Lives in the Balance
Activists, politicians decry calls to send kids back to danger zones in Central America
By André Coleman 07/10/2014
Fifteen-year-old Maritza told the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that she had no choice but to flee El Salvador for the US to avoid rape and possibly death at the hands of a violent Central American gang fighting for control of drug trafficking along her country’s border with Guatemala.
“I am here because the gang threatened me,” Maritza said. “One of them liked me. Another gang member told my uncle that he should get me out of there because the guy who liked me was going to do me harm. In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags. My uncle told me it wasn’t safe for me to stay there. They told him that on April 3, and I left on April 7. They said if I was still there on April 8 they would grab me, and I didn’t know what would happen.”
But now Maritza and thousands of other children who crossed the border into the US unaccompanied by an adult could be sent back to their countries as politicians argue over immigration reform.
According to the Obama administration, parents living in the Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other parts of Central America have sent more than 47,000 unaccompanied children to the US since October to escape increasing violence and brutality between warring drug factions. The United Nations expects 43,000 additional children to enter the country before the year is over.
According to some projections, as many as 90,000 children could attempt to cross the border before the year is up.
The mass exodus is being driven by a lack of government control amidst a violent war between drug traffickers along the Guatemala-Honduras border, an area called the most violent in the world by the International Crisis Group, an independent, nonprofit nongovernmental organization, or NGO, committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflicts.
“It’s a crisis of such magnitude and causes are such that we need to look at it not as an immigration crisis but as a refugee crisis,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church. “Their lives are in danger in their homeland. We need to think about them the same way as we would other people escaping a war zone or similar danger.”
Refugee status would allow immediate admittance into the US due to war, environmental, political or religious persecution. So far, the children have not been given that status.
President Obama has asked Congress to approve $3.7 billion for humanitarian relief funds, but on Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that most unaccompanied minors attempting to enter the United States on the country’s southern border will likely not qualify for humanitarian relief and will be deported.
The deportations could conflict with current policy that calls for children detained at the border to be turned over to a family member in the US who can care for them while their case moves through immigration court. If family members can’t be located, the children are placed in the care of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
According to an article in the Spanish-language weekly newspaper HOY written by Pasadena activist Randy Jurado Ertll, a native of El Salvador and an occasional contributor to the Pasadena Weekly, Central American gangs are specifically targeting and recruiting young children and murdering those who refuse to join.
Like Maritza, 17-year-old Alfonso testified he was also forced to flee El Salvador when members of the M-18 gang targeted him after suspecting him of belonging to a rival gang.
“They had killed the two police officers who protected our school,” Alfonso testified before the UN committee in New York. “They waited for me outside the school. It was a Friday, the week before Easter, and I was headed home. The gang told me that if I returned to school, I wouldn’t make it home alive. The gang had killed two kids I went to school with, and I thought I might be the next one. After that, I couldn’t even leave my neighborhood. They prohibited me. I know someone whom the gangs threatened this way. He didn’t take their threats seriously. They killed him in the park. He was wearing his school uniform. If I hadn’t had these problems, I wouldn’t have come here.”
According to Ertll, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres earlier this year declared that a majority of the children emigrating from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras deserve protection under international treaties.
“We must uphold the human rights of the child,” Ertll said.
Although most people agree children must be treated humanely, efforts by US officials to tour facilities where they are being held have been shut down.
“It’s terrible,” said Judy Goldstock a member of the Detainee Friends Project, which meets at Neighborhood Church in Pasadena. “Only if you are in their shoes would you know what to do. Do I send them or do I watch them die? I would not know what to do.”
On Monday, Goldstock told the Weekly that she planned to tour the Adelanto Detention Center in Victorville along with US Rep. Judy Chu (D-Pasadena).
Goldstock said that the pair could be denied admission to the federal holding facility due to a policy that only allows guided tours of certain parts of the facility.
On July 2, US Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) was denied access to a Department of Health and Human Services facility at Fort Sill, which currently houses up to 1,200 children who illegally crossed the Mexican border into the United States. Authorities there said that the earliest Bridenstine can tour the facility is July 21.
“There is no excuse for denying a federal representative from Oklahoma access to a federal facility in Oklahoma where unaccompanied children are being held,” Bridenstine said in a prepared statement. “Any member of Congress should have the legal authority to visit a federal youth detention facility without waiting three weeks.”
“Part of what’s driving these young people to come here is a humanitarian crisis, and the first order is the uncertainty about what our immigration laws are,” said US Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). “We in Congress can do something about this, but if we don’t I applaud the president for doing what he can. It’s still not going to be a substitute for Congress acting. That broken system is one of the reasons why kids are flocking here.”
Pro- and anti-immigration groups protested at federal immigration facilities in Murrieta and Little Rock, Ark. over the past several weeks. In Murrieta, which is located in southwestern Riverside County, protesters blocked buses transporting 140 undocumented men, women and children being held in Texas who were being transferred to that facility. Federal law allows detainees to be transferred to any facility in the country without prior notification.
“Detainees can be shuttled at will to any other place in the country,” said Goldstock. “They can be shipped from Adelanto to Virginia and nobody would know. The isolation is major. They are not allowed to receive anything, including books and food.”
Democrats and Republicans differ on the solutions to the problem. Republicans claim that the nation’s borders have been weakened by the Obama administration. Democrats and the administration respond that House Speaker John Boehner has refused to allow a vote on a bipartisan immigration reform bill that was passed in the Democratic-majority Senate in 2013. Obama announced last month that he would handle immigration reform via executive action if the bill is not heard.
“I don’t know what the answer is. It is not Murrieta or Little Rock,” Goldstock said.