NEW YORK CITY — The Department of Homeland Security reports that an estimated 47,000 unaccompanied children, some as young as seven, entered the United States illegally from the southwestern border region from October 2013 through the end of May 2014. That represents a greater than 100 percent increase over the entire previous year. Most of those kids were hoping to reunite with their parents in the U.S. while fleeing the epidemic of gang violence and civil unrest in Central America and Mexico. Many reported being assaulted or raped on their journey north. The New York Immigration Coalition is trying to bring attention to the legal and humanitarian crisis faced by these young refugees.
Most of the child migrants Heather Axford represents are fleeing gang violence back home. The attorney at the Central American Legal Assistance organization says that in El Salvador, for instance, much of the menace stems from the Mara Salvatrucha, a criminal group that, ironically, was formed in Los Angeles during the 1980s.
“They are recruiting kids as young as 10 to do things like sell drugs, to collect extortion. And kids who refuse to be recruited, who refuse to cooperate with the Mara Salvatrucha, they are murdered. They are tortured and they are murdered,” said Axford.
Once these kids arrive in the United States, their psychological, emotional and physical wounds can be severe, said Mario Russell of Catholic Charities, which helps run a one-stop clinic that includes group therapy.
“Ten or 12 boys will get in a room together and they will talk about their experiences. And it’s amazing to see how they are finding solidarity, comfort, understanding and sense of peace. They get medical screening. They get dental assistance. They get food. They get this kind of totality of services. We keep them in the game,” said Russell.
That game involves law enforcement. Undocumented child migrants are placed in juvenile detention centers, while they await immigration and deportation hearings. Most children simply want to reunite with their families, who may be living in the U.S. illegally. However, that is a difficult task according to attorney Lenni Benson, the founder of the New York Law School’s Safe Passage Project, a non-profit, mostly volunteer organization of lawyers who represent children in immigration courts.
“There’s no legal way to come to the United States if you’re a child and your parents are living here without papers,” said Benson. “Even if your parents have papers, with the delays and the quota system, it may take five, six years to sponsor a child.”
American immigration law does provide asylum status for people who can prove they are fleeing government violence due to race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion. But it specifically excludes victims of so-called “generalized violence” or criminal activity.
However, attorney Heather Axford has successfully argued before the Court that in some places, criminal organizations are powerful and pervasive enough to be considered de facto governing authorities, especially where the official government is too weak or too corrupt to protect its citizens.
“So why is that kid who is refusing to cooperate any different than refusing to pay your tithing to the Taliban - which would be given asylum? Or why is it any different than refusing to cooperate with the ruling political party?” asked Axford.
Such questions are sure to increase in urgency over the coming months, if, as expected, immigration reform continues to languish in Congress, and the number of child migrants continues to skyrocket.