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Surge in child immigrants tied to Central American violence

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil

Jose Luis Zelaya was 13 years old when he fled his home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for the United States. Zelaya faced extraordinary violence and poverty as a child—he was shot twice by gang members and watched his younger brother die of an asthma attack because his family couldn’t afford treatment—and decided to escape.

So in 2000, he set off alone on the dangerous journey to the U.S. border in hopes of reuniting with his mother and sister, who had made the same trek two years earlier.

When Zelaya left Honduras, he was one of about 6,000 unaccompanied child migrants who arrived at the U.S. border that year. Since then, those numbers have skyrocketed—Border Patrol has already picked up 48,000 this year, on pace for a record 60,000 in 2014.

While many in politics and the media are framing this surge of unaccompanied child migrants in the context of “illegal immigration,” activists and experts are encouraging Americans to view it instead as an urgent humanitarian crisis, and the children as refugees.

Like Zelaya, many of the children originate from Honduras. The Central American nation lies at the center of the illegal drug pipeline from Latin America to the United States, so the country is dominated by gang activity and violence—Honduras and the city of San Pedro Sula, Zelaya’s hometown, are consistently ranked as having the highest murder rates in the world.

“You see dead people very often,” says Zelaya, who spoke by phone from Texas A&M, where he is pursuing a doctorate in urban education. “At night we would push a mattress up against the door because there were so many stray bullets from drive-by shootings.”

As he approached his teen years, gangs started encroaching on Zelaya’s life.

“When you’re 13 in Honduras, it’s your time to join a gang,” he explains. “And if you don’t join a gang, they either abuse you, kill you or threaten you. I promised my mom that I would never join a gang, but those things started chasing me.”

In addition, Zelaya’s abusive father frequently beat him with the side of machetes and guns, and forced his son to work at a young age in order to sustain his drug and alcohol habits. When Hurricane Mitch, a Category 5 storm, hit the country in 1998, Zelaya’s family lost everything and was left homeless.

This prompted Zelaya’s mother to flee for the United States. Although she tried to bring both Zelaya and his younger sister with her, Zelaya’s father made sure his son stayed behind.

After a drive-by shooting at a pick-up soccer game put two bullets in his arm, Zelaya decided it was time for him to get away as well.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m going to break the law, I want to be a criminal,’” he says of his migration to the United States. “I was forced to leave.”

“My story is very normal,” he adds. “It happens to a lot of children, and that’s why we’re seeing such a big migration of children right now.”

Earlier this year, the United Nations Children’s Fund issued a statement saying it was “alarmed by the increasing generalized violence against children in Honduras.” According to the relief agency, 24 children were murdered in the month of April alone.

In a report released in March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees revealed that, like Zelaya, the majority of unaccompanied minors who came to the United States this year had been forcibly displaced as a result of danger in their home countries.

“Given the high rate of children who expressed actual or potential needs for protection,” the study concludes, “all unaccompanied and separated children from these four countries”—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico—“must be screened for international protection needs.”

“These are kids who want to be reunited with their parents, and they’re fighting for their lives,” says Damaris Lopez, director of programs for Agencia ALPHA in Boston. “They don’t want to be involved in gangs. They don’t want to be involved in drugs. They are trying to survive.”

It took Zelaya 45 days to reach the U.S. border. Along the way, he rode in the trunk of a car with two other people, was stuffed into a trailer with hundreds of others, saw another migrant crushed to death by a moving train, and walked so far that all of his toenails fell out.

“The journey was very, very, painful,” he says, “but then again, it didn’t seem as painful because I had already suffered so much.”

Once he reached the United States, Zelaya was immediately arrested by a border agent and taken to a detention center. Although he insists it was much nicer than the facilities children are being held in today, he could only drink water three times a day and go outside in the sun for one hour each week.

After two months, he was reunited with his mother and sister; a judge, seeing the bullet holes in his arm, allowed him to stay in the country on asylum.

Lopez says she is “a little surprised” by how the United States is reacting, given the clear humanitarian implications of the crisis.

“Immigration reform has become such a political point for so many Congressmen,” she says, “that they’re listening to their political agenda instead of seeing these children as refugees.”

Many Republicans blame the surge on President Obama’s attempts at immigration reform, in particular the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows undocumented youth who were brought to the United States by their parents as children to stay in the country. However, as Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition explains, DACA is a “totally separate issue,” since the unaccompanied children who crossed the border this year would not qualify for the program.

“It’s very unfortunate that the Republican Party, instead of taking responsibility to work with the president to deal with this crisis, is putting politics first to try to attack the administration,” she says.

Still, the Obama administration has allocated $100 million in aid to Central American governments and $2 million for lawyers to represent the youth in courts, and announced a plan to open new detention facilities—moves that Lopez says are “like putting a Band-Aid on a huge infection.”

Millona’s organization, meanwhile, is making recommendations to the Obama administration on how to resolve the situation, from addressing the root causes of violence and poverty in Central America, to expanding parole so that children won’t have to be warehoused in detention facilities, improving the conditions of the processing centers and increasing opportunities for the children to be granted asylum.

For Zelaya, the solution is simple: “Treat these children as refugees and not criminals,” the same way he was in 2000, he says.

Zelaya, now 27, graduated from Texas A&M University and was even invited to give the invocation address at commencement.

“It’s crazy, because I was homeless, sleeping on the streets, and 12 years later I’m graduating from the seventh largest university in the nation,” he says. He then went on to earn his master’s degree, before pursuing a doctorate in Urban Education.

“I think it’s important to talk about what these children can become,” he says. “I’m grateful for the opportunities this country has given me, and if you give those children an opportunity to do the same, the nation can definitely benefit.”

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