NEWS: Fleeing poverty and abuse, immigrant children are illegally entering the U.S. in record numbers

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Subject: NEWS: Fleeing poverty and abuse, immigrant children are illegally entering the U.S. in record numbers
From: Jyothi Kanics (jkanics@igc.apc.org)
Date: Fri Mar 26 1999 - 14:39:45 EST


NOTE: While many children migrate independently or with the help of coyotes,
other are undoubtably trafficked into the USA for forced labor or sexual
slavery.

Fleeing poverty and abuse, immigrant children are illegally entering the
U.S. in record numbers
By Diane Smith and Marisa Taylor, Star-Telegram staff writers
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Friday, March 19, 1999

Mauricio worked for scraps of food, jumped aboard moving boxcars and
trekked alongside strangers for hundreds of miles through Central America
and Mexico with the hopes of slipping into the United States and finding work.

His puckish grin belies a seasoned pilgrim who, at 16, entered this country
illegally -- and alone. Mauricio's plan was to rent an apartment with other
immigrant teen-agers and find work in construction so he could send money
home to his family.

"I can work at whatever job," he said in February, about a month before an
immigration judge ordered him returned to Honduras.

Youths such as Mauricio are not unique. Record numbers of immigrant
children fleeing poverty and the devastation of Hurricane Mitch are coming
to this country without their parents. Most hope to find work, send money
home and build prosperous lives.

The children typically are 15 to 17, though some are as young as 6. Most
are boys. One Immigration and Naturalization Service agent, who is working
the case of an 11-year-old Honduran, describes these children as "little
Huckleberry Finns."

"They are seeking the same thing as the pilgrims -- to better their lives,"
said JJ Gross, the juvenile coordinator for the Dallas district of the INS.

No one knows how many of the children there may be in the United States.
But the number apprehended by immigration authorities has increased sharply
during the past five years, with last year's totals the largest. The INS
had 4,295 youths in its charge nationwide last year, compared with 1,188 in
1994.

About 400 minors nationwide are currently under the care of INS, according
to the agency.

By some estimates, tens of thousands of other young immigrants may be here
undetected.

"There's no way of telling how many kids slip through the system," said
Barbara Francis, an INS spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "How many have we
missed?"

The INS Dallas district has seen a steady flow of young Guatemalans,
Hondurans and Salvadorans who have fled Central America without their
parents in the wake of Hurricane Mitch. The storm killed at least 9,000
people and displaced more than 300,000.

"It's about survival," said Lynda Barros, director of legal services for
the agency Proyecto Adelante/Project Onward. "When your family is starving,
immigration law is not going to be a barrier."

Poverty and child abuse are among the reasons that the children leave their
homelands, child and immigration advocates say.

"I think the arrival of these unaccompanied minors is a testament to the
depth of misery they have reached in their homelands," said Paul Zoltan, a
Dallas immigration attorney.

When they arrive in the United States, the young people often take on some
of the most laborious jobs. They are working in onion fields in the Rio
Grande Valley and as busboys in Houston, cleaning offices in Dallas and
landscaping in Northeast Tarrant County. And they have their own
understanding of the economy.

"El pobre de aqui es millionario al pobre de alla [The poor man from the
United States is a millionaire next to the poor man from there]," said
Duwin, a good-natured 17-year-old with a smile that softened a face already
rugged. Duwin was born in El Salvador but was living in Guatemala when he
decided to try his luck in the United States.

Duwin walked, hitchhiked and rode in boxcars through Mexico. On Christmas
Day, to earn money for the last leg of his trip to the United States, Duwin
was carrying wood in northern Mexico.

"I came suffering -- sometimes without eating," he said.

Before Duwin could find work in Texas, the INS found him -- a person he
hitched a ride from turned him in, he said. In early February, Barros was
providing Duwin, Mauricio and at least four other teen-agers with
immigration counseling. Barros said she was almost certain that Duwin would
have to return to Guatemala. He didn't stick around to find out. In March,
he ran away from his foster home.

Thirteen-year-old Santos has made the trip from El Salvador more than once.
The last time, he traveled through Mexico by train to the U.S. border.
After the INS found him, he was placed at the Casa Shelter in Dallas, where
the INS contracts beds for children. Santos chose to return home last month.

Also at the shelter was 16-year-old Nelson, a confident youth who sports a
crown with a star outline on a front tooth. He left his Honduran home in
November. In Rio Claro, the village where Nelson lived, the African palms
that help fuel the regional economy were destroyed by the hurricane,
rushing water destroyed houses and cattle drowned.

"I couldn't continue studying," said Nelson, who was in the eighth grade
before he left. "Where I lived, there were few trees left standing. It was
horrible. I made the decision because I wanted to work and help my family."

After working his way through Mexico as a field and ranch hand, Nelson
crossed into the United States via Piedras Negras. When he was wandering
near Carrizo Springs in Dimmit County, he emerged from the brush to look
for food and water, only to be caught.

"I was sad," he said, adding that he had planned to work here two years and
return home. On March 13, Nelson went back to Honduras after being granted
voluntary return by an immigration judge.

Others in his village understand why he left.

