Two months ago, Lucy Cabrera’s adolescent son and daughter called her from Honduras in tears. They said gangs had threatened to kidnap them, and they begged her to help them flee to the United States. She borrowed $6,000 and wired the money to a series of guides in Guatemala and Mexico. On Saturday, her kids called again — from a U.S. detention facility in Arizona. This time, there were no tears.
“Thank God they are safe now. It all happened so fast,” said Cabrera, who sells homemade tortillas in the District. Although she is in the country illegally, she said she has been contacted by federal authorities so that both children can eventually be released to her custody. “It’s truly a miracle,” she marveled.
U.S. officials are scrambling to understand and manage the exodus of unaccompanied minors from Central America who have turned up at the southern U.S. border over the past few months. The surge has overwhelmed detention facilities, forcing the Obama administration to take emergency measures to provide shelter, hire attorneys and locate sponsors to receive the children.
The number of such minors entering the United States has crept upward since 2011, but last fall it began to skyrocket. Since October, 47,000 have arrived; officials expect another 60,000 by the end of this year.
The new surge is partly seasonal, with early summer being the easiest time to travel across the region. But it is mainly driven by two other factors. One is an epidemic of gang violence across El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala that has put many children at risk, especially when parents are not there to protect them. The second is a perception, fueled by certain U.S. policies and by critics of the Obama administration, that the government is treating young illegal immigrants with unprecedented leniency.
As a result, thousands of parents like Cabrera sense both an urgent need and a unique opportunity to be reunited with children they left behind years ago to flee conflict or seek a better life. With no legal means to import their children from abroad, many of these undocumented families are putting their hopes in an unexpected source of salvation: the U.S. immigration system.
Driven by a mix of rumor, fact and political hyperbole, word has spread through Latino communities in the Washington area and elsewhere that if their children reach the U.S. border alone, they will be allowed to go free.
The families’ hopes are partly justified because officials have sped up processing the new arrivals to relieve crowded shelters and release as many as possible to relatives or guardians. Unlike children from Mexico, who can be sent back across the border right away, the law allows minors arriving from more distant countries to be sheltered and then handed over to a sponsor while awaiting court hearings.
The Washington region, with more than 400,000 residents of Central American origin, is one of several metropolitan areas in the United States where the newly arrived minors are most likely to be sent. Social and legal aid agencies said they have helped hundreds of families petition to receive minors from border detention over the past year.
But the speculation that these minors simply will be set free is unfounded. All of them are subject to deportation, and none are eligible for the administration’s Dream Act program, which allows some illegal youths to remain if they have lived in the United States for at least five years and can meet other requirements. The newcomers, by contrast, are ordered to appear in immigration court and have no guarantee of being allowed to stay.
“The fact that they arrive in the U.S. and are released doesn’t give them any legal status at all,” said Wendy Young, a lawyer in the District with Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit group that provides free legal help for such minors. Some are eligible for special visas or legal protection, such as victims of abuse or trafficking, but Young said at least 60 percent do not qualify and eventually are ordered to be deported.
“This is not a slam dunk,” she said.
Senior administration officials sought to reinforce that message in a teleconference with journalists this week. They said their humanitarian concern for children fleeing “extraordinary violence” in Central America does not change the legal requirement to place them in “removal proceedings,” like adults who enter the country illegally.
The temptation, of course, is that families whose children face deportation may simply hide them away, shuttling them among friends and relatives in different states. On the other hand, parents or guardians must supply immigration officials with detailed information about themselves in order to receive a child from government custody, making such evasion more difficult.
Before they even reach the United States, children face extreme hazards while traveling across Mexico and trying to cross the border. Smugglers often rob, abuse and abandon them; girls are sometimes raped. But more divided families are calculating that the risk is worth it. Once the children reach the border, some parents are instructing them to surrender to once-feared U.S. Border Patrol agents as soon as they can.
Susana, a factory worker in Fredericksburg, Va., said she heard last month that minors would be “saved” and let go if they reached the United States. She said she paid $2,800 for guides to bring her 15-year-old daughter from Honduras across Guatemala and Mexico — where they were expected to “throw her in the river.” The girl was quickly picked up by U.S. agents and is now in a federally run secure shelter in Texas.
“She was only 5 when I left her, and she has suffered a lot. Everyone was saying, this is the time to send for your kids, the government is letting them go, so I decided to do it,” said Susana, an illegal immigrant who asked that her full name not be used.
Susana said her daughter calls her often from the shelter, where she shares a room with six other girls and takes English classes. Meanwhile, social workers have sent Susana lists of questions and documents to fill out while she readies a bedroom for the daughter she has not seen in a decade. “They want to know about my income and my house and what school she will go to,” Susana said. “They say I should be patient and not to worry, soon I will be her guardian.”
Some parents who are here illegally and are reluctant to allow their children to travel alone have tried to go home and accompany them back — with disastrous results. Last winter, a house cleaner in Hyattsville, Md., saved up as much money as she could and returned to El Salvador for her two teenage daughters, who were being abused by male relatives and harassed by gangs.
According to the woman’s mother, the smugglers demanded more than she could pay, and she was worried about the three younger children she had left back in the United States. So in March, she reluctantly left her older girls behind once more and tried to sneak back into the United States. She was caught at the border and now is in federal detention in Texas, unable to care for any of her children.
Even when long-separated families are successfully united, they often face daunting adjustment problems. There are stepfathers and younger siblings whom the newly arrived teenagers have never met. There are language barriers and old feelings of anger, jealousy and abandonment. There are crowded apartments and long workdays that offer little chance for special attention. And often, there are the added tensions and uncertainty of the parents being illegal.
“In many cases, things turn out to be a disaster,” said Dilsia Molina, a counselor at La Clinica del Pueblo in the District who helps dozens of immigrant women with family problems. “I tell all the women that when a child arrives from home after a long time apart, it is like getting pregnant and giving birth all over again.”
Young said she worries that the accelerated screening process will miss potential problems with sponsors, such as histories of abuse or crime. She noted that proposed guardians are no longer required to provide fingerprints. “We are not pro-detention, but this does create concerns,” she said.
Another problem is the lack of attorneys available to represent arriving minors who may qualify for deportation relief, asylum or special visas. The White House announced this week that it is setting up an emergency program with funds for about 300 lawyers, but Young said far more are needed.
One Salvadoran woman in Prince George’s County left her daughter as a small child a decade ago. Last year, the budding adolescent was sent north by grandparents who feared she would be abused by gangs. In Texas, scared and abandoned by smugglers, she turned herself in to the Border Patrol; after several months in custody, she was sent to live with a mother she barely knew.
“She seemed more like a sister than a mother,” said the girl, now 14, who can manage only a few words of English. The mother, a store cashier, sat close to her on a sofa, looking pensive as the daughter recounted her ordeal in the desert. Both face possible deportation, but both clearly cherish their new relationship. “I was desperately worried about her, but it was definitely worth the risk,” the mother confided with a shy glance at the girl. “She is everything to me.”