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The Horrific Journey of Children Crossing Borders

Central America’s widespread criminal activity and violence drives thousands of families out of their countries in search of refuge. The “Violent Northern Triangle” is home to organized criminal groups such as MS-13 and drug cartels that control the police forces of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Organized crime groups facilitate tactics made to lure in adolescents into participating in gang activities. Some youth feel they have no other option. Poverty in Central America affects anywhere between 23 to 75 percent of the population, with rural areas suffering more than urban. With the infiltration of violence and drugs, floods of Central Americans head up north with the hope of seeking a better life and un sueño americano.

Immigrant smugglers looking to make a profit facilitate routes for asylum seekers to reach the U.S.-Mexican border in exchange for “coyote fees.” Asylum seekers can expect to pay fees ranging from $3,000 to nearly $75,000. These costs vary depending on the distance traveled, the mode of transportation, and whether the asylum seeker is looking to avoid detection by border patrol agents. Unaccompanied minors and families reaching the U.S.-Mexican border hope to seek asylum from their gang-ridden, violent homes but are met with challenges. The U.S. government argues that Central Americans “do not fit the technical definition of a refugee, so the U.S. is not obligated to offer them asylum.” It is important to acknowledge the hardships and challenges families endure while traveling from country to country, especially after President Trump’s strict response to children arriving to our southern border this past summer. A costly endeavor, families and unaccompanied children make the treacherous journey to the United States with hopes of making it there alive.

For a majority of asylum seekers, travel begins in one of three countries: Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. The geographical features in Central America make it very difficult for many looking to escape by foot. The Suchiate River connects the Guatemalan town of Ciudad Tecún Umán with Mexico and is the most common route that Central American asylum seekers take when beginning their perilous trek up north. Legal trade and traffic is exchanged between the two countries on the bridge across the Suchiate River. Below it, the smuggling of people on rafts and boats travel along the water with the hope of not catching the attention of immigration and custom agents at both ends of the bridge. Guatemalan raftsman can charge asylum seekers about $1.30 to cross when the river is high. While the river is normally low and generally safe to raft on, tires on the rafts occasionally burst and people lose their balance and fall off.

To avoid paying high smuggling fees, many trek to Arriaga, Mexico, where a freight train known as “La Bestia” travels to the United States southern border. La Bestia has been serving “as many as half a million Central American immigrants on their journey to the United States.” More than 50,000 Central American minors have made the journey riding La Bestia to the United States in just one year. Asylum seekers risk being stopped by Mexican officials patrolling the roads, bus stations, and airports if they travel by any other mode of transportation. The destination for La Bestia requires a 150-mile trek on foot from the Suchiate River to Arriaga, Mexico, where the freight train departs. The moment people set foot in Mexico, their journey becomes even more risky as many areas with high crime rates attack those passing through. Reports of sexual assault, robberies, and altercations with gangs are common occurrences for vulnerable minors and families. The 150-mile hike to Arriaga results in kidnappings and ransoms with “passage fees”as high as $100. On the way to Arriaga is the city of Tapachula, where smugglers wait to recruit more “customers” up north to the freight trains.

The most significant part of the journey to the United States is reaching Arriaga, where people mount on to freight trains. Journeys on El Tren de la Muerte “can take anywhere from a week to several months.” They “must ride 10 to 15 different freight trains” with the first leg being a “13-hour ride from Arriaga to Ixtepec, Oaxaca.” With no passenger seating, windows, or even rails, they are forced to lay back to back on the roof of the trains, risking death and amputation of their limbs. Asylum seekers have very limited resources and absolutely no protection from severe weather conditions. the ride on La Bestia becomes the point in the journey were family members die and become separated from one another. Univision, a Spanish-language news network, reported they are being shot by train guards while aboard La Bestia. When the train makes a stop at the Amatlán de los Reyes, a group of Mexican women known as “Las Patronas” await for the people to hop off the train cars to provide them with food and water. Those making the journey can expect to board up to 15 trains, with children being the most susceptible to injuries and death. Despite the risks of separation, death, and serious injury, nearly 400,000 people take the risk every year.

As Mexicans encounter undocumented immigrants on the road, they usually do not treat them with kindness. Ironically, Mexicans share xenophobic sentiments, specifically for Central Americans traveling through Mexico into the U.S. Their vulnerability and lack of knowledge on their personal rights makes it easy for corrupt officials to abuse them. Eighty percent of asylum seekers will be assaulted or robbed in between trains when they are met by one of Mexico’s most dangerous cartels, the Zetas. Kidnapping asylum seekers is common, with gang members making “as much as $2,500 for each victim.” The kidnappings and killings of asylum seekers explain the upsurge of number in children reaching the U.S. Mexican border without their parents.

Once La Bestia reaches the border, children and families turn themselves in to Border Patrol as soon as possible. To be formally detained by Border Patrol officers will increase their chances in arriving at their final destination since delaying legal proceedings can result in people living without documents.

Children often stray away from the desert by staying closer to roads with the hope of catching the attention of a border patrol officer. Unfortunately, vigilantes often kidnap and abuse the undocumented children. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents discharge unaccompanied minors into a detention center, nicknamed the hielera or the “icebox.” Children freeze and go hungry, often times not being allowed to use the bathroom as many times as they’d like to. The Human Rights Watch declared that “all immigration detainees have the right to be treated with dignity and humanity, and children, whether unaccompanied or with family members, are entitled to additional safeguards under U.S. and international law.” The centers immigrants are put into after being detained at the border are generally in poor condition, with many sleeping on the floor. Immigrant women have reported not being allowed to shower for days and were not offered “hand soap, toothpaste, or toothbrushes” meaning they couldn’t wash their hands with soap before and after eating and after using the bathroom.

While their journey has ended, unaccompanied minors often wait for months to be reunited with relatives in the U.S. or family members back in their home countries. Legal proceedings last just as long, with children as young as 2 years old having to defend themselves in front of an immigration judge. As of 2015, children in over 38,000 pending cases remain unrepresented. . Since President Trump’s crackdown on immigration and “zero-tolerance” policy which was “intended to ramp-up criminal prosecution of people caught entering the United States illegally.”

Despite the criminal prosecution asylum seekers face when entering the United States illegally, Central American families sacrifice their futures in search of a better quality of life. Record-high homicide rates, sexual and domestic abuse, and corrupt police forces drive Central Americans out of their countries, forcing them to leave their culture, their home, and their relatives behind. As unaccompanied minors face an immigration judge at court to defend their deportation proceedings, their future is determined unjustly with the lack of representation or resources necessary to provide a proper defense. The treacherous journey that may have resulted in the loss of a leg or the loss of a family member may all have been for nothing if rejected asylum.

The introduction of “the Central America Family Protection and Reunification Act” bill came in the wake of Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy.” The bill would “aim to strengthen the State Department’s role in monitoring and addressing the root causes of migration from Central America.” While this effort may focus on the issue back in their home countries, immigration courts in the United States continue to face a crisis with minors receiving legal representation. Studies shown that “children with legal representation are permitted to stay nearly 50 percent of the time, while only 10 percent without representation are able to remain.” Cases of children find themselves waiting for court dates that don’t seem to come around for months at a time. The futures of children reaching our southern border are uncertain and until they are given an answer, they continue to be held in detention centers and shelters throughout the country. It can be said that the journey of an asylum seeker only begins when reaching the United States, as court dates and the time period it takes to seek asylum can feel almost endless.