Photo: Southwest Key
Even as strict immigration bills await committee hearings in the Texas Legislature, a steady stream of unaccompanied immigrant minors continues to attempt to cross the border into the United States. Figures show more than half come from as far away as Honduras and Guatemala. What happens to these children, some only toddlers, if they’re apprehended?
Over 85,000 unaccompanied immigrant minors try to cross the border every year, according to the United States Office of Refugee Resettlement’s most recent report to Congress. The children attempt to cross the Mexico-U.S. border, but many are apprehended.
Rosalinda Huey, a Border Patrol agent in the Rio Grande Valley Sector, says the number of unaccompanied children who attempt the treacherous trek across the border continues to rise. “I can only speak for the Rio Grande Valley Sector [but…] we had close to 1,000 unaccompanied children that attempted to cross into the United States for 2010,” Huey said.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, most of the children are coming from Central America. But now Texas is seeing an increase in Mexican minors trying to cross the border, in part because of increased violence in the country, according to Huey.
There are two main reasons that children attempt the journey alone. “Some of these children are coming here to be reunited with a family member, usually a parent,” Huey said. “And then there are some children who come here for the American dream. To prosper, study and live in the United States.”
But not many of them get to live out that dream. Instead, they are apprehended by the Border Patrol. “They’re going to be put into a removal proceeding where their information is taken and they’re turned over to whatever agency or facility is going to care for them,” Huey said.
This is where Southwest Key Programs tries to help. An Austin-based nonprofit, the organization currently has a contract with the US Office of Refugee Resettlement to operate shelters for unaccompanied immigrant minors, and houses approximately 2,500 children a year. “When they get to us, the very first thing we do is to make sure that they are healthy and they are seen by a doctor, they get to see a dentist as well,” said Alexia Rodriguez, vice-president of immigrant children services and legal counsel for Southwest Key. “They’re also assigned a case manager who begins to work on their case while they’re at Southwest Key.”
The organization houses the minors for approximately 45 days. The main goal is to reunify them with their parents either in the US or back home, but that isn’t always easy.
“For a child to be reunified, that sponsor of the child has to go through a process which entails FBI fingerprint checks and quite a few family members of our children are undocumented themselves,” Rodriguez said. “So they’re fearful to go through the process because … they may be picked up and detained and sent back home as well.”
Rodriguez says about half of the children rejoin their parents. The others ares deported to their home countries. Much of the rhetoric surrounding immigration legislation focuses on adults and families. Little of that talk focuses on the children who make the journey of thousands of miles for a chance to live in the US.