By Tresa Baldas
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) If statistics are any indication, thousands of children are still willing to make the daring journey to the United States alone.
Alone and afraid, 16-year-old Maria sat in the big American government building.
With her hands tucked between her knees, the dark-haired, dark-skinned girl cried as she explained why she fled Honduras and came here by herself, landing in metro Detroit.
“In my country, some men took me,” she said through a Spanish interpreter, her voice cracking. “They had me in a place, locked up with several children. … They wouldn’t let me talk. I asked them why we were there. They said I had no right to talk. They got mad, and that’s when they hit me.”
Maria, whose real name is being withheld due to safety concerns, is one of about 40,000 immigrant children who come to the U.S. alone every year in search of a better life. These young immigrants encounter hurdles of all sorts once they get here _ and things are about to get worse.
On June 11, President Trump’s administration overturned asylum protections for domestic abuse and gang violence victims, making it virtually impossible for children like Maria to prove that they qualify to live in the United States.
The Honduran girl’s fate is currently playing out in a Detroit immigration courtroom, where numerous daring teens just like her recently appeared before a judge. They are waiting to be reunited with family, granted asylum or deported.
Most of the young people did not have lawyers or family with them. Some hitched rides with strangers. Others dressed up for the occasion in business attire, which impressed Immigration Judge Jennifer Goreland, who warmed up to the teens with questions like, “Who are you rooting for in the World Cup?” Or “What’s your favorite TV show?”
The kids wore headsets the whole time, while an interpreter explained what the judge was saying. They likely didn’t understand the new legal issues at stake, which the judge mentioned during one hearing, noting the new asylum ruling from Washington could impact the case.
Under the new ruling by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, victims of domestic abuse and gang violence now have to prove that their government wasn’t just unwilling or unable to help them, but that it “condoned the private actions” of the gangs or the abuser.
“An alien may suffer threats and violence in a foreign country for any number of reasons relating to her social, economic, family or other personal circumstances,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in his ruling. “Yet the asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune.”
Still, children of misfortune continue showing up in the United States, by the thousands.
Earlier this year, the Department of Homeland Security reported a surge in children arriving at the U.S. border alone, most coming from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
In December alone, officials arrested more than 4,000 unaccompanied children at the border, a 30 percent increase since October. By May, the number had jumped to 6,300 minor arrests at the border, a 329 percent increase compared to May 2017.
In June, the number of youth arrests dropped to 5,100, a decrease that officials partially attribute to the rising temperatures that deter some from making the dangerous trip north.
If statistics are any indication, thousands of children are still willing to make the daring journey. In 2017, about 41,400 unaccompanied children entered the U.S. at the southwest border. This year is expected to see a similar number, despite increased enforcement and tougher immigration policies.
For kids like Maria, whose life has been scarred by violence, her mother was raped; she was kidnapped, the risks are worth it.
“She’d rather take a chance of dying on the journey or failing than live in Honduras,” said immigration attorney Neal Brand, who is trying to help Maria stay in the U.S. “With kids, they’re coming here knowing that being a stranger in a strange land is far more palatable than being in their country.”
And where they are coming from, Brand said, is getting “much worse.”
“Honduras is terrible. It’s one of the worst places on earth,” said Brand, noting Central American children are coming over with more intense horror stories. “It’s no longer, ‘I’m afraid my father is going to be killed. It’s ‘I saw him get killed.'”
Maria grew up in a small farming town in Honduras with her grandparents. When she was 1 year old, her mother was raped and left her and her 4-year-old brother in the care of her parents. She feared for her life, so she left her family.
Over the years, Maria spoke with her mom over the phone, at Christmas or on her birthday. She felt abandoned and still cries when she thinks about growing up without a mother, though she says she has forgiven her.
Maria said she had a relatively good childhood and was especially close with her grandmother, who died when she was 12.
Last November, at the age of 15, Maria’s life was upended. She was walking home from school one day when she ran across an older woman who had been robbed. The woman asked Maria if she could use her cellphone to call for help. As Maria looked down to get her phone, someone grabbed her from behind.
She wound up in a dark, abandoned house. She didn’t know where she was. There were two men and about seven other children, ages 13-15. Some were crying.
She was held in the house for several days.
“They said if we kept crying, they wouldn’t give us any food … and that nobody was going to help us,” Maria recalled. “I tried to ask why they had me in the place _ they said, ‘Don’t ask questions.'”
After getting struck in the face by one man’s fist, Maria took her chances. She escaped through a window late at night.
“I ran and hid in the woods,” she said, noting she stayed hidden for an hour before walking until she found some streets. She saw cars but was afraid to ask for help. She thought it might be her abductors.
