Faces of the Border Crisis: The Children

Edras, a sixteen-year-old unaccompanied minor I met in Brownsville, on the 1,400-mile journey from Guatemala.
Tue July 22, 2014 11:00 pm
AP Photo | Eric Gay, Pool

Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final installment in a series about the border crisis. Read the first story, about Sister Norma Pimentel and her work with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley,  here; the second piece examines the crisis through the eyes of Kevin Pagan, the City of McAllen’s emergency management coordinator; and the third story covers Othal E. Brand Jr., one of the few politicians who has directly taken action in securing the border. In the fourth installment, we spend a day with the Border Patrol.

“You can talk with this boy,” an imposing man with a bushy white mustache tells me when I arrive at a church in Brownsville, the name of which I have agreed to keep confidential. I’m there to talk to newly arrived immigrants.

The boy is small for a sixteen-year-old—five-foot-five at most, probably no more than 120 pounds. His face is bony and gaunt. A dark-green windbreaker that he has received from a church volunteer hangs on his narrow shoulders. He name is Edras.  

Since Edras left his home in the Jutiapa province of Guatemala a month ago, he has often been without food. “I was a little chubby, now I’m skinny,” he tells me in Spanish as we sit down inside a spartan church classroom. “My stomach was all cramped and I looked like a skeleton. Sometimes I get stomachaches like I have gastritis.”  

Edras has been in the U.S. for two weeks, and until very recently he spent most of his journey living with coyotes (human smugglers). He grew to distrust them. “They don’t feed you and they’re always on drugs,” he says. “They’re really high, so they don’t know what they’re doing.” Two nights earlier, he says, the coyotes decided “they didn’t want to be responsible for us anymore.” They dropped him and a group of other immigrants off in a field. It was dark, and they didn’t know where to go. The smugglers, Edras says, didn’t care. “And they kept our money,” he adds.

After the smugglers left, Border Patrol arrived. “Five of us got away [from them],” he continues. “The rest were apprehended. We went out into the street to find help, and thankfully we flagged down two trucks and asked [the drivers] to bring us to the shelter. We were very weak. I was feeling like I was going to fall and not be able to get back up. I could barely walk, and my eyes were sunken.” From the shelter—a local sanctuary for immigrants—he was sent to the church. “I’m here because they’re going to help me get papers so that Immigration doesn’t detain me.”

The man at the church told me nothing about Edras before I sat down to talk to him. A few days earlier, I had met a sixteen-year-old girl from El Salvador traveling with her mother and younger brother. They had been detained by Border Patrol and released in McAllen with bus tickets and a “Notice to Appear” in immigration court. When I meet Edras, I assume that he has traveled in a similar unit and that he has also been processed by Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The other members of his family, I figure, are probably off resting in another room. But as he tells me about his escape, it becomes clear that he is very much alone.  

“So Border Patrol doesn’t know you’re here?” I ask.

“No, they don’t know,” he replies.

“Where will you go?” I continue.  

“To Maryland,” he says. (He has an uncle in Baltimore who is expecting him.)

“Who is going to take you there? Are you going to go alone?”

“I’m going to leave here by myself.”

“Is someone going to tell you when you can leave?”

“Yes, the people here are going to tell me.”  

“So you’re going to wait to hear what they say?”  

“I’m going to wait and hear what God says. I crossed, and I’m here.”

In fiscal year 2009, Border Patrol apprehended 3,304 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala as they crossed into the U.S. In fiscal year 2012, the number grew to 10,146. So far this year, the number is 43,933. (An additional 12,614 unaccompanied minors have come from Mexico, but this number has remained stable over the past five years.)

Many explanations have been offered for the surge, from unconscionable levels of violence and poverty in Central America to President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, from rumors of an amnesty window for undocumented children to lax border security. But all of these explanations seem incomplete on their own (and in some cases are closer to fantasies). Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala rank among the most violent countries in the world, and many young people want to flee the danger, but that was as true in 2009 as it is today. DACA applies only to immigrant children who have lived in the U.S. continuously since June 15, 2007, and it takes considerable speculative leaps to conclude that it somehow drove the surge. Rumors of an amnesty window have run rampant in parts of Central America, but it’s unlikely that’s the principal catalyst for leaving: a comprehensive United Nations report on the undocumented minors published earlier this year found that of the 104 El Salvodoran children interviewed, “only one child mentioned the possibility of benefiting from immigration reform in the U.S.”

With stories of unaccompanied minors crossing by the raft-load, it’s easy to see how someone could characterize the surge as “an invasion,” as Texas congressman Louie Gohmert did, but most of these immigrants are surrendering upon arrival, and undocumented immigration is, on the whole, lower and more aggressively enforced than it has been in decades. (In 1993, 4,028 Border Patrol agents apprehended 1.26 million undocumented immigrants. Last year, a much larger force of 21,391 agents caught only 420,789.) Part of what has made the immigration surge so frustrating

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