Youngsters by the thousands are entering the U.S. illegally – without their parents.
When he turned 14, Santos Herrera set out from his Guatemalan mountain village for the United States — on his own.
His relatives borrowed $8,000 for smugglers, counting on him to send home at least $400 a month to make payments.
Joined along the way by other young Guatemalans of Mayan descent, Herrera said, he rode buses through Mexico. Then, during a four-day desert trek across the U.S.-Mexico border, U.S. border agents nearly caught him, he said, and for two days he hid alone, lost and terrified.
But he made it to Colorado, where he earned $5.50 an hour picking onions and up to $7 at other jobs — until June, when a Wyoming sheriff’s deputy caught him driving with no license.
“I’m here to fight for my mother, to get money so she can have an operation for her eyes. And I need to get money for my siblings so they can eat and go to school,” Herrera said.
He’s part of a growing, ragged parade of thousands of children who enter the United States illegally without their parents.
Department of Homeland Security border agents apprehend more than 113,000 children a year, data show, and find scores who are on their own. Under a 2002 law, unaccompanied children must be sent to facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Some 8,212 unaccompanied children were held at these juvenile facilities this past year, up from 5,000 in 2003, according to federal officials and records.
Nobody knows how many more, like Herrera, enter without getting caught. Child-advocacy groups estimate as many as 50,000 a year slip through. Several lawyers in Denver are handling cases of unaccompanied children.
Most come from Central America, federal records show. All pose a dilemma for U.S. communities that increasingly want immigration laws enforced yet also want children treated humanely.
Because the federal government has limited space for juveniles at detention facilities — about 1,710 beds nationwide — a majority of children are released with notices to appear in court.
Last year, about 7,000 children — 88 percent of those initially detained — eventually were released, Health and Human Services spokesman Ken Wolfe said. Of those released, 2,299 were sent back to their birth countries, while about 4,927 were released into the United States to sponsoring relatives, foster homes or friends.
“We have challenges with bed capacity and services, but we work as hard as we can to make sure those in our care get good care…,” Wolfe said. “Once a child is released,” Health and Human Services “does not have oversight,” he said.
Homeland Security officials “get a lot of criticism for incarcerating unaccompanied children,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Pat Reilly said. “So there’s a special custody arrangement for these children, and that agency (Health and Human Services) has to answer for what happens to them.”
No data are kept on whether released children make it to court, officials said. Many immigration courts are swamped, and many teens become adults before their cases are resolved.
For Herrera, now 16, getting caught brought new twists in an odyssey rooted in poverty.
After the deputy nabbed him, he bounced from one adult jail in Laramie for 13 days to another, a federal immigration detention center, in Colorado for a month. Then, under pressure from a lawyer, federal authorities bused Herrera to a juvenile hall in Texas, where he was held for two more months, court records show.
Now, pending review of his case, he’s been released to the custody of a family friend in Fort Morgan, northeast of Denver. He’s living with relatives and planning to attend school.
“I pray to God I can stay, to help my family, so we don’t have to suffer in poverty anymore,” he said in a recent interview.
U.S. border agents say most unaccompanied children come to join relatives already in the country illegally.
Homeland Security “understands the sensitive nature of handling cases involving the smuggling of a child. The agency recognizes that the child is the victim and takes actions to safely return the child to his or her home country as quickly as possible,” Customs and Border Protection spokeswoman Maggie Myers said.
Yet just identifying children is proving difficult because smugglers use false documents, Myers said. “Children grow and change rapidly, especially very young children. Very young children cannot speak on their own behalf so interview techniques cannot uncover inconsistencies that may reveal their true identity.”
Child advocates oppose deportations.
Children entering illegally without parents “are usually fleeing something,” often don’t have relatives here and, in many cases, have endured trauma such as rape and being held for ransom, said Tricia Swartz, director of the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children in Washington, D.C.
Across-the-board deportations “would be literally sacrificing children’s lives,” she said. “Some of them are facing potential execution by gangs.”
A privately funded $600,000 project has begun to line up pro-bono lawyers, medical and mental care, and foster families for about 1,000 children a year. Children are told to attend school and forbidden from working until their cases are decided, Swartz said.
“That gets to be difficult because they want to work.”
All sides agree the best solution would be better living conditions abroad.
The global economy “is crashing on the poor, starving them out,” said Denver-based attorney Jim Salvator, who represents Herrera and several other teens who entered illegally without their parents.
Salvator is planning to seek asylum for Herrera, claiming that if the boy were sent home, he would face gang recruiters and an economic system that confines Mayans to servitude.
Today, about 15.3 percent of migrants seeking asylum protection in the United States are under 18, up from 14.8 percent in 2004, federal records show.
Federal immigration courts, run by the Department of Justice, are adapting. In Denver’s court, a box of toys sits in the lobby. A recent memo encouraged judges to use booster chairs and child-friendly questioning at hearings.
Bruce Finley: 303-954-1700 or firstname.lastname@example.org