Javier is a 15-year-old boy from Honduras who now lives in Elkhart with his mother and sister. His name and his mother’s names have been changed to protect their identity. This is his story, and the story of 57,525 children who have crossed the border into the United States without a guardian. This is how a boy in Elkhart is a part of an international rise that shows no sign of slowing.
Javier was halfway through his walk home from the fields at the end of the work day, but he was not relaxed to be headed home. He was keeping a wary eye out for a truck to drive up along side him, and for what could happen if it did. Javier was watching for MS-13 gang members. They had already harassed him three times in the fields and twice on his way home — each incident closer and closer to where he lived. If they followed him much further on his route, their death threats could easily turn into reality.
Javier’s older sister had caught the eye of the 25 to 30 year old men in MS-13. They wanted her as a “girlfriend” for the gang, and they weren’t letting up until they knew where she was. They had threatened to kill Javier and his grandparents if he didn’t tell them her whereabouts. Javier thought about the increasing threats and the danger he and his grandparents were in. It was no longer safe in Honduras. He needed to leave.
Javier decided to make a dangerous trip across Mexico into the U.S. by himself, which puts him among more than 50,000 children who have done the same. Some of them are as young as age 5. Imagine a kindergartner making an 1,800-mile trip without a mom or dad.
These kids are commonly referred to as unaccompanied alien children (UAC), and are mostly leaving countries in Central America such as Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Children immigrating to the U.S. alone is not a new concept but the magnitude at which they have recently been coming is taking Washington, legal representatives and social agencies by storm. In 2009 (from the countries listed above) there were 3,304 unaccompanied children that entered the U.S. Just two years later, the number jumped to 10,146 and it has doubled every year since.
Many children give the same answer that Javier does when asked why he left — the gangs.
Groups like the one that threatened Javier’s family, the MS-13 (or Mara Salvatrucha), are powerful and entrenched. MS-13 and Honduran gangs like it grew from roots that were planted deep in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Many gang members were deported or fled back to Central America after getting arrested in L.A.
The rivalries did not lose momentum across borders. Like Javier, many children are harassed and threatened by the gangs. Others are pressured to join. Girls, like Javier’s sister, are sought to become“girlfriends,” a watered down street term for a sex slave, who is raped and forced into prostitution.
The irony is that children are fleeing to the very country where the gangs began.
In Javier’s case, his mother, Gabriela, was forced to leave the country eight years ago at the hand of their abusive father. Gabriela wound up in Elkhart living under the oppressive thumb of her now ex husband. His regular abuse made it impossible for her to bring her children to the U.S. or for her protect them from afar.
Finally, the last straw was pulled and Gabriella went to police. Gabriella is still fighting for legal protection from her abuser but felt safe enough to contact her children.
Javier’s sister — the gang’s target — left Honduras to join Gabriela roughly in Elkhart a year before Javier made his own journey.
With the violence of the gangs pushing at the children’s backs, to them their safest option was to set out across Mexico alone. The treacherous trip seemed the lesser of two evils.
After leaving Central America, children like Javier travel through Mexico any way they can. Many have been spotted riding on top of trains. The trip — and the people along the way — can be extremely dangerous.
Lisa Koop, of Goshen, is the Associate Director of Legal Services with the National Immigrant Justice Center. She says that among the many risks these children take, kids can get kidnapped by cartels; Buses and trains are stopped and kids are sometimes pulled off at gunpoint; They are handed packages of drugs to carry them across the border, a gun at their back. Koop has also seen children abducted and sold into slavery for labor and prostitution. They are often lost into human trafficking rings.
Before leaving Honduras, Javier met with a family friend who was arranging a coyotaje, or smuggler, to take him from Honduras to the U.S. He left his home on a bus and traveled through Mexico and across the Rio Grande River on the Texas border.
Javier remembers his bus being stopped more than once by Mexican police during his travels. He says it is common for the Mexican police to halt buses of immigrants and extort them for money, threatening to deport or hurt them if they don’t pay up.
During his trip through Mexico, Javier was robbed by the police. Several times they stopped his van and demanded payment or he would be hurt or deported. He had no choice but to pay them.
For Javier, and kids who grow up like him, people in uniforms aren’t a comfort. Mexican police robbed him during his travels, and in Honduras, the sight of police didn't necessarily mean protection.
In the interview where Gabriela and Javier told their stories, they both said that the police in Honduras often work with the gangs, even paying them off for a “hit.”
“They will kill anyone you want for $50,” Gabriela said.
Felipe Merino, an immigration attorney from Goshen, represents unaccompanied minor cases. He says that the distrust of police that has been ingrained so deeply and makes it hard for officials in the U.S. to get a clear story.
