Fleeing poverty and gang violence, thousands of Central American children continue to walk alone toward the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes of having a new life in the United States.
Since taking office in January, President Joe Biden has expelled the vast majority of migrant adults and families under a public health order established by his predecessor Donald Trump.
But the Biden administration allows children traveling without parents or guardians to enter the country to join relatives as they pursue their asylum claims, recognizing that setting them aside would endanger their lives.
“They are all vulnerable,” said Eskinder Negash, chair of the U.S. Refugee and Immigrant Committee, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia.
“They travel hundreds of miles; they don’t come here because they want to go to Disneyland, ”Negash told Al Jazeera. “They come here because they have a well-founded fear of violence in their country, in their governments or gangs. If that’s not vulnerable, then I don’t know what it is. “
But as thousands of children continue to arrive at the border in hopes of obtaining asylum in the US, experts say, once in the country they face numerous obstacles and great uncertainty.
According to CBP data, 13,962 children crossed the United States in April, slightly below the 15,918 that arrived in March. Amid the increase, the conditions in which these children remained and the time they spent in custody spurred a national debate.
Republicans accused Biden of encouraging parents to send their children and of creating a “crisis” at the border. And images that show children in makeshift and crowded facilities, sleeping on thin mattresses and wrapped in aluminum foil blankets, increased pressure on the president, who promised to implement more humane immigration policies.
But National Security Department Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has blamed the Trump administration for dismantling facilities and systems that he said would have facilitated the prosecution of migrants. He also said the rise in arrivals began in April 2020, months before Biden took office.
After a period in the custody of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), migrant children are transferred to shelters funded by Health and Human Services (HHS), a federal department, where officials begin the location process. of his relatives.
Negash’s organization runs one of these shelters. Rinconcito del Sol (“Little Corner of the Sun”) welcomes girls ages 14 to 18 to the U.S. state of Florida. It has a maximum capacity of about 140 children, but currently houses 100 due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Negash said many of the girls reported being sexually abused during their trips to the United States and some have been trafficked. Most flee poverty and gang violence and lack education.
After arriving at the Florida facility or any of the other 200 people refuge nationwide, children are tested for COVID-19 and given physical and mental health tests. Within an average of 30 days, most children are released to a “sponsor,” a parent, a relative, or a family friend in the U.S., while pursuing their asylum claims.
In an email, HHS said a child is attached to a family member in the country in more than 80 percent of cases. In more than 40 percent of all cases, this family member is a parent or legal guardian. As of May 2, there were 22,264 unaccompanied children in HHS care, according to a department data sheet (PDF).
During the Senate testimony on May 13, Mayorkas said the time children spend in CBP custody has been reduced to an average of 22 hours, significantly lower than the average of 133 hours in March, well beyond legal limit of 72 hours. “The challenge is not far behind, but the results are dramatic,” he said.
Kathleen Goss is a child services specialist at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which runs three shelters for unaccompanied minors up to the age of 13 in northern California, Dallas, Texas and Virginia. Each facility has between 10 and 24 beds.
He said sponsors are interviewed and evaluated and that background checks are carried out, as part of a verification process before a child is placed in their custody. In some cases, home visits are made to determine if the accommodations are adequate.
“We want to make sure we know what this adult’s relationship is with the child and make sure we have documentation for that,” Goss told Al Jazeera. Another goal is to assess whether sponsors are equipped to ensure that children’s needs are met and that they are connected to community resources, such as schools.
“We want to make sure that it is a safe place for the child who is not at risk of abuse, neglect or trafficking, and that he has everything in place and available to accept that child into his home and life to help him that child will prosper. “
If the potential sponsor is one of a child’s parents, the child usually meets with them within a week or two of arriving at the shelter, Goss said. If the sponsor is a more distant relative or family friend, it may take longer to approve. Children are transferred or taken to their sponsors or picked up at the shelter.
The last step in their process, Goss said, is a “follow-up” phone call 30 days after a child is placed with their sponsor to make sure things are going well. In the event that a child has no relatives in the United States and the sponsor is not found or deemed appropriate, the child is placed in foster care.
So far this year, the USCCB has processed 300 children through its facilities, Goss added.
“Cards Stacked Against Them”
But once they are left in the custody of the U.S. government and are already in foster care or with their sponsors, children will have to navigate the U.S. immigration system as they get used to their new lives in the country. .
Once in the United States, migrant children can apply for asylum or other types of immigration protection, such as special immigrant child status, often with the help of an attorney whose families must ‘insure or through pro-bono organizations.
Unlike adult asylum seekers who usually suffer contradictory court proceedings, cases of unaccompanied minors are heard in family court and children are interrogated by asylum officers trained to interview minors.
Amid lawsuits stalled due to COVID-19 restrictions, the process to obtain permanent status can take up to four years, according to lawyers. If their applications are unsuccessful, the children are deported. According to data collected by Trac Immigration, a research group affiliated with Syracuse University, more than 35,000 migrant children were deported so far this year.
Children’s new domestic environments (with relatives who often struggle with food insecurity and housing or are undocumented) can also be a challenge, said Elise de Castillo, executive director of the American Refugee Center, a support group to New York State refugees.
“Immigrant children are part of families that have never been part of before, or they are placed with parents who have until then been only parents in name,” de Castillo told Al Jazeera. “When you do it at 14 or 15, when parenting is a universal challenge and then adding that specific dynamic twist, it gets even harder.”
Many children, especially adolescents, also face significant difficulties in adapting to their new schools. “Unaccompanied minors are usually children with interrupted education and located in academic settings where they are being educated in a second language or in a language they do not speak,” de Castillo said.
“When a child gets here, letters are often stacked against their success.”