The unprecedented number of Central American children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border has generated a humanitarian crisis with no simple solutions.
President Obama has tried to send a message down to Central America: “Do not send your children to the borders,” he told ABC News last week. “If they do make it, they'll get sent back.” But his words appear to be lost in translation as the wave of children continues.
The Obama administration deported roughly 1,700 minors last year, but the growing influx of kids has put an increased strain on the country’s already overburdened immigration courts, where the wait time for juvenile cases is now measured in years.
Fusion attended one such court proceeding last week in Arlington, Va., to get an idea how children are being treated by the system— and whether they’re even showing up for their hearings. Of 15 cases on the judge’s docket that day, only one person — a 19-year-old facing a deportation order— failed to show in court. Everyone else who appeared before the judge was granted an extension for their case, and nearly all were told to come back for a later court in 2015.
But who are these kids? Fusion interviewed several of them to find out where they come from, and why they risked everything to come to the United States. Here are three of their stories, with animations by Fusion’s Andy Dubbin:
Ruthsita needed an extra moment to hoist herself up from the courtroom gallery and waddle over to the defendants’ stand. The pregnant 19-year-old, who entered the U.S. illegally as a minor two years ago, was obviously days — if not hours— away from giving birth. That observation not missed by Immigration Judge John M. Bryant.
“When is your baby due?” the judge asked.
“Tomorrow,” she answered through a translator.
“Tomorrow? Wow,” he said. “Exciting. It could have been right now. I’ll try to remain calm here.”
It was Ruthsita’s first court appearance in the U.S., two years after entering the country without documents. She said she left El Salvador when gang members threatened the father of her daughter. He was a member of the infamous Mara Salvatrucha gang, and Ruthsita was afraid she would be targeted by a rival group because of her connection to him.
She fled El Salvador and left her baby, who is now two and a half years old, with family. She works as a housekeeper and sends money back home to support her.
Judge Bryant granted her a “continuance,” and told her to find a lawyer and finish her high school degree, even if it meant enrolling in a GED class.
“When I finish with my pregnancy, yes, I will do that,” she told him. She’s expected back in court this coming March.
Jenny told the judge that when she joined her father in Charleston, West Virginia, she didn’t speak English and was one of only a few Salvadoran students in her school.
Two years later, the 14-year-old can speak English fluently. She has become such a star student that her teacher asked her to assist fellow Spanish-speakers.
“I had fun helping people in middle school because they came from El Salvador, like me,” she said. “My teacher just told me, ‘You’re fine and you have to help them.’”
Jenny’s solo journey to the U.S. was a harrowing time for her and her father, Evelio, who anxiously awaited her arrival in West Virginia. Jenny was smuggled north by coyotes (notoriously corrupt immigrant traffickers); so when Evelio lost contact with his daughter for five weeks during her trip, he worried that something horrible had happened.
“She was in a shelter for like 35 days,” Evelio said after Jenny’s turn before the judge. “It was really hard on me because I couldn’t find her.” He said he called immigration officials to help locate his daughter during the weeks of her detention, but no one could find her. Eventually, government officials contacted Evelio and asked him to fly to El Paso, Texas, to pick her up, he said.
Jenny’s trip to the U.S. was risky but necessary. Evelio, who has lived in the United States for 15 years, said gang violence and extortion back in El Salvador made it too dangerous for his daughter to remain behind any longer. So he saved up money and sent for her. “She was the only one back there with my mom and my dad,” he said. “We decided for her safety, it was better for her to be here.”
Jenny says she misses El Salvador, but she’s adapting to life in West Virginia. “I would like to go back, but I would like to stay here, too,” she said.
Nancy carries a manila envelope with a small photo of an infant, smiling and adorably pudgy. That’s Justin, a 1-year-old Honduran baby who narrowly survived drowning in the currents of the Rio Grande. Now he’s part of a growing number of young children living in the country without legal status.
Nancy is also caught up in the immigration court system. She crossed the border illegally in September 2013, leaving Justin behind although he was only five months old. Once in the U.S., she was promptly apprehended. She was released from detention last December, she said, and now wears an ankle bracelet that monitors her location.
Nancy said the gang violence in Honduras drove her from home to seek a better life for her and her young family. Undeterred by the apprehension, she asked her sister to bring Justin to the U.S. to join her. The trip almost ended in disaster when the inflatable raft they used to cross the Rio Grande deflated in the middle of the river. Luckily, their paid guides knew how to swim and carried Justin, his aunt and her baby to safety on the U.S. bank of the river, she said.
Justin doesn’t have a court date yet, but Nancy visited last week to attend an information session and learn about options to procure legal immigration status for her son.
She said she’s happy to have escaped the gangs in Honduras, but is surprised by the way she’s been received in the U.S. “Here, it’s not what people think,” she said. “This is a country where people also suffer a lot. Not violence, but it’s worse for the babies that aren’t born here.”
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.