New York, United States – Jorge Chapa knows the US government wants him deported back to Ecuador – but the 15-year-old struggles with the finer details about his case.
“I don’t know what happened. My case has not been closed yet,” Chapa told Al Jazeera after his immigration hearing in lower Manhattan last week.
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He is among tens-of-thousands of Latin American migrants who are being deported in a fast-track process that was introduced this year to tackle a surge in unaccompanied children reaching the United States.
“I didn’t want to live without my parents,” said Chapa. He was caught at the US border 18-months ago in an effort to join his family. “My dream, since I was a little child, was to meet my father. We spoke on the phone. I saw photographs. But I never met him.”
Ecuador is relatively safe, but some 60,000 unaccompanied children have been caught at the US frontier this year who hail from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – countries that are riven by drug-gang violence.
The murder rate in Honduras in 2012 was higher than the rate of Iraqi civilian deaths at the peak of the insurgency in 2007, according to the Center for American Progress, a think-tank.
Rights campaigners worry that children such as Chapa face a fast-track process that doesn’t afford enough time to build a strong case.
“They may be unfamiliar with America’s legal system, its notoriously complex immigration rules,” Beth Werlin, a lawyer at the American Immigration Council, told Al Jazeera. “The burden is on applicants to show that they qualify for asylum.
This cannot be done in a short time and children could be deported and face real danger back home.
“This cannot be done in a short time and children could be deported and face real danger back home.”
Children who are caught trying to cross the US border are apprehended and sent to state-run shelters before being put in the care of relatives or community groups as they await deportation hearings.
New York state is home to the largest number of child migrants after Texas. Fast-tracked hearings – also known as “rocket dockets” – are taking place across the US in response to the influx of illegal arrivals.
At a recent hearing in Manhattan’s Immigration Court, teenage girls were neatly dressed. Boys had the wet-look hairdos of Latino football stars. They sat on pews as Judge Frank James Loprest went through the 29 cases.
Many had no lawyer. One teen brought his school report card for the judge, hoping good grades would lead to US residency.
“If we get an attorney, should we bring them with us to the next hearing?” an anxious family member asked the judge through a translator.
Others had lawyers and are fighting deportation. Case notes detail murderous drug cartels that would make a normal childhood back home impossible.
“Gang members go from home to home in Central America to recruit these children,” said Gabriel Salguero, the pastor of a New York church who runs shelters for young migrants. “They demand that the children work for them and join the gang. If the child doesn’t join, there are consequences.”
US President Barack Obama introduced fast-track deportation hearings and other measures in the face of a surge in young Central American migrants.
A survey last month by the Pew Research Center found 53 percent of Americans support accelerated deportations – even if some children who are eligible for asylum are sent home.
Protesters have rallied outside crowded Texan detention centres with banners saying: “No illegals.”
Some children migrate for better schools, jobs and to join US-based relatives. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, says about 60 percent need protection. An ever-greater proportion of girls and under-12s show up at the border, suggesting that cartel violence is getting worse.
‘Enforcing the law is critical’
David Inserra, from The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank, said poor enforcement of existing immigration laws encourages more Central Americans to risk the journey northward.
Perils include the hired “coyote” people smugglers and dangers on “La Bestia” – or “The Beast” – a network of Mexican cargo trains.
|Central American migrants climb off a freight train during their journey toward the US-Mexico border [AP]|
“Enforcing the law is critical to dealing with both the current influx of children and preventing even larger influxes of illegal immigration in the future,” Inserra told Al Jazeera.
“Rather than letting non-enforcement be the solution to this problem, the US should better enforce its laws and also work with the governments of Central America to combat crime and violence in order to create more stable societies.”
The number of unaccompanied children caught along the southwest US border almost halved in July from a month earlier to 5,508, or about 177 a day, the US Department of Homeland Security said.
UNHCR’s Leslie Velez said this may be because migrant flows decrease in hot summer months. Stepped up efforts by US and Mexican anti-immigrant patrols may have also caused the decline, she added.
“I follow this every single day and I’m not quite sure,” Velez told Al Jazeera. “We see planes going back to Central America with deportees. Some children and young families have communicated that they do fear for their safety, and did not feel they had an opportunity to tell their story.
“There are conflicting reports and the dust hasn’t settled on this.”
Earlier this month, Vice President Joe Biden said young migrants were the “single most significant, heart-wrenching and divisive thing that’s happening in terms of the immigration debate right now”.
Obama has lamented that the US has a “broken system” of immigration, and that Congress is deadlocked on the issue.
Congress rejected Obama’s request of $3.7bn for more judges, drones and border security. A sweeping bill that would have created paths to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants to the US is not expected to become law.
, that’s gonna be so sad for me. It’s gonna destroy my dream.”]
Critics say immigration has become a political football between Republicans and Democrats, without either side getting close to a solution.
“It’s a logistical challenge, but the US could accommodate 60,000 kids,” said Sarnata Reynolds, who conducts research on the US-Mexico border for Refugees International. “Lebanon, a tiny country, has 1.5 million Syrian refugees and much less capacity to deal with them.
“US foreign policy involves telling countries in the Middle East and Africa to open their doors for influxes of people. The great irony is that the US is shutting its own doors.”
Back in New York, Chapa awaits his next court date in October. Until then, school and a dishwashing job at a Portuguese restaurant will keep him busy.
He talks about the $13,000 his parents paid a human trafficker; how he almost drowned in a river at the US border; being caught by frontier guards; the detention centre; meeting his father for the first time at JFK Airport; and his quest for US residency.
“If I don’t get it, that’s gonna be so sad for me. It’s gonna destroy my dream,” he said.
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl