On a recent day in March, Luis (name changed), a 17-year-old Guatemalan, arrived in the migrant shelter Hermanos en el Camino (Brothers and Sisters on the Road), in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. Standing just over 5 feet tall, he pulled his conductor hat low over his forehead and stared at the floor as he re-counted his story.
Luis is from a town in the department of Huehuetenango and hopes to make it to the United States to work and send money back home. “It’s too hard to make a living in Guatemala,” he told me.
His family paid a coyote to bring him north. In Chiapas, the coyote abandoned him, making off with the hundreds of dollars his family had invested. He was left alone on the tracks and gang members robbed him of what money he had left. “It cost a lot to get here, and I want to get to the United States. But I don’t know how I’m going to get the money to keep going.
When the freight train “The Beast” arrives in Ixtepec, Oaxaca – sometimes carrying more than 1,000 Central American migrants – Hermanos en el Camino is ready to receive those who reach its doors. Some days, more than 100 people enter the shelter in the minutes after the train arrives. Women and young children are directed to the front of the registration line. They are always out-numbered, but their ranks are steadily climbing. This isn’t an exception – it’s the new reality of Central American migration to the United States.
‘Shocking’ Rise in Unaccompanied Youth
Contrary to the classic image of young men migrating to work, women and children now broaden the ranks of Central American migration, yet are disturbingly overlooked in the Mexican and U.S. immigration systems. In the first two months of this year, Hermanos en el Camino provided direct aid to 2,020 migrants. Among these were 183 women, or 9 percent of guests, and 121 minors, another 7 percent.
While it is difficult to estimate how many unaccompanied minors cross in total, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has estimated that more than 60,000 could make the journey to the United States in 2014. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), 95 percent of them come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The tribulations of crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are well known, yet by that point the minors migrating have already passed significant hurdles. Over 7,000 minors were detained and deported from Mexico in 2013, almost doubling the 2012 total.
Migrant shelters like Hermanos en el Camino are on the frontlines of supporting young people migrating through Mexico. The shelter was founded in February 2007, and the founder, Father Alejandro Solalinde, has received international recognition for his work to protect migrants in Mexico. Speaking in March 2014 in Ixtepec he said that in 2007, “For every 1,000 migrants, we saw one child.” Today the number of children who pass through the shelter is ‘shocking.’ ”
A Refuge From Danger
Ixtepec, Oaxaca, is on one of two main routes for Central Americans heading through Mexico. Crossing into Mexico at Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas, near the city of Tapachula, migrants take local buses or walk to Arriaga. In Arriaga, they mount “La Bestia” – the Beast, a freight train so named for the brutality migrants face on its route. After hopping the Beast, they risk extortion, robbery, violent assaults, rapes, and injuries or death in accidents. In its journey north every other day, La Bestia carries hundreds of migrants. The train covers the 160 kilometers between Arriaga and Ixtepec in between 12 and 14 hours, though sometimes the journey lasts much longer. Migrants getting off in Ixtepec either sleep in the street, are led to a hotel or house by their “pollero” or coyote, or come to the shelter. Continuing north from Ixtepec, the train enters the coastal state of Veracruz.
The dangers that migrants face traveling through Mexico include extortion – by criminal gangs and federal or state authorities. In a recent UN human rights report, nearly a quarter of migrants interviewed said that federal police in checkpoints and bus stops had shaken them down. Medicos Sin Fronteras (Doctors without Borders) has estimated that as many as 5 out of 7 women are raped or assaulted. Cartels and gangs often kidnap migrants to demand ransoms from family in the United States or their home country. In a case on Feb. 27, 2014, 61 migrants, mostly Central Americans, were found detained in a house in Reynosa, near the U.S.-Mexico border. Their kidnappers had demanded thousands of dollars for each person’s release. Many migrants disappear without a trace, and Central American civil society organizations have documented thousands of disappearances. The vast majority of these crimes are never resolved or punished.
Migrant shelters along the migrant routes of Mexico are a brief respite from the journey. Hermanos en el Camino provides food, shelter and communication services to all its guests. Because resources are limited, the shelter can only take further steps to help those most in need, often unaccompanied minors and families. Father Solalinde says that minors have a higher probability of receiving refugee status or asylum yet few want to stay at the shelter, far from family and friends, for the long process.
