You are nine years old, living with your parents and seven brothers and sisters in a one-room dirt-floored mud house in a village of fifty families in the mountains of Guatemala. Your two older brothers leave to find work in the packing plants of North Carolina, your father’s health fails and he descends into alcoholism. You are pulled out of first grade to take care of the house full-time—cooking, cutting and carrying firewood down from the mountains, hauling water up from the river, watching after your four younger siblings and seven goats. The violence between your parents turns on you, beatings with sticks, a pair of scissors flying through the air that leaves a scar in your skull. At fourteen your mother tells you to leave and get married, a man in the village grabs you by the hair and tries to make you his woman, you manage to flee to another village. There, while asleep in the house you work in, the son of the owner comes in at night, covers your mouth, and you escape from a second attempt to rape you. In desperation, you pick up a bottle of pesticide, your little sister finds you just in time. You have heard that things are easier for women in America and make plans to leave. You buy a pair of sneakers—your first shoes, your walking shoes—and make escape plans. You have never read a map, have no idea how far away the U.S. border is, or how you will get there; but you pack your things and walk across the border into Mexico. Within three days you are robbed and pistol-whipped by narcos in the mountains of Chiapas. You learn to bribe bus drivers to tell you when the next road-block is. You ride La Bestia—the boxcars heading north--because the passage is free. Seated atop a boxcar, you are the lone woman among two-hundred men. You hop another bus, filled with people fleeing Central America. The Federales stop the bus; everyone is paralyzed as they sit by the road waiting for the vans to come to send them back. You organize your fellow passengers, collect bribe money, present it to the police and assure them that you’ll be out of their country in no time; they let you all continue on. It takes three weeks, but finally you reach the U.S. border, two-thousand two-hundred miles from home, and you find a coyote who will take you across the Arizona desert. You and eight other dreamers head out, climb over barbed wire fences, walk at night, hide during the day. While in the shade of a cactus you see the parched mummified bones of an unfortunate traveler. On your third day in the desert the dreaded noise of four-wheel drives, military boots, walkie-talkies, shouts. A pistol to your head, your hands cuffed behind you. You are carted away to a detention center. As you sleep on a cement floor under a plastic tarp, you sob quietly so others won’t hear you. You are sure your dream is over.
But your story has just begun.
EACH YEAR, THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN LEAVE THEIR HOMES IN MEXICO AND CENTRAL AMERICA EACH YEAR AND TRAVEL ALONE TO THE UNITED STATES. WHO ARE THEY, WHY DO THEY COME?
This is Liliana Velásquez’s story. It is also the story of 38,759 other children who fled their homes in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico the same year she did, traveled alone—without their parents or other family members—and were arrested by U.S. Immigration officials at the U.S. border. And they have continued to come in unprecedented numbers—in 2016, 59,692 children traveling alone were apprehended in the desert along our southern border; and 206,962 have been caught in the last four years. In response, the U.S. government announced that this is a national crisis, an alien wave of invader children flooding our borders and overwhelming the capacities of enforcement and welfare agencies. The Department of Homeland Security declared a “Four level condition of readiness” to respond to the emergency.
Why do they come, these legions of children who risk robbery or rape or death along their tortuous journey through Central America and Mexico, are at the mercy of smugglers, who have heard stories of bodies baking in the Sonoran Desert, who know that many will be caught at the U.S. border and sent back home? What drives them to leave their communities and families and head north by themselves, carrying a small backpack and faith that they will find their way, that they will survive? The conventional wisdom is that these children come to the United States primarily for economic reasons. But when they tell their stories, the answer becomes much more complicated. In fact, many are fleeing violence in their communities, perpetrated by gangs and narcotics rings and vestiges of civil wars. Many flee insufferable violence in their families. Others leave because they live in a level of poverty unimaginable in the United States. This is not simply an issue of immigrants seeking economic opportunity—it is a refugee issue, of people fleeing their homeland because it is no longer safe or viable to live there. They are fleeing to survive. This is a humanitarian crisis.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THESE CHILDREN ONCE THEY ARE APPREHENDED BY U.S. CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION—BY LA MIGRA?
First, they are assigned the legal status of UAC: Unaccompanied Alien Child—a minor under eighteen, traveling alone, who enters the United States without legal papers. Then they are placed in detention, and their case is taken up by the Department of Health and Human Services while the immigration courts decide whether to deport them to their home country. They remain in detention—often for months--until a family member in the U.S. is found, or until they temporarily are placed with a foster family.
Eventually these children go before an Immigration judge, who has three options: (1) deport the child back to their home country; (2) grant the child asylum because she faces prosecution and severe danger if returned to her homeland; and (3) grant Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) because she has been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both of her parents. Unlike other civil court proceedings involving American youth or adults accused of crimes, undocumented children have no right to a lawyer—they are expected to represent themselves in immigration court. Undocumented and unaccompanied minors can only get a lawyer if they can pay for it, or have the support of immigration rights organizations or pro bono lawyers. Only one out of three of these children ultimately has legal representation--the rest must fend for themselves when they show up in court.
So, this is the scenario: a poor, often uneducated, child who speaks no English faces off in court against a trained U.S. government prosecutor who uses the arcane and complex immigration laws to demand her deportation. Having no right to an attorney has predictable outcomes: 85% of children with no legal representation end up being deported. 73% of children who have a lawyer obtain asylee or SIJS status and are allowed to remain in the United States.