States, where an aunt lived in Minnesota. They bore the grief of separating.
“There was no other choice,” said Delcid, who in 2011 joined others fleeing the gang members who recruited young boys, raped girls and women and extorted money from families amid death threats.
The journey was dangerous and arduous. Days in the desert were hot, the nights cold. She and the others were hungry and exhausted, sleeping little along the way. Delcid remembers the rugged terrain, the cactus needles they bumped into at night and the fear of being raped by the smugglers who guided them.
Crossing illegally into the United States, Delcid, now 21, said she requested asylum and was held by immigration authorities for four months before she joined relatives in Minnesota. She eventually would like to legally bring her father, three sisters and brother to the United States, sparing them the unforgiving journey she and many others endured.
Watching news reports of immigrant children being taken from their families and knowing the process for asylum is being made more difficult, Delcid feels sadness.
Those who blame the parents for crossing illegally need to understand that these families want a better life for their children, she said.
“They have no choice,” said Delcid. “Even if you build a wall, they will find a way to get in.”