"We are a poor city with few resources, we don't have jobs, factories or
industries. People are living in houses with dirt floors. Mothers, fathers
and children eat only tortillas with salt," said Marco Antonio Pavon, mayor
of nearby Trujillo, which has jurisdiction over the village. "The hurricane
was just another obstacle for a town with problems.

"Everybody wants to leave," he said."This is a tragic situation. I tell
people not to leave -- it's a great risk. Women get assaulted, minors
abused. It is a tremendous problem."

Many of the children who come to the United States without their parents
are from vulnerable families, Zoltan said. Many come from broken homes and
were abandoned, abused or neglected. Some were living on the streets of San
Salvador, El Salvador, Guatemala City, Guatemala, or Tegucigalpa, Honduras,
before they joined this country's homeless.

Fourteen-year-old Miguel said his mother had a one-word response to his
plans to leave Honduras: "Andate [Go]."

"My family doesn't want me," he said. "I left. I was not scared."

Fourteen-year-old Elmer walked away from his family and homeland in search
of money and a better life.

At Ciudad Acuna, the Mexican town across from Del Rio, he plunged into the
Rio Grande and swam to his promised land without looking back.

"I know it's dangerous," said Elmer, a somber, curly-haired boy. He said he
was tired of being poor and he felt neglected by relatives.

"My aunt, she treated me bad. That's why I left," Elmer said. "It's better
to die along the way than to have stayed in that situation."

Project Onward, in conjunction with the INS, is trying to find a foster
family for Elmer while his immigration proceedings are under way.

Some of the Central American children are smuggled into the United States,
INS officials said. Parents sometimes pay a smuggler -- known as a coyote
in Mexico and Central America -- to bring a child into this country so they
can get jobs and send money home.

"There are lots of smugglers bringing people across from Mexico at the
Southwest border," Francis said.

Unaccompanied children are sometimes smuggled in groups to work as field
hands, said Jeffrey Newman, president and executive director of the
nonprofit National Child Labor Committee in New York.

Many of the children have been abused or assaulted along the way. One
child, who was later found by the INS, had his shoes stolen in the Mexican
state of Chiapas, near the Guatemalan border. In some cases, the children
arrive with sexually transmitted diseases, officials said.

But the children may believe that they have nothing to lose, said Daniel
Alvarez, a 32-year-old waiter from Dallas who recalled how he came into
this country from El Salvador as a teen-ager in 1983. Alvarez said he lived
underground until he become a legal resident.

"We knew we could get assaulted and robbed along the way -- and I don't
know what else. It was worth the risk. We had nothing to lose. If you lost
your life, that was already a fear we lived with every day in El Salvador,"
he said.

Some of the children find work with employers who exploit them. Other
employers unknowingly hire children because the youths have counterfeit
immigration documents and it is difficult to tell how old they are.

"They come up to you and they show a Social Security number and they say
they are 18 and you have to believe them," the owner of a local landscaping
company said.

According to the government, it is difficult to gauge where the children
work and how many are exploited. Federal and state agencies that enforce
child labor laws do not track whether child workers are undocumented
immigrants.

According to the National Child Labor Committee in New York, which has done
studies on the issue, as many as 120,000 undocumented children are believed
to be working in unsafe or illegal situations.

"They are more hidden, they are more secret, they are more vulnerable,"
Newman said.

Some children don't find work, and they may be more prone to criminal
activity, other officials say.

"Then they find out the streets are not really paved in gold," Gross said.

The INS was required to change how it handles young immigrants because of a
1997 court settlement. The agreement prompted the agency to set up a system
that places the children in foster care or shelters while they work out
immigration issues.

For a month and a half, Margarita Alvarez opened her Garland home to Duwin
and Josue, a 16-year-old Salvadoran.

"They joked with me," she said. "They would ask the questions little
curious youths like to ask.

"I felt happy because I imagined they were my children. The same thing I
wanted for my kids, I want for all kids."

But the teen-agers became scared about the possibility of being deported
and they ran away.

"They are carrying my motherly prayers. They came looking for bread, not
something bad," she said.

Some children may end up in juvenile detention centers, some human rights
activists say. When there is no staff that speaks a young immigrant's
language, a youth can go for days or weeks without communicating, said Jo
Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human
Rights Watch in New York City.

When children choose to return home, the INS pays for the airfare and
accompanies them. Other young people wait to go through immigration
proceedings. Those who are abandoned, neglected, abused or orphaned can
apply for a special immigration status that might allow them to stay. But
many others will be returned.

After Mauricio was caught shortly after crossing the border, he was
transferred to Casa Shelter, where he shared a room with three others in
INS custody. He hung posters of movies such as The Truman Show and Small
Soldiers. The drawer under his bed was filled with toy cars and action
figures he was saving for his younger brother and nephews. One of his
favorite toys is a Michael Jordan figure.

"All I suffered along the way, and they caught me here," Mauricio said as
he shook his head and bit his fingernails.

On March 13, Mauricio was deported to Honduras.

But he said that he will leave his mother again to come here. He and other
children have no alternative, he said.

"We'll come again -- until they get tired of getting us," he said.


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