Youngsters risk all to cross border

By Tom Dart

Central American migrants climb on a train heading towards the United States border with Mexico. Photo / AP
Central American migrants climb on a train heading towards the United States border with Mexico. Photo / AP

When the gang came for him, Ceferino decided he had three choices: join them, refuse to join and risk being killed, or flee the country.

The teenager left his family in Guatemala and headed for the United States, becoming part of a wave of unaccompanied children from Central America that has overwhelmed authorities at the Texas border and sparked a humanitarian crisis and a political row.

In the past nine months, the US border patrol has apprehended more than 57,000 children like Ceferino. This is more than double last year's number because of a dramatic rise in children arriving from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where murder rates are among the highest in the world and violent gangs are common.

Most migrants traverse the frontier in the Rio Grande valley, a flat, arid and broiling section of southern Texas where the slim, serpentine river makes for a relatively porous boundary between the US and Mexico.

Ceferino's story is not unusual. In April last year, he said, he paid a smuggler US$2000 ($2270) and was taken with a couple of other children in a dozen-strong group to the Texas border via bus, truck and train.

He crossed the river and was picked up by border agents.

Had he been Mexican, Ceferino might well have been swiftly sent back across the Rio Grande. However, under an anti-human trafficking law passed in 2008 unaccompanied minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada must be handed over to officials from the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours. They are then housed in shelters and, where possible, released to family members or sponsors in the US pending the resolution of their cases.

Ceferino spent four months in a shelter in Texas before he was allowed to join his aunt in Los Angeles. Now 18, he has a work permit, a job in construction and is planning to improve his English. At a court hearing in September he will discover whether he will be allowed to remain in America permanently.

"Being here in LA feels safer: it feels like I could walk to the store and not worry, but I miss my family," he said through a translator. Asked why so many young people like him are making such dangerous journeys, he said: "I don't know for sure but my idea is that they've seen the US could take care of them better. They have the possibility of a better life."

Last March, a UN Refugee Agency report, Children On The Run, cited interviews with more than 400 children in US custody and concluded that the majority believed they were at risk in their home countries.

Despite an increase in warning signs, government agencies were unprepared for the surge of migrants. Reports emerged of cramped, unsanitary conditions and harrowing images of young children crammed into rooms that resembled refugee camps. Temporary shelters have opened on military bases in Texas, Oklahoma and California.

With immigration among the most divisive political issues in the US and attempts at reform stalled, the Obama Administration is under pressure to stem the flow.

Conservatives have portrayed the federal Government as incompetent, wilfully lax, or both. But officials face vast logistical and welfare challenges, plus the problem of trying to adopt a tough, discouraging stance without seeming callous towards vulnerable young people.

President Barack Obama was in Texas last week for a series of Democratic fundraisers, and met Texas Governor Rick Perry, whose vocal demands for tighter border security have handily returned him to the national spotlight as he mulls a second run for the White House in 2016.

"Everybody's upset at Washington," said Norberto Salinas, Mayor of Mission, a Texas border town whose riverside is a hot spot for unauthorised crossings. "People are finding out that they don't deport them. You fix the fence and they just tear the fence. They're in groups of 20 and 30."

Stories emerged last month that migrants were being drawn to the US by unfounded rumours that permits to stay were available. Border patrol agents have told reporters that migrants were happily giving themselves up and taking their chances. Obama warned parents in an interview with ABC News: "Do not send your children to the borders. If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it."

But the US's 250 immigration judges are operating with a backlog of 350,000 cases. Scrambling to reallocate resources, the Government has asked Congress for US$3.7 billion to tackle the situation.

Perry asked Obama for 1000 national guard troops to beef up security, and suggested deploying Predator drones to track traffickers. Meanwhile volunteer groups are threatening to take border patrols into their own hands. A group called the Minuteman Project announced plans on its website for "Operation Normandy": a call for 3500 citizen volunteers. On July 1, protesters in Murrieta, California, forced buses from Texas carrying undocumented immigrants to go to other processing centres.

In the Rio Grande valley, there is concern rather than tension. The area is home to about 1.3 million people, mostly Latinos.

Charities are marshalling relief efforts for families, who are usually quickly released and told to get on a bus and join relatives elsewhere in the US while they wait for a court date. At the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Brownsville, a border town further east, volunteers and church staff provide food, clothes and other essentials for families in the hours after their release. The city's bus station is only 250m from the border fence. An exhausted-looking 34-year-old woman sat in the waiting area with three children, aged 4, 8 and 11, as they prepared to board a coach to Maryland.

The woman said she was a teacher in eastern El Salvador. The 3218km journey had taken the family 10 days and cost US$17,000. They crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and were quickly intercepted. Pending a court hearing, they had been released and were bound for the east coast to meet a sister, 2890km away.

The mother said she'd come to give her children the chance of a brighter future - "so they can be professionals, do whatever they want to do" - and for her own safety, because people had demanded money from her and threatened her life. "I just want to stay here so they don't kill me," she said.

5 things to know about US immigration courts5 things to know about US immigration courts

1 Overflowing caseload
The number of immigrants with cases before the immigration courts has jumped 7 per cent since October to more than 375,000, the agency's highest caseload to date. The number of cases before the immigration courts rose by 23,000 during the previous financial year.

2 Waiting times
The average time a pending case has been before the immigration courts is now 587 days, which is about 19 months, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. Immigration lawyers say getting a hearing can take much longer than that. For example, in Los Angeles, the average time a case has been before the immigration court is more than two years, data show.

3 Court locations
The country has 59 immigration courts overseen by the US Department of Justice. Some are inside detention centres, while others deal with immigrants who are not detained. The states with the biggest immigration caseloads are California, New York and Texas.

4 Deportation versus relief
Immigration judges decided more than 140,000 initial cases during the 2013 financial year, which doesn't include cases reopened or returned on appeal. More than two-thirds of the immigrants were ordered deported, while about 17 per cent qualified for relief. Four years earlier, about 82 per cent of the initial cases decided by the courts ended in deportation, according to agency statistics.

5 Nationalities
The top five countries of origin of immigrants with initial cases decided by the court during the 2013 financial year were Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and China, according to the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review.

- Observer, AP

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