Trains, amputations and the roots of why kids are on the run

Without lawyers, data show, 9 out of 10 migrant kids ordered deported

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The teen whose arms had been severed was still in shock, but he managed to muster a smile and embrace visitors with his bandaged stumps. Evilio Gonzalez had fallen off and then under a train he was riding on — a vain attempt to leave Honduras, cross through Mexico and get into the United States.

I met Evilio 10 years ago, while I was a reporter based in Latin America for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Cox Newspapers chain. Catholic nuns at the eight-bed Rosa de Tepeyac Hospital in Mexico City were caring for the youth’s wounds and shattered spiritual health. Among others in the clinic was Edgar Suniga, 14, whose left leg had been severed. 

“Compared to what Jesus Christ suffered, this is nothing,” Evilio told me, demonstrating how the nuns were helping him learn to draw with his toes. 

That same year, in Guatemala City, I also met Drik Borgan Godoy de Leon, a teen who spoke of his struggle to extricate himself from a gang. The 18-year-old was shot dead, just two months after our interview. I also met in Sandra Zayas, a beleaguered special prosecutor of crimes against women and children. One of her cases involved the murder of two Guatemalan sisters, 11 and 14, who were chopped to pieces because the elder sister spurned a gangster’s advances.

Since I reported those stories, the grip that organized crime has on Central American countries has tightened further. Justice systems remain notoriously incapable of handing the crisis.The region has a long history of stark inequality, dictatorships and brutal civil wars that led to massacres of many poor inhabitants, including mass killings of Guatamala's Maya native people in the 1980s. The United States invested billions in military spending during that time to support select regimes in the area and is now financing drug war efforts there.   

Many of the minors who are now turning themselves in at the U.S.-Mexico border speak of joining parents in “El Norte,” or talk of how they dream of finding a job. But more and more are now speaking of the horror at seeing friends and relatives killed, raped, extorted and the pressure they receive to serve gangs — or else.

Here is some illuminating information about deteriorating conditions in Central America, long in the making, and the U.S. debate over how to deal with the influx of minors showing up at the border.

A Syracuse University project known as TRAC released a report this week analyzing more than 100,000 juvenile cases filed in the nation’s immigration courts over the last 10 years. Only 43 percent of kids in these cases were or are currently represented by lawyers who help plead for asylum or another form of legal status, according to TRAC, the acronym for the university’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.  

Immigration courts are clogged with backlogs, but juvenile cases only represent about 11 percent of all cases currently pending.  

Kids, like adults, do not have the right to the appointment of attorney in immigration proceedings.

But TRAC found that having a lawyer increased the odds that kids would win their claims against deportation: In cases that have been resolved, nearly half the children who had attorneys — 47 percent — were allowed to remain in the United States. When children did not have legal representation, courts allowed only one in 10 to remain here.

A group of civil rights advocates filed suit this month arguing that it is an unconstitutional violation of due process not to provide minors with legal representation in immigration hearings, as the Center for Public Integrity reported.

Meanwhile, a debate is raging over whether a 2008 anti-trafficking law Congress approved — a reauthorization of existing legislation — has spurred more migration of children. Foreign nationals have a right to request asylum apart from this law. But the law establishes procedures for minors who are not with parents when they are taken into custody by Border Patrol agents.

Within 72 hours of their detention, such children are supposed to be transferred to shelters supervised by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There they are supposed to have an opportunity to speak to social workers and receive a talk about their legal rights and options. Those options include asking for an immigration hearing before a judge rather than being deported immediately. Deportations of non-Mexican or Canadian children can take many days to coordinate in conjunction with their consular officials.

Mexican or Canadian children, by contrast, can be handed over to child-welfare officials in their countries within hours if they volunteer to be returned during screenings that Border Patrol agents are obliged to perform of these children. Mexican and Canadian minors can also ask to be transferred to a shelter and request an immigration hearing. But after quick screenings, many end up quickly returned at various ports of entry. 

Legislative proposals — with some bipartisan support — are emerging in Congress to alter the anti-trafficking act, a move that's dividing lawmakers. Changes to the law could give Border Patrol agents a role in screening Central American children shortly after they're detained and then deporting them more quickly if they agree to being removed.  

As the Center has reported, the Obama Administration has also supported the idea of streamlining interviews of minors, with officials suggesting that many children are not likely to qualify for asylum or other forms of legal status. 

Speedy screenings that end in children agreeing to leave are controversial because Mexican minors have been deported back to dangerous circumstances, including servitude as drug "mules" and as sex workers, as the Center found in 2011. An in-depth report by the Texas legal aid group Appleseed, which led observations of such screenings, also found that kids were sent back to perilous conditions in Mexico.

For years, researchers who study Central America have warned that organized crime was gaining strength.

A Congressional Research Service report in February of this year surveyed the gang problem in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and the struggle to address it. The U.S. Department of Justice has archived many reports assessing the growing threats of gangs. The Washington Office on Latin America also has a wealth of studies over the years warning of the need to address dysfunctional justice systems and continuing migration of kids and families that are divided. A 2010 report explores brutal practices by people smugglers.

Thousands of Central American adults hold temporary “protective” visas in the United States due to natural disasters, but cannot legally bring their children into the United States to live with them. The children are left behind in precarious circumstances — just one of the “push and pull” factors that help explain why children migrate, as an analyst with the Brookings Institution wrote.

The nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute also has produced a number of pieces describing the complex roots and difficult choices for addressing the influx of minors. In 2006, a report on the history of violence and migration explained that U.S. officials often resisted giving asylum to certain Central Americans during the civil wars in the 1980s.

“The United States,” the report says, “sided with conservative governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, labeling its actions anticommunist, and invested billions of dollars. When hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans fled their homelands and sought asylum in the United States, this aid became the primary reason for denying the refugees' tales of torture, forced recruitment, and other crimes. To accord them political asylum would have undermined the U.S. government's policies.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees produced a report this year called “Children on the Run,” as the Center for Public Integrity reported in March. The report presents surveys of children explaining growing fear of violence and personal threats that U.N. officials argue constitutes a refugee crisis.