These children are choosing to have an opportunity at life. They all have dreams that they want to accomplish.
Words and photos by Vanessa Ceceña
While the current wave of unaccompanied minors is primarily made up of Central Americans, the U.S. has welcomed minors from many more countries in the past. In early 2009 I began working at Southwest Key Programs, an unaccompanied minors shelter here in San Diego.
I met children from Somalia, China, Brazil, Ghana, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Venezuela. Some eager to tell their story, others were hesitant to share the details of their journey or past due to fear.
Based on some of their stories I was able to understand that most of the Central Americans traveled on la bestia and by bus until they were able to reach the U.S.-Mexico border. Regardless of where these children were coming from, they were all faced with countless dangers and situations where they were at risk of losing their lives.
Mohammed, a 17-year-old from Somalia, shared with me various details of his journey. His father sent him to the U.S. after his mother and brother were murdered in the ongoing Somali civil war.
Mohammed’s father feared that his son would be forced to be a soldier or that he would be murdered. So Mohammed left his father and younger sister in Somalia with the dream of making it to the U.S. and studying to become a doctor. He had to travel to Eastern Europe to make his way to Latin America, trekked through Panama and made it to Mexico, then finally to the U.S.
He waited in line at the San Ysidro, CA pedestrian port of entry and claimed asylum when he reached the front of the line. Mohammed was screened by Customs and Border Protection and then transferred to Southwest Key (CBP must transfer minors to a shelter within 72 hours).
When he arrived at the shelter, he could speak some English, but felt more comfortable speaking in Somali or Arabic. Since most of the other kids in the shelter at the time were Spanish speaking, Mohammed quickly picked up basic Spanish. Every day Mohammed would practice his writing skills and demonstrated his determination to learn English well. He was respectful and would share stories about the homecountry that he longed to go back to.
I have yet to cross paths with a teenager who possessed wisdom and life experiences way past his years. Mohammed remained in the shelter for almost a year, but was eventually released. I believe he was transferred into foster care, but am not certain since I was no longer working there by the time he was released.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) has been responsible for the Unaccompanied Alien Children’s program (UAC) since March 2003 after the responsibility was transferred over from the Commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). The ORR has had approximately 92,000 UACs in its custody since 2003.
Yes, the government has been providing funding for unaccompanied children for quite some time and UAC shelters have existed throughout the U.S. for years, it’s just that they weren’t making headlines. The number of UACs increased after 2011, going from 6,775 (FY 2011) to 24,668 in 2013. It is estimated that the number of unaccompanied minors can reach at least 60,000 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year.
State licensed shelters that are being funded by the ORR are required to provide the minors with education, mental health services, opportunities for recreation and socialization, family reunification, case management services, and medical treatment.
Staff is responsible for maintaining the children’s safety and for screening incoming phone calls. While the children are allowed to receive phone calls, they have to be authorized callers as determined by the case manager. This, as I learned, protects the children, as there are attempts by smugglers to locate the children if they are owed money.
One of the goals of the facilities is to ensure that minors are reunified with family members or other sponsors (i.e. family friends) that can provide full care. Family members and sponsors are required to submit a reunification packet and pass a background check.
The Obama Administration did not initiate policies that protect unaccompanied minors, victims of human trafficking and violent crimes. Congress first signed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 when Clinton was in power. Various reauthorizations were issued in 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2013.
TVPA and its reauthorizations were developed as a way to protect trafficking victims, which do include unaccompanied minors in some cases. Not all unaccompanied minors are victims of trafficking or of violent crimes, but they are fleeing violence, poverty, civil war, religious or ethnic persecution, or in many cases, some combination of the aforementioned. Central American countries are experiencing drastic increases in violence, a major push factor in the surge of unaccompanied minors.
Some of unaccompanied minors do qualify for certain immigration benefits, such as T or U Visas, or Special Immigrant Juveniles Status (SIJS). T-Visas are for victims of human trafficking and U-Visas are for victims of certain crimes. The SIJS is for minors who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.
I cannot stress the importance of providing unaccompanied minors with the appropriate support, with Know Your Rights trainings (CASA Cornelia provides these sessions for UAC shelters in San Diego), and with the opportunity to have an immigration court hearing. Expediting deportation proceedings for minors does not solve the root of the problem; it places vulnerable children back in an unsafe environment.
The current influx of unaccompanied minors and families arriving at the U.S-Mexico border has placed the spotlight on an already vulnerable population. Conservatives, members of the Tea Party and Republicans have come forth with absurd reasons to explain why these minors and families should be immediately returned back to their country.
According to some, these Central American migrants will put our public health at risk, strain our public resources, steal our jobs and eventually take away the freedom that makes us “American”. In addition, they are being labeled as criminals, radical Islamists, terrorists, Communists, part of the MS-13 (a notorious Salvadoran gang); the list goes on and on. It is every conservative excuse in the book.
The idea that the border needs to be more secure continues to appear in discussions and in policy proposals. Before the influx of unaccompanied minors, the number of apprehensions at the border had decreased. It is important to keep in mind that the unaccompanied minors and families are presenting themselves to agents at the border. They are not entering the country unauthorized. The border is secure and border communities can attest to this.
Republicans are blaming the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program as one of the main reasons for the surge of minors to the border. According to them, DACA has made Central Americans believe that if the children can get on U.S. soil, they will be allowed to stay.
I highly doubt that the thousands of minors that have arrived since October 2013 think that they will be granted DACA. There are strict requirements for DACA eligibility, which includes being able to prove (with documentation) that one was physically present in the U.S. on June 15, 2012. So, minors that have recently entered the U.S. are not eligible for deferred action.
This past Friday (August 1) the House of Representatives voted to not provide the unaccompanied minors with the due process that they deserve (HR 5230) and to end the DACA program (HRES 710). Their “DEPORT THEM ALL” policy disregards children who might be victims or human trafficking or that have legitimate fear of returning back to their country of origin. HR5230 and HRES 710 illustrate insensitivity to the current humanitarian crisis and once again criminalize immigrants.
My experience at Southwest Key broadened my scope of immigration and kick started my interest in unaccompanied minors programs. I remember having so many questions about how the children arrived to the borders, especially the younger ones that I met; one in particular was eight years old. I didn’t understand complexity of the issue at the time.
It is a multilayered dilemma that involves children trying to reunify with parents they have not seen years.
It is about children escaping from violence or from being forced into gangs.
It is about children who do not have family either in their country or in the U.S. and who do not want a life of crime to be their only option for survival.
These children are choosing to have an opportunity at life. They all have dreams that they want to accomplish. They want to study, to have a career, to start a business, to travel. They want to just be children without worrying about the possibility of being killed or of having the burden of financially contributing to their household’s income.
If policies that protect the rights of unaccompanied minors are dissolved, children like Mohammed will not be given a chance.
If you empathize with the current humanitarian crisis, then I ask you to contact your representatives asking them to support a humane resolution to this situation. Educate those around you. Share factual information. Do not let people buy into the biased reports some media outlets put out there.
Vanessa Ceceña is a native San Diegan who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border. She received her Master of Social Work from the University of Southern California and her Bachelor’s degree in International Development Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Her focus has been on immigration and Mexican indigenous communities from Oaxaca. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.