ELKHART — Amid the heated debate over how to handle the influx of undocumented immigrant children from Central America, Petronila Corrales’ message is simple and direct.
"Let them stay, that’s what I say,” she said. “That’s what we ask.”
For Corrales, originally from Honduras, the issue hits close to home. Her grandson, Denis Arriola, counts among the growing number of children who have come here from the Central American country — Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UAC, in government speak — fleeing tough, dangerous conditions back home.
"It’s a blessing from God. It’s a blessing from God that they eat their three meals daily,” she said.
Now 9, Denis came here last year, traveling with a paid guide from his other grandmother’s home in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, through Mexico to Brownsville, Texas. Ultimately he ended up in Elkhart, home also to his father, Rubin Arriola, and he just started the third grade at Roosevelt Elementary.
More on unaccompanied minors and Elkhart County:
U.S. Customs and Border Protection earlier this year reported a steep spike in the number of apprehensions of unaccompanied children coming here from Central America. In fiscal year 2014, which ended July 31, the number for children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras totaled 47,906, up from 20,805 in fiscal year 2013 and 10,146 in fiscal year 2012.
The trend has fueled discussion among lawmakers in Washington, D.C., about how to address the influx, yet another facet of the thorny debate over undocumented immigrants and how to deal with them. There’s been talk of speeding up the process to deport unaccompanied children like Denis and increasing funding to temporarily house them after they’re apprehended, but so far no consensus.
Corrales, though, said the kids should be allowed to make the United States their home, a notion rebuffed by many. Back in Honduras — where an 11-year-old granddaughter, Arriola’s oldest child, remains — kids face an uncertain future of violence and crime, with few prospects to get ahead.
“That’s why we ask the U.S. government and all the citizens here to understand our children coming from our country,” Corrales said. “We’re thankful for the hospitality they’ve been given, allowing them to get ahead.”
’ALREADY SMOKING MARIJUANA’
Back in Tegucigalpa, Denis walked the streets with gang members.
Going about his business — playing, going to school — passing gang members in his neighborhood would say, “Hello. How are you doing?”
For him, it was no big deal. He didn’t join, he wouldn’t say anything in response. He just kept walking and nothing more ever came of the talk.
For Corrales, though, the notion of such contact was terrifying.
She was already here in Elkhart with Arriola, her son and her daughters, and it got to the point that they had to get Denis out of the country to the relative safety of the United States. It would only be a matter of time before he got mixed up with the wrong crowd.
“Kids his age are already smoking marijuana … all sorts of drugs,” said Corrales, seated in the living room of her south central Elkhart home. “Others die of hunger in the streets, or they kill them. Everything. It’s not good over there.”
Denis, seated on a couch between Corrales and his father, didn’t say much, answering yes or no to questions about life in Honduras. His father, though, was just as adamant as his mother. Arriola, here with his wife, also from Honduras, and five other U.S.-born kids, has been in Elkhart for about 10 years.
"Even in your home you’re not safe,” said Arriola, recalling life back in Honduras.
Denis was living with his maternal grandmother, who operates a food stand near a bus station, and his dad remembers stories of two buses being torched because the operators wouldn’t pay the “tax” assessed by local gang members. He spoke of dead bodies showing up in the neighborhood, outside his mother-in-law’s Tegucigalpa home.
Police “don’t do anything,” Corrales said. “The police get there after everything’s over. They don’t investigate anything.”
309 UNACCOMPANIED MINORS
It’s not crystal clear how many kids like Denis are in Elkhart County.
However, there were 1,450 Hondurans and those of Honduran descent here in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2010-2012. Another 837 had roots in El Salvador, and 235 had roots in Guatemala.
Across Indiana, 309 unaccompanied minors like Denis were placed with parents and other sponsors between Jan. 1 and July 31, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement.
When Denis crossed into the United States, he was apprehended by immigration officials. He told them of his family and was eventually reunited with them.
Still, he faces an uncertain future. According to the Pew Research Center, such kids are typically put into deportation proceedings, though the process can drag on. Denis has already appeared before U.S. officials in Chicago, but that seems of less concern to Corrales and Arriola than the boy’s prospects had he remained in Honduras.
“He’s studying and that’s what we want, that he has another sort of life here, not like in our country,” said Corrales. “He’s going to church, he goes to school.”
'I WANT TO BRING HER HERE’
For Arriola, the thing now is to get his 11-year-old daughter still in Honduras over here. The girl already tried making the long trek once, getting as far as Mexico. But Mexican immigration officials apprehended her and deported her back to Honduras about a month ago, he said.
Given the dangers girls face, the possibility of abduction and rape by gang members, she stays home in Tegucigalpa with her maternal grandmother these days. Even schools aren’t totally safe, and Arriola pulled her out, too worried about what might happen.
"Truthfully, I want to bring her here,” he said. “I’m afraid something will happen to her there.”