“Where they come from, everyone in uniform is corrupt,” Merino says.
Merino says the children’s stories follow a wide range, but recalls instances where gangs like MS-13 drove through neighborhoods and kidnapped kids. They teach them how to handle weapons and kill — making them the hands and feet of the gang. Like Javier, the children are often threatened if they don’t cooperate.
Lawyers like Merino and Koop who represent immigrant minors must find a way to hear every detail of the children’s stories in order to even request legal protection. Certain visas can allow for them to stay in the U.S.
Most of the children are apprehended immediately when they cross the border. Many of the kids know that they will be picked up before ever reaching their family in the U.S. According to a press release from the White House, it is unlikely that any substantial number of these children are getting through undetected.
Javier was one of those arrested. He remembers stepping into the cool water of the Rio Grande River, following the instructions of the coyotaje leading his group. This was the second coyotaje he had followed since leaving his home in Honduras seven days before. The coyotaje motioned them to move forward. Shortly after they did, the Boarder Patrol officers appeared and told the group to stay put. Javier looked around for the coyotaje, who was nowhere in sight.
After being apprehended by Boarder Patrol, part of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Javier was transported to a small temporary shelter. There, he was asked where his family was, where he came from and he underwent a health screening.
These interviews officially started his immigration process in the eyes of the law. Agencies like Health and Human Services (HHS) and social workers were then able to contact Gabriela to arrange a pick up.
Approximately 96 percent of the UAC in 2014 were placed with a “sponsor” or guardian, according to Kenneth J. Wolfe the Deputy Director for the Office of Public Affairs in the HHS. Most of these sponsors are parents who are already in the U.S.
Javier recalls being kept in one of 11 rooms in the CBP shelter. He was taken to a room with boys around his age. He counted more than 125 of them. With no beds, Javier chose an empty spot on the floor and settled in.
This June 18, 2014, file photo shows children detainees sleeping in a holding cell at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing facility in Brownsville,Texas. Thousands of immigrant children are crossing alone into the U.S. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
According to Koop, the children call these facilities “hieleras” — or ice boxes — because they are so cold. Their meals, they told Koop, are only given twice a day and are often frozen or spoiled. Javier says that his meals were given out at odd hours like the middle of the night.
Typically children only spend around 72 hours in temporary CBP custody. Because of the deluge over the past year, some of the children Koop has spoken with have stayed for weeks. Luckily for Javier, he stayed only two days.
After the temporary holding, kids are sent to one of roughly 100 HHS shelters around the country. The average stay in these shelters is five weeks. Locally, there are nine such shelters in Chicago, which can hold about 500 children altogether.
Many of the shelters focus on specific types of kids. There is one in Chicago, for example, where kids who speak indigenous languages are often sent. Some have a focus on mental health or another specific need.
Both the CBP and HHS shelters are running out of space. So far, three military bases in have been converted to house an overflow of kids.
Javier stayed in his HHS shelter for two weeks, where he had a bed and access to food five times a day. Eventually he took two flights to get to O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, where his mother was waiting with grateful and open arms.
The Legal System
Traveling under duress and bouncing around shelters is only the beginning of the struggles the children face. A legal battle awaits them even if they make it through Central America and Mexico unharmed. One of Koop’s largest concerns isn’t when the kids are traveling — it’s what happens to them after they are reunited with their families.
Like others who have illegally immigrated into the country, they are not provided a lawyer to assist in their case. Koop is one of the few lawyers who will represent these cases pro-bono. She spends a lot of her time trying to recruit firms to do the same.
Koop and many other pro-immigration advocates fear that the kids are being taught to swim in the legal waters by being pushed in. When they are released from shelters, there are many who are simply told, to go to court on a particular day.” Koop’s organization tries to intercept the kids before they are released to their relatives and brief them on the legal process.
“Think of it like a soccer game,” she says. “You are on one team and your lawyer is the coach, the judge is like a referee and the other side is the opposing team.”
The same distrust that many Central American kids have for police is often true for the court system. Some don't show up for court at all, afraid they will be immediately sent back.
Javier is at the cusp of his legal struggles. According to Ashley Huebner, a managing attorney who works with Koop, Javier will have six to eight months of court proceedings under the best of circumstances — it will most likely take several years. The time it takes to be moved through the court system, is more time than children like Javier may have had to stay alive in their home country.
Javier is a name and face for a set of staggering numbers that are continuously growing. Amidst the debates and personal opinions, one thing is clear — because it is children at the epicenter of this crisis, a sense of human is evoked and cannot be easily shaken. It is the kind that is awakened with our innate reaction as a community to protect the next generation, despite any political baggage that they might set at our doorstep.