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Unaccompanied minors: Immigrants or refugees

Elio Valladares arrived in the United States from Honduras a year ago under much different circumstance than the estimated 60,000 unaccompanied child immigrants apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol at the southern border since October.

While the children are poor, Valladares had financial resources he earned from a successful Honduras family business to resettle his wife, Marcella, and their four children in Denver. He speaks fluent English and the only time he spent out of Honduras was when he graduated from the University of Houston with a marketing degree.

Still, he can relate to the reasons why so many Honduran parents and other families in El Salvador and Guatemala have sent their children to the United States.

“Honduras has become a very dangerous place to live,” Valladares, 40, told the Denver Catholic Register. “Once the drug trafficking increased it became very unsafe. My brother was kidnapped; my friends have been kidnapped; and one (friend’s) family couldn’t pay the ransom and the person was killed. Living in Honduras is like living in a jail. You are always afraid.”

People hired armed guards, lived behind barbed wire fences and carried weapons to protect their families, he said.

His children, ages 6 to 13, went to a bilingual school and have adjusted well in Denver, and initially marveled at being able to go to soccer practice at a public park without fearing violence, Valladares said.

But it was a struggle for the family to meet and finalize the legal U.S. immigration standards, Valladares said. He understands how many poor Central American families feel they have no choice but to try and enter undocumented.

“I know why the parents have sent their children to the U.S.,” Valladares said. “It is sad to say but in Honduras it will be very hard to change; everything is so political and it seems no one cares.”

A study of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released last November sought to explain the sudden increase in child immigration, and found that a “series of interrelated factors” contributed to what they termed “a perfect storm.” One of the most prevalent factors is the general insecurity in the country and the rise of gang activity, particularly that of the Mara Salvatrucha in Honduras, and a rival gang, Barrio 18.

The numbers of unaccompanied children from Honduras that have been stopped at the border this year has grown to 13,000, compared with 968 just five years ago.

Alex Morales, who currently resides in Olanchito, Honduras, told El Pueblo Católico that he has two young sons, and that he is afraid for them: “Many young men are losing their lives because they don’t join the Maras. The path that avoids violence is very narrow; it seems as if the only solution is to get out of here.”

Morales noted that in his neighborhood, many children—some alone and others accompanied by their mothers—have immigrated to the United States with false hopes.

“Here we heard that the American government had approved a law that legalized kids,” he said, adding that the rumor is being actively spread by human traffickers. “This is what the Coyotes tell people—for $6,000 to $8,000 they can take a child and deliver it to the mother or father in the United States,” Morales stated.

Short-term aid

Cheryl Martinez-Gloria, director of the immigration program for Catholic Charities Denver, recently spent two weeks in McAllen, Texas, near the U.S. border with Mexico.  She helped local Sacred Heart Parish and other Catholic Charities workers provide clean clothes, food and start the immigration process for the large number of immigrants landing by bus in the community.

The unaccompanied children were not processed in the area where Martinez-Gloria was working in the Rio Grande Valley.  The children she helped had at least one parent with them but the message she heard of why they fled was similar to what her colleagues are hearing from the unaccompanied children, she said.

“People need to understand the gravity of the situation, of the poverty and violence in those countries,” Martinez-Gloria said. “It is not just a situation where adults want a better standard of life. This is life or death for their children.”

One family saw their father gunned down during a robbery and the mother fled with her ill son, 13, and daughter, 12, because there was no one to protect them from future violence. Another mother whose son was being recruited by gangs was so fearful she surprised him in the middle of his school day and they fled together to the border.

The United States has not seen this kind of influx of immigrants from Central America since the civil wars there in the 1980s, Martinez-Gloria said. But then it was adults being targeted and now it is children who face the gang and drug violence and rape, she said.

On Aug. 5, the city of Denver applied for a $12 million federal grant to house up to 60 children at its Denver Human Service’s Family Crisis Center in west Denver. Despite concerns from at least two of the 13 Denver City Council members Mayor Michael Hancock said applying for the grant was the “right thing to do” because of the humanitarian crisis.

The mayor’s office said the majority of the youths will stay between 30 to 35 days and the services will include education, family reunification and release, group and individual counseling, medical and recreational activities.

The grant money would come from the $3.7 billion in emergency funding President Barack Obama authorized to help address the issue. Critics note that this is only a short-term solution, and raise concerns that there is no long-term plan for what is most likely only the beginning of a larger wave of immigration from Central America.

Last month, Pope Francis urged welcoming and protecting the children “as a first urgent measure,” but added that a humanitarian response is not enough, and that it should be “accompanied by policies that inform people about the dangers of such a journey and, above all, that promote development in their countries of origin.”

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Ark., a member of the Committee on Migration of the USCCB, urged communities and elected officials to set politics aside. He points out that Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala numbers four and five. He called these nations “failed states,” and those fleeing from those states “refugees.”

“The current humanitarian crisis is a test of the moral character of our nation,” Bishop Taylor said in a statement. “This crisis should not be exploited as an opportunity for political posturing, but rather serve as a chance for bipartisan cooperation to humanely address this issue.”

Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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