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.
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.
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.
"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."
- Part 1: US Struggles with Wave of Underage Immigrants
- Part 2: 'We Are All Americans'
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