Cristian is a shy 16-year-old with a meticulously gelled mohawk. On a late July afternoon, in the uptown Kingston offices of the Worker Justice Center, he begins to recount his journey.
Four months earlier, he crossed an entire continent by bus, foot, taxi, van, freight train, and finally plane, from his rural hometown of Santa Cruz, Guatemala, to Kingston. It took almost 30 days between the travel and staying in "bodegas," stash houses, or spaces where groups of migrants sleep, often side-by-side on the floor, awaiting the next step of their journey. Before crossing the border, he stayed in one bodega packed with about 50 people for whom there were seven mattresses and three beds. Once he was in Texas, he hid in another with about 30 people for 12 days, eating only two or three sandwiches per day.
From there they took a van to be dropped off to walk across the desert, hoping to avoid being pulled over on the highway on their way into the interior of the US. After walking for about four hours, Cristian and several others were apprehended by the Border Patrol, taken to a juvenile detention center in Corpus Christi, and entered into the immigration system. He was there for three days and was then transferred to a youth shelter for another eight days before finally being put on a plane, alone, to reunite with his father in New York. Cristian hadn't seen his father in four years.
A Global Trend
Cristian is one amongst a rapidly growing number of unaccompanied youth who are migrating northward from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. According to the US Department of Homeland Security, almost 70,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the US-Mexico border during fiscal year 2014 (October 1, 2013 — September 30, 2014). This is a 77 percent increase over the year prior.
The Central Americans who are apprehended are taken into detention and processed. Under a Bush-era anti-human-trafficking law, minors from countries other than Mexico and Canada who enter the US have the right to make a case for themselves as refugees instead of entering deportation proceedings automatically as adults.
According to the recent report Children on the Run put out by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, the number of unaccompanied and separated children from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who have been apprehended at the border has doubled each year since 2011, and migrants expressing a fear of persecution or torture were they to return to their home country increased nearly seven-fold between the years of 2009 and 2013, when 36,1745 individuals sought asylum. The youth are not only coming to the US but are also seeking asylum in the neighboring countries of Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Panama. These countries registered a combined 435 percent increase in asylum applications in 2012.
According to the UN, the reason for the surge is increased criminal activity in countries with weak governments, combined with entrenched poverty. Honduras and El Salvador consistently rank among the countries with the highest homicide rates worldwide.
Why They Are Coming
Felipe has sharp eyes and a quick smile and speaks the indigenous language of Q'eqchi' in addition to Spanish. He works in a local restaurant and crossed the US/Mexico border for the first time in 2002.
Late one night in December he received a surprising phone call from authorities in Texas—his sons were in custody. Without telling him, they emigrated from the rural Petén region of Guatemala, known for its Mayan ruins. For over two weeks, they traveled through Mexico, sleeping under bridges and in the countryside before being detained with 16 others in Houston, Texas.
Gelber, the younger son, who is 17, has been reunited with his father. His 22-year-old brother was deported in August as he was not covered under the antitrafficking law. From the age of seven, Gelber had worked as a goat shepherd and at 12 left school altogether. Both father and son refer consistently to the armed gangs and narco-traffickers that roam the countryside in their native region, which is near the Mexican border.
On his reasons for coming Gelber says, "I didn't have a way to move forward in Guatemala. I wanted to study and I couldn't because of the money and the school was far away. Also, [the narcos] come to your house and demand money and you have to give it, otherwise they will kill you."