Cold Paradise US Struggles with Wave of Underage Immigrants

Fleeing violence back home, tens of thousands of children and youth are fleeing Central America for the United States, many unaccompanied by a parent. The influx has bent US asylum policy to the breaking point.

By and in McAllen, Texas and La Ceira, Honduras


The trouble with paradise is its diabolic chill. Olga Arzu tries to keep warm by crossing her arms against her chest and rubbing her skin with her hands, but she is shivering nonetheless. Arzu had been excited about arriving here and the start of a new life, one that was supposed to be better than her last one. Instead she's been greeted with a high-powered air-conditioning system. And an equally cold asylum system.

Arzu's son Daylan clings to her leg. He's wearing a hoodie, but he's shivering as well. Back at home in the port city of La Ceiba in Honduras, Arzu's life may have been difficult and dangerous, but at least there wasn't any air-conditioning.

Three days ago, Arzu, 28, and Daylan, four, crossed the Rio Grande on a raft and entered the United States, the culmination of a trip that took them across Central America and Mexico and lasted somewhere between 20 and 30 days, she can't remember exactly. At some point she lost sense of lightness, darkness and time. The two were picked up by US Border Patrol officials once they crossed the river and were then locked in a small cell together with a dozen other women and children for three days, without beds, mattresses, blankets or even towels. The only thing they had were the clothes they wore on the long journey.

At one point, Olga asked a police officer if the air conditioning could be turned down a little bit. The policeman answered that the whole building would then get warmer, also affecting his colleagues. They slept on the stone floor and thought they would die -- either from the chill produced by the air-conditioner or the coldness of the border patrol. "Mom, let's get out of here," Daylan said at one point and cried for most of the three days they spent there, until they were released -- two hours ago.

Is US Still a Country of Immigration?

"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," is engraved on a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. The poem, written by Emma Lazarus, describes the United States' founding myth -- the fundamental idea behind a country that wouldn't exist without its immigrants. In today's America, though, it sometimes feels like Lazarus' words have lost their meaning.

The problem isn't the illegal immigrants as such. Until just recently, the number picked up at the border was lower than it had been in years. At the same time, however, there have never been as many children and young people crossing America's borders. Since October, 60,000 have crossed the border without being accompanied by an adult. Most of them, though, like Daylan, travel with their mothers. The majority come from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala -- countries in which the state has lost control of many areas to brutal gangs.

The mass flight of children from Central America appears to be overwhelming the US. There are too few government employees to stop the onslaught on the border and a dearth of facilities that can provide for them. The biggest problem, however, is that the US seems unable to answer one critical question: Whether it is still a country of immigration or whether it has instead become one of deportation.

The dispute begins with classifications. Are the people currently making their way to America immigrants or refugees? The Republicans like to describe them as immigrants, and they want to solve the problem by making the borders to the US impenetrable. They want more police, higher fences and, for those who still succeed in entering the country, immediate deportation.

A Crisis Escalates

The Republicans also accuse President Barack Obama of having made the US more attractive to people who would like to sneak in illegally. And indeed, one law passed during his time in office does stipulate that the government must be more lenient in dealing with these children and that, when possible, they should be reunited in the country with their families. Bands of smugglers picked up on that and began spreading rumors that children from Central America were welcome in the United States.

For a long time, the president did little to address the crisis and his administration seemed caught off guard by the influx, despite sufficient hints in the past that the situation might escalate. During a trip to Texas two weeks ago, Obama attended fundraising dinners, but cautiously avoided getting too close to the border the US shares with Mexico. It was symbolic of the way he has handled the issue of child immigration. Slowly, though, it is starting to appear as if Obama is waking up to the fact that greater effort will be required for dealing with the crisis.

"I thank God that it's over," Arzu now says of her days in detention. She's standing in the gymnasium of the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, near the border to Mexico and is holding a pair of pants she wants to try on. Volunteers set up a camp in the city for mothers and their children to recuperate after their days spent in incarceration. They have collected old clothing, erected tents in a parking lot and provided portable showers. There's a constant influx of newly arrived mothers and children, with the number exceeding 200 people on some days.

After trying things on, Olga decides on a pair of baggy cloth trousers as well as a pink blouse and a light blue corduroy jacket. She takes a seat at one of the tables next to the piles of clothing.

Rampant Poverty and Violence

Arzu explains that poverty is rampant where she comes from. There may be rich people as well -- corrupt politicians, business people and gang leaders -- but most are poor like her. If you're a poor person, she says, Honduras is a very expensive country. She also speaks of how she was unable to find a job and how AIDS killed her parents. But the worst, she says, was the violence. In the past, the gangs had only threatened the rich, but today they also go after the poor. She claims they threatened her, saying, "If you don't pay the war tax, we will kill your brother and your niece." Arzu began fearing they might one day kill her son as well.

Daylan climbs up on his mother's lap. The church volunteers hand him a coloring book featuring Elmo from Sesame Street. Daylan smiles. It's the first time he has done so in many days.

About 2,500 kilometers (1,553 miles) south of Texas, Olga Arzu's husband, David Palacios, sits down in his Honduran national soccer team jersey and starts to talk about how much he misses his wife and his son. His eyes are narrow and there's something melancholy and empty about his gaze. Sitting in a small Internet cafe in La Ceiba, he explains how he and Olga married six years ago. "We haven't had any contact since she has been in the US," he says.

