The United States’ already polarizing immigration issue has devolved into a humanitarian crisis. A surge in Central American nationals crossing the United States’ southwestern border strains local and national resources.
In the last fiscal year ending in September, 2014, a quarter-million migrants not from Mexico have been picked up at the Mexican border by US Border Patrol. By and large, those migrants are allowed to stay in the US, where they end up living in the shadows.
Rather than deport them or lock them up in crowded holding facilities, federal agents release the migrants into the US, allowing them to travel to relatives already living in the US.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spent several days speaking with migrant families arriving at the bus station in Tucson.
“The night we left, I had been raped. I felt they were going to kill us” explained a 19-year-old migrant who escaped Honduras with her family. We refer to her as “Sofia” to protect her identity from the Honduran gangs who threatened her life. Sofia spoke to us in Spanish, which we’ve translated here. “These people entered our home and really hurt us,” she said.
Her attackers were members of “Mara 18”, one of the most violent gangs in Honduras and the world. She said the gang was trying to collect extortion money from her family.
“My dad couldn’t pay them anymore,” she said. “He was tired of them threatening him. So they sent a note to the house, threatening him with death.”
When her family went to the police with the threat, the gang came back, tipped of by the very police the family had put their trust in.
“They said frogs (or rats) get their tongues cut out,” said Sofia.
“They beat me,” said Sofia’s father. “That, and when they entered our home and raped my wife and my daughter. That’s the hardest thing that happened to me in my life. I don’t even want to remember it.”
Certain that he would die if he stayed, he fled Honduras with his family, eventually winding up in a single small room in the Bay Area.
According to the US Border Patrol, more than 68,455 families have been apprehended
crossing the southwest border with Mexico this last fiscal year. That’s more than three times the previous year when fewer than 15,000 families were apprehended.
The timeframe corresponds to a spike in gangs, violence and lawlessness in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three countries where the majority of these refugees come from.
“The immigrations policies in the United States…tries to accommodate two inconsistent ideas,” said Tom Haine, who served as a federal attorney prosecuting immigration cases as well as an immigration defense attorney before retiring this past July.
“One is we provide a place for refugees who are suffering. And at the same time, the immigration system is also designed to protect the homeland.”
The numbers of Central American Refugees have become so large, there’s no room in court or holding facilities. After picking them up along the border, federal agents usually re-release immigrants into the US if they have a relative already in the country who can pay for a bus ticket.
As part of the bargain, the refugees agree to report into local immigration authorities once they meet up with their relatives in the US.
“The president is very committed to taking executive action to fix our broken immigration system” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on “Meet the Press” recently. Johnson insists that while refugee numbers have peaked in June, they’ve now declined to levels closer to what the US has seen in January 2013.
“Bottom line,” he said, “in recent years the total numbers of those who attempt to cross our southwest border has declined dramatically.”
But at the local bus station in Tucson, the Investigative Unit saw local resources that were buckling under the influx of immigrants dropped off by immigration agents.
“Many of them were dehydrated. They were hungry. You know, their clothes were torn and dirty.” said Galen Hunt, an AmeriCorps worker who works to house, clothe, and care for the people left by immigration agents. You know, they weren’t prepared to go to Minnesota, you know, shirt sleeve shirts. And that’s where this program stepped in further for those people at the Greyhound Bus Station.” “They dropped us off four blocks from the station,” said Sofia, the 19-year-old Honduran immigrant who now lives in the Bay Area with her family.
“Thanks to my English, we were able to get here,” she said.
Every two weeks, they make the trip to San Francisco to report to federal authorities, honoring the deal they made when they were apprehended at the border.
“We are very scared,” said Sofia’s mother.
Yet, they admit they feel safer here than back home, if not exactly secure. For them, a deportation back to Honduras would be a death sentence.
“I don’t even want to think of it, that we’ll touch that soil” said Sofia’s father. “I think we’d be cadavers on a plane, traveling to our own death.”
Thursday, Nov 20, 2014 • Updated at 5:30 PM PST
The Guatemalan gangs came for him when he was only 12 years old.
“They were following me, to kill me,” the child told NBC Bay Area. “I didn’t want to die. I wanted to save my life.”
He asked to be called “Jaime,” not his real name. He is now 14 years old. He spoke to us in Spanish and we’ve translated his words here.
Jaime left his mother, his home and his country to come here to the San Francisco Bay Area. To get here, he risked starvation, dehydration and a harrowing ride on the roof of a train some call “The Death Train.” Without family or documentation, his life here life is uncertain, but he says the trip was worth it all the same.
“Yes,” he told the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. “If I didn’t have this now, I’d be dead today.”
Tens of thousands of children have been forced to make the same choices as Jaime.
They’re part of a record-setting rush of immigrants picked up along on the United States’ southwest border with Mexico in the last nine months. While Mexican immigration remains relatively steady, there’s been a surge in immigration from Central American countries.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spent two months traveling between the Mexican border and the Bay to get the inside stories from the youth who flee violence in their countries to come to the US. The Investigative Unit rode buses with immigrants making their way north.
To get to the US-Mexico border, Jaime said he first had to spend five days on the roof of a train some call “La Bestia” or “The Beast”. It’s also known in Central America as “El Tren de la Muerte” or “The Death Train” because so many people fall off or die riding it.
“I got here suffering many days on the train,” he said. “I suffered so much during the trip. I walked like 3 days in desert. Without water, food, nothing. I suffered so much.”
Jaime survived “The Death Train” and made it to the desert where he spent another three days crossing the barren landscape on foot.
“Darianna,” as she asked to be called, is another child who fled violence in Central America. She fled Honduras after she witnessed her friend shot in the head and killed by gang members. She was just 13 years old.
“There are some [gang members] that just look at little girls, spying on them so that they can rape them, kidnap them. That’s what they do over there,” she said. “They sequester [little girls] and rape them. They prostitute them out. And if not, they just kill them. Their bodies appear anywhere. In rivers. Anywhere.”
Darianna spoke only Spanish. We’ve translated her words here.
She told the Investigative Unit that one day, gang members confronted her and a friend while they were on their way home from school.
“One got off the motorcycle and shot my friend in the head. They told me that if I didn’t leave, the same would happen to me,” she said. “So I came alone.”
She, too, rode “La Bestia”, and survived. Then she, too, spent days crossing the the desert to arrive at the US border. By then, she says, the ordeal was so traumatic that it was a relief to be picked up by US Border Patrol, even though she was held in confinement for two months.
“I felt so bad,” she said. “I was alone. I had no one. Not until I was in prison. I didn’t get to talk to my mother. I didn’t know how she was.”
United States officials acknowledge the unprecedented mass exodus of unaccompanied minors who’ve swamped our immigration system in the last several months.
“We are looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular consistent with our laws and our values,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on a recent airing of NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
US officials maintain that while there was a peak in Central American immigration over the summer, the numbers have since declined. But the Investigative Unit observed a steady stream of refugees that has not ceased.
Back in the Bay Area, Sister Maureen Duignan said she sees at least two unaccompanied minors seek help at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant
“Many of the children know that their parents are here somewhere and they’re looking for them,” said Duignan, executive director of the Covenant in Berkeley.
Sister Maureen says the Covenant, which is supported by several local Protestant and Catholic churches has given legal help to at least 65 unaccompanied minors just since June, 2014.
“It’s a crisis for them because if they don’t have representation—legal representation—they’ll probably be deported,” said Duignan.