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Minors, alone and scared, rush to cross U.S. border

  • Article by: Frances Robles
  • New York Times
  • June 3, 2014 - 9:59 PM

– After a decade apart, 13-year-old Robin Tulio was heading to the border to be with his mother. A maid living illegally in Baltimore, she had decided the time was right to smuggle her son into the United States.

Like so many others across Central America, Robin said his mother believed that the Obama administration had quietly changed its policy regarding unaccompanied minors and that if he made it across, he would have a better shot at staying.

She hired a smuggler, but Robin didn’t make it.

“It’s too hard,” he said after being caught in Mexico recently and sent home to Honduras.

But his aborted journey helps explain why there has been a rush of migration of unaccompanied minors so severe that the United Nations declared it a humanitarian crisis akin to refugees fleeing war.

Since Oct. 1, a record 47,017 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the southwest U.S. border, most coming from Central America, part of a larger wave that includes some youngsters accompanied by their parents and some traveling alone. Many say they are coming because they believe that the United States treats migrant children traveling alone and women with their children more leniently than adult illegal immigrants with no children.

The Obama administration says the primary cause of the influx of children is rising crime and ailing economies in Central America, not U.S. policy changes.

To deal with the surge, the Obama administration Monday enlisted a California naval base to house recently apprehended minors and it ordered the federal emergency administrator to develop a plan of action.

“We have heard sort of rumors and reports, or suggestions, that the increase may be in response to the perception that children would be allowed to stay or that immigration reform would in some way benefit these children,” Cecilia Munoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “It seems to be quite clear that what is driving this is what’s happening in their home countries.”

Subtle shift in policy

Even as the U.S. government moves to confront the situation, children, parents, officials, lawyers and activists say that there has been a subtle shift in the way the United States treats minors.

That perception has inspired parents who had not seen their children for years to hire so-called coyotes, guides often associated with organized crime, to bring their children north. It has prompted other parents to make the trip with toddlers in tow, something rarely seen before in the region.

“If you make it, they take you to a shelter and take care of you and let you have permission to stay,” Robin said after he stepped off a bus Thursday night with eight others caught on their way north. “When you appeal your case, if you say you want to study, they support you.”

In San Pedro Sula, in northern Honduras, a group of women and their children were huddled in a bus terminal earlier this week ready to begin a weekslong journey to Mexico, and beyond.

“The passage is easier with the kids, and this way we’re not dumping them with relatives,” said Arelys Sánchez, who was traveling with two young daughters. “I think with them, it’s easier for them to let you stay.”

The federal government maintains that the perception is wrong. Officials said that recently arrived children would not benefit from the immigration bill passed by the Senate last year, or by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that lets minors who meet certain criteria avoid deportation.

Fewer children expelled

But while the Obama administration has moved aggressively to deport adults, it has in fact expelled far fewer children than in the past. Due largely to a 2008 federal law aimed at protecting trafficked children, the Obama administration in 2012 deported one-fifth the number of Central American children as in 2008.

Ana Solorzano, an immigration official who tends to deportees in El Salvador, said that as the number of deportees flown by air to El Salvador from the United States started to drop, the number of people returned by land from Mexico started to rise. Of the 325 Salvadoran children who were deported last year, only 22 came from the United States, she said.

“They have not publicly recognized a change in public policy, but we see it,” said Solorzano said.

Central Americans, she said, were left with the sense that the United States had “opened its doors” to women and children.

As more of those children were released from federal shelters, and the numbers placed with parents or foster care soared, other parents noticed. They were encouraged by the opportunities children were being given to fight their cases in court — even if they are ultimately unlikely to succeed.

“It’s a massive Catch-22,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that matches unaccompanied minors with lawyers. “The problem here is that the system is broken. It’s going to implode.”

© 2014 Star Tribune