More Children Migrants Leave to Save Themselves
U.S. politicians and media characterize Latin American migration as a solely economic act and overlook the complex situations that drive people to leave their home countries. Poverty and unemployment have been constants, pushing high levels of migration since the 1990s, yet in recent years gang violence has compounded the crisis.
The migration of unaccompanied minors reflects the political and economic instability in their home countries and the regressive immigration policies of the United States and Mexico. U.S. intervention in Central America through economic domination and military might have stymied political and economic stabilization. The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), signed in 2003, has exported neoliberal structural adjustment policy to the region. Like its close relative NAFTA, CAFTA has opened the doors for foreign investment and has left little in return for Central Americans.
The civil wars of the 1980s in El Salvador and Guatemala have left polarized populations and legacies of violence. El Salvador has made significant strides toward democratizing its political system, yet political polarization obstructs efforts at addressing gang violence. Gangs have preyed on vulnerable political systems to sink deep roots. Originating in Southern California barrios, the gangs or “maras” Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Calle 18 (M18) expanded their reach to El Salvador when members were deported. Honduras suffered a coup in 2009 and the November 2013 elections that returned the ruling party to power saw widespread voter fraud. Honduras is now among the most violent countries in the world, with roughly 80 homicides for every 100,000 residents annually.
Today, these three Central American countries all struggle to combat the expansion of drug cartels and the gangs that control many local communities through “war taxes” and extortions. Youth are caught up in the net of gangs and many are targeted if they do not join their ranks.
Father Solalinde says, “Children leave because they don’t have a future other than the maras. They are leaving to save themselves.”
Fleeing Violence to Encounter More Violence
Franklin (name changed), 18, came to the shelter a year ago, at 17, fleeing El Salvador. He is from the Mejicanos municipality near San Salvador and had been targeted by the maras. “When I left my country I felt horrible because I didn’t want to leave. But I couldn’t do anything about it. I miss my family terribly.”
Aside from economic factors and violence, many youth migrate to re-unite with family members who are already in the United States. Current immigration policy does not provide options for the vast majority of migrant parents to initiate reunification with their children. Minors are forced to risk the journey without any assurance of reunification. Other minors are fleeing abusive family situations.
Reports from the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies (CGRS) and U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops both debunk the false belief – often perpetuated in the U.S. media – that youth migrate because they think they will get amnesty under immigration reform. In the Catholic Bishops research trip to Southern Mexico and Central America, none of the children they spoke with cited this as a “pull factor.” In two months of work at the shelter, this author did not hear a single reference to immigration reform as a driver of migration.
Central American Minors Migrating Through Mexico
The plight of children crossing Mexico hit headlines in Mexico on March 11 when Joselin Nohemí Álvarez Quillay, 12, was found dead, apparently having hung herself in the bathroom of a Ciudad Juarez state children’s shelter. The Ecuadorian girl was on her way to re-unite with her parents, who are undocumented migrants in New York, when she was apprehended along with her pollero, and put into DIF (Integral Family Development) custody. Her body will be repatriated to Ecuador – even after death she will not be reunited with her parents.
Father Solalinde has described Mexican migration policy as being “servile” to U.S. interests, enforcing U.S. national security priorities in disregard of the human rights of migrants. Mexico and the border are the last barriers to reaching the United States and Mexico’s National Immigration Institute (IMN) estimates that among Central American migrants, 50-55 percent are detained in Mexico, 25-30 percent on the U.S.-Mexico border by Border Enforcement, and a meager 15-20 percent reach their destination in the United States. The legal standing of deportations and the conditions detained migrants face is cloaked in bureaucratic secrecy.
The number of children being detained in Mexico is rising drastically, as overall deportation rates remain steady. Minors now constitute over 1 in 10 of all deportees from Mexico. IMN reported that in 2013 almost 64,000 people were returned to their home countries after being detained in Mexico, 93 percent to the main three Central American feeder countries. This total was only a marginal increase from 2012. However, the number of minors detained jumped 48 percent in this same period from 4,749 to 7,031. Nearly a quarter of the minors were women.
For minors the risks of crossing Mexico go up exponentially. A 2012 report of the National University of Lanús and the Fray Matías of Córdova Human Rights Center found that the letter of the law is generally disregarded when it comes to minors detained by Immigration in Mexico. They should be sent first to the state’s DIF agency and only be placed in detention areas specially designated for minors. Instead they generally remain in the IMN system with the adult population throughout the detention and deportation process. The report criticizes that migration policy, a de facto deportation policy, is prioritized over child protection at every stage. Minors were found to have been held in detention centers up to six months before their deportation.