Several hours later, she flagged down a bus. She told the bus driver she had no money and needed help. He dropped her off near a police station. There, she told police what happened. But after hearing some of the officers’ conversations, and observing their body behavior, she felt they weren’t going to help her. Worse, she feared they were going to take her back to the abductors.
So she left the police station and walked home. It took her about an hour. When she saw her grandfather, she told him what happened.
It was then that the grandfather decided to get his granddaughter out of Honduras.
He contracted with someone for $1,500 to escort his granddaughter to the U.S. Maria took several buses. The first one was to Guatemala, where her escort met her. He was nice, she said. Along the way they met others on similar missions. In Mexico, Maria boarded a boat with others and crossed the river into the U.S., where border agents arrested her and the others in some woods and placed her in a van.
Maria was held in a detention center for two months. “They treated me well,” she says.
Eventually, authorities found relatives of Maria’s in Oakland County and had her transported to Michigan, where she is now seeking asylum. She fears that if she returns to Honduras, she will be kidnapped again and the authorities won’t do anything about it.
Fortunately, she said, she was not sexually abused when she was held captive in Honduras. But she fears bad things were in store for her had she not escaped.
“In my country, there is no justice,” she said. “What I like about this country, there are laws here.”
For now, the 16-year-old is clinging to her faith. She prays every night before going to bed, like her grandfather taught her. And she believes that God will take care of her.
“Even through everything that has happened, I still believe in Him” she said, referring to God. “I knew that He wasn’t going to leave me alone.”
As for the new asylum policy, Maria’s lawyer plans to eventually challenge it. Brand said his case is unique in that Maria was actually kidnapped and held against her will. She didn’t fear that this might happened _ it did happen, he said, stressing the police couldn’t and wouldn’t help her.
“If we can prove that this happened, how in the world do we not have enough compassion to take in this girl?” said Brand, who believes Sessions’ ruling hurts desperate and vulnerable kids who need protection.
So does criminal defense attorney Bill Swor, who has handled many high profile and politically-charged cases, including challenging the federal government’s attempt to deport hundreds of Iraqis who are lawfully in the U.S. and defeating the nation’s first post-9/11 terrorism case.
“The attorney general’s decision is cruel and ignores the fact that asylum, by law, was created to protect people whose governments will not, or cannot, protect them,” Swor said. “The ruling ignores the fact that the government is powerless to stop gangs in certain areas.”
As a result, Swor added: “Young people and their families who stay are faced with the option of joining a gang, or dying.”
According to immigration attorneys, there are two ways that unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the U.S. can be allowed to stay:
They can qualify for asylum, or, for what’s known as the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa. To qualify for that visa, a child must prove that they can’t be reunited with a parent or guardian due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment, or, that they are a victim of trafficking.
U.S. asylum law applies to those who have a well-founded fear of persecution “on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Unfortunately for Maria and teens like her, those fleeing crime and violence back home don’t necessarily fit into these categories. Immigration judges, do, however, have discretion and have granted asylum to Central Americans who can show “a well-founded fear of persecution.”
“There are very, very credible cases,” said Cindy Karp, a Florida immigration activist who for two years ran a photography workshop for unaccompanied minor children. “I think every child who comes to the U.S. border and asks for asylum should be given a chance to explain their case, protected and given the legal support necessary to define their claims.”
Karp, a former Time magazine photographer who worked in Central America for 10 years, saw plenty of violence.
“I saw those countries when they were in the throws of total civil wars,” Karp said. “The situation now is probably worse.”
Under U.S. law, migrant children who arrive here alone cannot be deported right away. Rather, Homeland Security can only detain unaccompanied children for 20 days before releasing them to HHS, which then places the minors in foster care or shelters until a sponsor is located, typically a relative.
The child stays with the sponsor while their case makes its way through immigration court, which given the backlog of such cases, can take years.
This is a sore subject for the Department of Homeland Security, which has expressed frustration with illegal immigration and the hurdles it faces in trying to fight it.
“Unaccompanied alien children and family units are flooding the border because of catch and release loopholes,” the DHS stated in a February news release. “Due to legal loopholes and court backlogs, even apprehended illegal aliens are released and become part of the temporary, illegal population of people that we cannot remove.”
The DHS also believes that Special Immigrant Juvenile visas are being abused, claiming many children are able to obtain a Green Card through the special visa status, “even though they were smuggled here to reunify with one parent present in the United States.” The agency also claims that unaccompanied minors who are allowed to stay with sponsors frequently fail to appear for court hearings or comply with removal orders.
According to the government, once these children are in the country, with few exceptions, they generally remain here. As DHS states:
“Only 3.5 percent of unaccompanied minors apprehended are eventually removed from the United States.”
Maria hopes she’s not one of them.