Stories of the children. That’s what gets to me the most.
I can give you all the facts and figures about unaccompanied children, known as UACs (yes, there’s an acronym even for this). I can tell you that in 2012 alone, more than 24,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S./Mexico border were detained. Some estimates are that this year the Department of Homeland Security expects to pick up 55,000 to 60,000 children. While the number of undocumented adults coming is decreasing, children are crossing in record numbers. And they range from less than 1 year to 17 years old.
I can give you the reasons why the children come. To be reunited with their parents already here. To find work to support the families they left behind. To avoid a life of poverty and unfulfilled dreams. To escape the violence, abuse, crime, and forcible gang recruitment rampant in their countries. The majority come from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where teens are often threatened if they do not join a local gang. Some journey without assistance, but for others, their parents will pay coyotes, or smugglers, anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 to guide them across the border. Parents weigh taking this risk alongside keeping their child in a dangerous and hopeless situation.
But beyond the factual information lie the personal, heartbreaking stories of one child after another. I have heard many of these stories while in El Paso. Stories from health care and case workers who work with immigrant children at the detention centers. Part of their job is to speak with the children, obtain information about their circumstances, let them know their rights, and help them understand what is happening to them.
One of the psychologists who works with the children (and asked not to be identified because of the nature of her work) told me sometimes she meets with as many as 50 to 60 children in one day.
“It is a privilege for me to be there,” she says. “I have seen the face of God in them, with them, and through them.”
She walks with these children for a little while. She listens to their stories. They tell her what they have endured. Experiences that no child should have to endure.
“It’s heavy sometimes, but it’s beautiful,” the psychologist says.
The word “heavy” seems understated for what I’ve heard: a 14-year-old boy tortured in Mexico while making his way here. A 13-year-old girl kidnapped and trafficked for sex. An 11-year-old girl sexually abused by an uncle, fleeing her home, hoping to be reunited with her mother, only to face more sexual abuse along the way. Drug cartel members kidnapping children to “fill an order” for U.S. buyers. And a six-year-old boy seeking work for his family.
Despite how crazy this sounds, in Latin American cultures, when a child comes from a poor family, it’s not unusual to be sent out into the streets to bring in income. Many children have been working since they were six.
I have visited two of types of places where children are detained: Southwest Key—a model accredited program for youth; and Lutheran Services Center—a transitional foster care center for children 12 and under. Both are well-run facilities where the children receive educational instruction, including English classes. At Lutheran Services, the children are sent home with a foster family in the evenings and on weekends. Southwest Key is a live-in facility with locked doors and a security system. The children are detained, on average, for one to two months while a case worker processes their case. Then they are released to a parent or relative until their court date, which will determine whether or not they will be deported.
El Paso can hold 250 children in these centers. Some children apprehended elsewhere in the states are flown here at the expense of the U.S. government. These types of shelters, as well as the training given to the foster families, are funded by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services.
“When I first heard that children were in detention in the United States, it shocked me,” says the psychologist. “There’s a saying in Spanish, ‘The cage may be made of gold, but it is still a cage.’”
Despite her concern for the children, she has a certain peace and faith about what she does.
“I know that my mission is to be present and to listen to their stories,” she says.
Her words strike me. I’ve heard them before. As I questioned my own ministry here in El Paso, these same words had come to me: my purpose is simply to be present to what’s happening. Offer what I can. And be present. Not easy. Especially when being present means feeling the pain.
The other day Sr. Fran told me about a 13-year-old boy she’d met who had left his Central American homeland to find work in the United States to support his family. His father was blind and he had eight siblings. Since he was the oldest, he took it upon himself to be responsible for his family . He made it across, starving and dehydrated, and immediately attempted to find odd jobs doing yard work. Very late on the night of the end of the second day, fearing he would die, he knocked on a woman’s door and begged her to call immigration to pick him up.
I do not know this boy’s fate. Nor do I know the fate of so many other youngsters who unbelievably made it across only to face the threat of being returned to these same situations. I fear some of these children will go from one hell to another.