Young women or girls are left increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and many are drawn into the sex trade. Many young women arrive in Mexico, thinking they will work in domestic labor or other fields, and find themselves indentured into the sex trade. By criminalizing youth migrating through Mexico, these young women and girls are less likely to seek help and often face deportation to their home countries where they may have fled violence or abusive family situations.
Minors arriving in the United States
Making it through Mexico and arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border is hardly the end of unaccompanied youths’ struggles. The number of children crossing in total can be approximated by the number of apprehensions on the U.S.-Mexico border. Between fiscal years 2004 and 2011 (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) the average number of children apprehended at the border was 6,800. In 2012, that number leaped to 13,000, and in 2013 over 24,000 children were apprehended.
Unaccompanied minors detained in the United States are legally entitled to be held in the least restrictive setting appropriate to their age to ensure their protection and wellbeing. They also are entitled to be released without unnecessary delay, generally to a parent, legal guardian or adult relative. Yet a 2013 report from Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) found that both these conditions are generally violated. With DHS reporting data from 12 percent of detention centers, the report found that between 2008 and 2012, 1,366 immigrant children were held for at least three days in adult detention centers or prisons.
The Vera Institute for Justice in a 2012 study found that 40% of unaccompanied minors may be eligible for statuses, including asylum or a special immigrant juvenile status, to avoid deportation. Yet most who arrive in the United States have no opportunity to access these options.
For those who enter without papers and do not pursue refugee or asylum status, they throw their lot in among the 11 million undocumented migrants in the U.S. today. Migrants who pass through Ixtepec often remain in contact with volunteers there, who later hear stories of accomplishment, when they arrive at their destinations, or disappointment upon being deported back to their home countries.
Meeting Needs of Migrating Minors
As the state fails to protect the human rights of migrants in transit, shelters such as Hermanos en el Camino struggle to meet the needs of all who come through their doors. More families are arriving at the shelter, often with young children. The facilities built over the past seven years to accommodate a mostly adult male population are insufficient to support children and families. There are plans to build a separate dormitory for children, who currently must stay in either the men’s or women’s dorms. In the meantime, staff and volunteers make do. They practice reading with younger children in the shelter, or take the time to listen to the stories of adolescents who pass through.
Some migrants stay at Hermanos en el Camino for the several months necessary to receive legal status in Mexico. In some cases, minors who ultimately hope to reunite with a parent in the United States or have fled their countries due to violence have taken this route instead of crossing undocumented into the United States.
While solutions must be sought in the home countries of migrants, there are immediate actions that can improve Mexican and U.S. immigration enforcement. The reports from Bishops’ Committee on Migration, the CGRS and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) make various recommendations for improving the condition of minors migrating from Central America. Foremost among them is reforming the processing of unaccompanied minors who are detained, and prioritizing the best interest of the child over punitive measures.
Franklin recently received permanent residency in Mexico on humanitarian grounds, with the support of Hermanos en el Camino. He left the shelter to live and work in Mexico City. He says, “Now that I have my papers I feel safe to travel in Mexico and can handle the situation how I want to.”
Advocates in the United States and Mexico are using many tactics to push for immigration reform. The needs of youth and families in migration must be understood and prioritized to provide comprehensive solutions. In the long haul to change policy, shelters like Hermanos en el Camino are the first line of support to meet the urgent needs of migrants in transit through Mexico.
Martha Pskowski is a writer and researcher based in Mexico City, originally from the Washington, DC area. Martha holds a B.A. from Hampshire College and works in the fields of anthropology and geography. Her research focuses on global environmental politics and their impacts on the indigenous communities of Mexico and Central American migrants in Mexico. She is a member of the CIP Americas Program team at www.americas.org.
Photos: Daniel J. Ojalvo
For More Information:
Arizona Border Crosser Death Rate at Record High, Laura Carlsen, Americas Program, August 8, 2013. http://www.americas.org/archives/10148
Report Dubs Mexico “A Graveyard for Migrants”, Dawn Paley, Americas Program, June 4, 2013. http://www.americas.org/archives/9626
Migrant Deaths and the New Disappeared on the South Texas Border, Christine Kovic, June 21, 2013. http://www.americas.org/archives/9786