Last year 7-year-old Kendra Cruz Garcia and her 10-year-old-brother, Roberto Guardado Cruz, crossed the Rio Grande alone. When their tiny boat reached the shore, they started walking into Texas.
The Border Patrol agents who soon caught the Salvadoran siblings deemed them “unaccompanied” because no parent was with them. Children with this designation are granted special, well-deserved protections.
They aren’t subject to quick deportation and are entitled to a full hearing before an immigration judge. They can’t be held for long periods in immigration jails. Instead, they are transferred to child-friendly shelters operated by Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, and released, usually within a month, to a parent, relative or sponsor while their court hearings proceed. Instead of facing cross-examination by adversarial prosecutors, children are interviewed by an asylum officer trained to gently probe whether they qualify to stay in the country legally.
In other words, they are treated with kindness and decency by our government because they are innocent children.
But President Trump has decided to get tough on many of the 60,000 Central American children who arrive at our border each year begging for safety after fleeing some of the most dangerous places on earth. His executive orders, and memos from the Department of Homeland Security on how to interpret them, could strip this special treatment from the roughly 60 percent of unaccompanied children who have a parent already living in the United States. If Kendra and Roberto were just entering the United States now, they would fall into this group; instead they kept their protections and were eventually united with their mother, a house painter in Los Angeles.
Parents like her, the argument goes, are exploiting benefits established to help children who really are alone here. The administration has threatened to deport parents who send for their children or prosecute them for hiring smugglers.
Last week Mr. Trump’s press secretary said the president’s intention was to prioritize the deportation of immigrants who “represent a threat to public safety.” Supporters say he’s upholding the law. But these children are not threats, and there are many ways to preserve the integrity of our immigration laws while treating them humanely.
D.H.S. hasn’t fully explained how it will deal with children reclassified as “accompanied” if a parent steps forward to claim them. “There is a range of how bad this might be,” says Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
But it could be pretty bad. In recent years, up to 90 percent of unaccompanied Central American kids have willingly turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents, knowing they would be cared for. Now they will go to great lengths to avoid detection, walking through deserts for days, risking dehydration, or traveling stuffed into hidden compartments in cars or trucks, where they can suffocate.
Smuggling fees will escalate. When that happens, smugglers often collect half in the home country and require children to work off the other half as indentured servants. Experts expect to see more cases like the one in 2014, when federal agents rescued eight Guatemalan teenagers from a trailer park in Ohio, where they’d been held captive by smugglers and forced to work at an egg farm.
Children will be afraid to admit they have parents here, as they were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the government often told parents to retrieve apprehended children, only to deport the whole family when they showed up. As a result children languished in detention centers. Eighteen years ago, I spent a week in a jail in Liberty, Tex., where unaccompanied children who had been kept there for months had tried to slit their wrists or hang themselves.
Finally, advocates worry that Central American children will tell Border Patrol agents that they are Mexican, so they won’t be deported so far away. This was common a decade ago, and resulted in Central American children being preyed upon in lawless, cartel-controlled Mexican border towns. Today, 18,000 Central Americans are still kidnapped and ransomed each year while migrating through Mexico. Children whose families cannot pay are enslaved, raped, killed. Each year, a caravan of Central American mothers walk through Mexico, searching for missing children.
Why would immigrants — parents and children — take these risks? El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have among the highest homicide rates in the world. Boys are forced to join gangs; girls are forced to sleep with gangsters. The proof children are fleeing real danger: 73 percent of unaccompanied minors who go to immigration court with a lawyer win the right to stay here legally.
Kendra and Roberto’s mother, Doris Cruz Garcia, 34, fled El Salvador in 2013 after repeated beatings and death threats by Kendra’s father, a gang member. When Ms. Cruz became pregnant with Kendra, he kicked and punched her, trying to abort the baby. Ms. Cruz curled her body into a ball to protect her daughter, who was born two months early, weighing 3.5 pounds.
Ms. Cruz moved with the children constantly to hide from her ex. When Kendra was 3, he broke into the place where they were staying and attacked Ms. Cruz. When she came to the next day, she was covered in blood. Her ex had said he would kill her, that she would end up in a trash bag. She now believed him. She had to escape.
She had just enough money to get herself to the United States, so she planned to save up and send for Kendra and Roberto when she had the money. She thought they would be safe with her brother. But her brother was murdered a year later, probably by members of her ex’s gang.
Her sister decided it was too dangerous to keep the children. Without telling Ms. Cruz, she brought them to the United States. For three months, Roberto and Kendra walked all day and slept outdoors at night. They were stuffed with other migrants into the back of an 18-wheel truck for 27 hours. “We didn’t have food,” said Kendra. “We had to walk lots.” Roberto was afraid of the snakes and crocodiles he saw in a river he crossed. When they finally reached the border, their aunt said goodbye.
After staying at a Texas shelter for unaccompanied minors for a few months, the siblings were released to Ms. Cruz a year ago. The children are likely to soon qualify for visas granting them legal status; their mother remains here unlawfully.
Kendra and Roberto love the United States. They praised the shelter — the school, the food, how they could call their mother frequently. They are grateful for being referred to pro bono lawyers.
Roberto says punishing parents is wrong. “There are a lot of dangerous things and gangs in my country. I don’t want anything bad to happen to my mommy or my family,” he said. His sister, listening in, added: “I want my mom with me. I don’t want to be apart from my mommy. I don’t want to be alone.”
“I love that this country protects children,” Ms. Cruz said, sobbing. “I am just trying to stay in one piece with my children. They have dreams. I want to give them that. I love them. I am their mother.”
Americans are right to be concerned that children who lose their immigration cases flout the law by remaining here illegally. Many view this, rightfully, as a scam. And it is obviously a problem that, because immigration courts are backlogged with hundred of thousands of cases, immigrants get to stay for years before their case is decided.
But the solution isn’t to deport these children before bothering to find out how much danger they face back home. We should instead build an immigration judicial system with integrity by hiring enough judges to quickly process cases. Last year, Human Rights First calculated that the United States would need 150 more judges, costing some $150 million a year for them and their support staff, to clear the backlog within two years.
And children need government-funded lawyers if they’re going to get a full, fair hearing. Half of children who cannot afford a lawyer are expected to argue complex asylum cases on their own. One-year-olds stand alone before judges, making a mockery of our judicial system. Ahilan Arulanantham, the legal director for the A.C.L.U. of Southern California, who has sued the government to demand legal counsel for all children, says this would cost $2,700 to $5,000 per child.
We could adjudicate cases in six months. If a child loses the right to stay here legally, immigration agents should find her and safely repatriate her to her home country.
We can have a system that’s fair and humane, and preserves the rule of law.
Sonia Nazario is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of a Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother and a board member of Kids in Need of Defense.