I’m sharing this post from Fr. Bill, a Columban priest from our mission in El Paso who is now visiting El Salvador, where he witnesses daily the very situations that are forcing people to leave their homes. This particular post describes the disheartening situation of people being deported back to the very life-threatening situations they risked fleeing.
When Davis was 3 years old, we took a family vacation out west and landed in Reno for a few days. Since David and I loved to hike, we wanted to trek the trails around Lake Tahoe. Only problem was, we could no longer conveniently strap Davis into one of those child carriers and hoist him on our backs. And since his little legs wouldn’t have made it on their own, we came up with another strategy. We’d take turns entertaining Davis while one of us ventured off on the adult activity.
So while David hiked one of the more strenuous trails, I chose a short — or so I thought — trail that led to the lake shore where Davis could play. Going down to the lake was easy and fun. We sang and skipped. Davis giggled much of the way. But I’d miscalculated the trip back. The trail was all uphill. And we were both less perky than when we had started out.
Before long, Davis did what any respectable 3-year old would do. He whined. And then he stopped in his tracks and cried, “Mommy, I’m tired.”
As anyone with young children knows, when they’ve determined they can’t walk any farther, your options are limited. You either drag them along or carry them. I chose the latter. So, I lifted Davis onto my back and started off again. Much more slowly. The weight of a hefty, healthy child made me stop every once in a while either to sit or to let him down so I could rest. The trail stretched on much longer than I’d remembered.
I didn’t complain though. Well, maybe just a little to David afterwards when he showed up exuberated by his adventure. But the truth is, I really hadn’t minded carrying Davis. For me, there had been no other option than to give my son what he needed.
I remembered this incident recently when I heard the story of a 12-year-old boy who had been found attempting to cross the border. He was carrying his 9-year-old paraplegic sister on his back. Through the desert.
Carrying my little son on that short hiking trail was one thing. But would I, as a preteen, even entertain the thought of lugging my sibling on my back for hundreds of miles on such a treacherous journey? I had to admit, I wouldn’t. But then I never had to experience what these children have faced.
The #1 reason unaccompanied minors are coming to the U.S. nowadays is to escape the violence. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, many girls stay home from school for fear of being raped. Boys are often threatened with their lives if they don’t work for the gangs so prevalent in these countries. Their government doesn’t protect them.
Luis, a young man who volunteers at the children’s detention centers in El Paso knows this because he often asks the children, “Why did you risk your life to come here?”
Sometimes, the answer is, “So I could be with my mom.”
Another reason many children come is to reunite with their parents who left home years ago to find work in the U.S.
Like the 6-year-old boy Luis told me about who drew an airplane to represent God. The boy explained that God was in the heavens, and, like an airplane, God would quickly take him to his mother if he kept God in his heart.
Despite the traumatic journey this child had experienced in order to be with his mother, and now finding himself in detention, his innocence and faith in God remained. The boy amazed Luis. He did me, too.
On days when I feel discouraged, when I wonder what is next for me, when I don’t feel like I have enough courage and faith for this journey, I need to remember these children. They can teach me a few things about what it really means to have faith, to trust, to hope. And not to complain.
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.