NORTH PRARIE, Wis. — Between January and June of this year, 47,000 minors crossed into the United States and were detained by border patrol officers. And this 47,000 is not even the total number of children that have entered illegally this year. Some are orphans. Some have been sent ahead of parents, and some, after. Some families can only afford to pay a smuggler for the passage of their children. However, all 47,000 children were unaccompanied.
While many are, as popular perception would suggest, children from Mexico, an increasing number of border crossers are from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and other Central American nations.
These countries are some of the poorest in the world; half the population of Central America lives below the poverty line. Those with the lowest incomes have limited access to health care, education and adequate housing. Though rural communities are many, the agricultural and textile industries are left to the management of a few landowners and entrepreneurs. Finding employment, alone, is a grueling task.
The lack of bread and means to buy it are devastating. But they flee more than inadequate income, shelter and food. Violence is rampant. Colombia, Jamaica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras all make the list of the world’s top 10 countries with the highest murder rates. Without avenues for economic growth, and unable to provide for themselves and their families, young men and women turn to gang life and drug cartels. Violence engenders poverty, which engenders more violence. It is simple enough to see why people would try their luck when safety is a couple hundred miles, a few rivers or a fence away.
The journey itself is long and arduous. Without guardians, children are more likely to suffer illness. There is a heavy risk of falling prey to human traffickers, who wait for vulnerable travelers near the border and on smuggling routes. Children who make it to the border are often tired, hungry and terribly overwhelmed.
They spend the first 72 hours in the U.S. in tiny holding cells both immigrants and officers call ‘hieleras,’ or ‘freezers.’ If they sound uncomfortable, it’s because they are. Temperatures are so low that fingers and toes turn blue. There have reported cases of pneumonia. But it’s not only the temperatures. Groups in Arizona, Illinois and Florida have filed a complaint against the agency, for other reasons. For example, 250 out of 1,000 children surveyed reported abuse. Cells, they said, were packed with people, who slept on cement floors without blankets. Those in need of medical care were ignored. A girl suffering from asthma was prevented from using her medication during attacks. A boy reported sexual abuse at the hands of Border Patrol officers.
The investigation are ongoing, and a Border Control spokesperson has responded to the allegations. He does not deny the claims of the report, but emphasizes the efforts of the department to care for the children and its intolerance for the mistreatment.
Officers are required by law to turn “unaccompanied alien children” (an official term) over to the care of the Heath and Human Services Department within 72 hours. When they are transferred, they undergo immigration processing, which determines whether or not they have a bid for asylum. From there, they fall into two categories – those who are taken into custody and provided for, and those who are not. The U.S. recognizes more asylum seekers from Central America than their Mexican counterparts. In fact, a majority of Mexican border crossers are sent home immediately.
Children who are accepted into the States wait for parents to be found, come forward or are placed into long-term foster care. There they start another journey, full of both hostility and acceptance, discrimination and opportunity, as they begin the road to becoming an American citizen.
– Olivia Kostreva