Palacios says as much as he would have liked to join his wife, he didn't have the money. The smugglers who would have taken him to the US wanted $7,000. He works in a sawmill at the edge of the city, where he toils for 12 hours at a time for $10 a day. The trip to the US is cheaper for women and children. Olga paid $3,600 to her "coyotes," as the smugglers are called. She borrowed part of the money from her sister, who fled years ago to the US while a go-between lent her the rest of the money, which she is obliged to pay back once she has found work in the US. "If she doesn't," her husband says, "then the coyotes will come to collect the money from us here."

Palacios speaks slowly and seems a bit intimidated, as if he harbors fears of some unseen forces. The Internet cafe is managed by his sister and is located in Colonia Miramar, a neighborhood where the government has capitulated to the gangs.

Olga Arzus' sister Carla Isabel, 25, points out the window with her finger and then begins to share stories of violence about the neighborhood. There's the young man with the new Samsung phone who they shot in the face several times after he refused to hand it over. Then there's the old lady from the corner store who was murdered because she didn't want to pay any protection money. And the granddaughter of the liquor store owner who was killed because her grandfather hadn't paid his "war tax".

"We fear we will be the next," says Carla Isabel Arzu. To keep a low profile, she says she doesn't do any advertising for her Internet cafe. There's just a small sign indicating what kind of store it is. "We don't want to stand out," she says. "The Mareros could turn up here at any time."


Discuss this issue with other readers!
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Fritz Oz 07/31/2014
1. Influx of illegal immigrant children
The US has to start thinking like some of the European countries and really evaluate how one reconciles the emotional tug of these kids and the harsh reality of how to pay for their care and offspring. They may be escaping harsh conditions back home, which anyone living in a third world nation could claim and coming to this country to live in our ghettos and experience further trauma here. 60% of the girls have been sexually traumatized enroute and I can guarantee you will be pregnant soon if not already. Those children will then be US citizens and political fodder for the left. As it is already a common practice, any parentless illegal minor already gets a free immigration atty paid for by the taxpayer. Have you caught on the economic drain this all will have on the US tax payer. Most of all, we are not adequately taking care of our own and cannot take in the rest of the world that sees us as the Disneyland of happiness. I suppose that if the current crop of illegals already here were willing to assimilate and learn English etc. one could be more considerate. I will admit some of the illegals here to work are the hardest workers and I would vote for a plan to grandfather them in if they were truly workers. Unfortunately we now have a class of illegals who either deal/sell drugs and/or are living off their "anchor babies", children born here who get everything from housing to welfare.
nsmith 07/31/2014
Luthampedusa, USA. Really, it's time for the Central and South American countries involved to take stock of the situation, and responsibility for the criminal activity allowed to persist within their own borders, instead of standing by idly as their citizens flee "en masse" due to gang activity, and acts of corruption that is allowed to go on unabated. The United States, like any other nation should not be held responsible for sheltering immigrants from other countries, simply because they have been abandoned by their own....How to solve this problem?... END THE WARS!...SHARE THE WEALTH!...Give Peace a Chance!!
sneeekysteve 07/31/2014
3. Illegal immigration
Published surveys in Mexico and Central America show that about 60% of the population would like to move to the US. With their high birth rate this means a massive and continuing problem for the US. A few years ago there was a debate about building a wall along the whole length of the Mexican US border. The opposition bitterly fought it calling it racist and claiming that it wouldn't work. The truth is that the wall would have worked very well and that's why they opposed it. The Democratic Party does nothing to stop illegal immigration because they know that eventually everyone of them will be a future Democratic voter. The Republican Party does nothing to stop illegal immigration because all their business supporters love the cheap labor. The agriculture, hotel, and fast food businesses would cease to operate without immigrant labor. It doesn't seem to bother anyone that a large percentage of these immigrants wind up in jail or on welfare (when they become legalized). Money and votes are all that matters in the US. Beware Germany. Its the same story for you. One party gets all the immigrant votes and the other party benefits from their cheap labor. I dont see any chance of stopping it without a popular revolt against it.
dawgrl 07/31/2014
4. Oh, those awful Americans!
Once again America is on the hot seat! Never mind the governments in Latin America who cannot insure the safety and well being of their citizens. Never mind parents who send their unaccompanied children north. Never mind the criminals who entice people for money. It is all big bad America's fault (as usual) for anything that is unpleasant in this world. If you lived in El Paso n July you'd be glad to have air conditioning! And obviously the detention building has only one HVAC system. And the employees do have a right to be comfortable while working... they are there every day, not just for a few days. America is doing its best with this difficult situation. And, no, perhaps they no more need immigrants who become dependent on social welfare programs anymore than the Germans want to welcome "welfare tourists" from Bulgaria, Romania, and so forth. When America was young, new, and relatively empty, immigrants were welcome. But America has had quotas in place and legal steps to citizenship for a long time now. How America deals with illegal immigration is nothing new. The problem is he current overwhelming wave, and that is not America's fault!
DeclineAndFall002 07/31/2014
5. immigration/deportation
Nobody is caught off guard. Valerie and La Raza have planned this for months, with his highness' blessing.
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