Inside Story America

Risking their lives to reach the US

An unprecedented number of children from Central America are braving a harrowing journey to cross the border.

An unprecedented number of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are migrating to the US.

They risk being kidnapped and forced to work for drug cartels or being killed. But violence and poverty in their countries of birth still forces thousands of children to risk their lives to reach the US every year.

And as the situation in Central America deteriorates, thanks in large part to the ongoing US-led drug war, increasing numbers have been trying to cross the border.

It is a harrowing, dangerous journey, but what happens to them once they arrive in the United States?

Those who do manage to get into the US are met with other challenges – from overcrowded emergency shelters to having to navigate the US legal system often completely alone.

“A lot of [children] are citing reasons of escaping violence in their home country – violence from gangs, violence from narco-traffickers, from drug cartels. And a lot of the reasons for migration were a little different to what they have been in the past. [They are] not coming here just for jobs or to reunite with family, but really out of fear for their safety and wellbeing in their home country.

– Jennifer Podkul, from the Women’s Refugee Commission

Cesar is a young Guatemalan who made his way to the US in 2011 when he was 17. He shares his story: “Some people murdered my father. I don’t know exactly what happened, but it was horrible for us. I saw other people get murdered too. I was worried all the time.”

This fear led him to flee his home country, but he says that despite hearing stories about the journey “he never imagined how bad … [it] would be”.

“I heard that people died, [about] the violence in Mexico and the cartels. But I always had the mindset that nothing would happen to me because I’m a good person. But the journey was very difficult for me. It is something that I don’t want to remember.”

When he was picked up by US immigration, Cesar says they never asked his age. “I was a minor but they didn’t know. And when they questioned me they didn’t ask how old I was,” he says. “They took me to a jail in San Antonio. There was no light, no fresh air to breathe, you don’t know what will happen to you, you feel crazy. Finally, they took me to a doctor to check my teeth to see if I was an adult or underage. They realised then that I was a minor.”

“I have permission to live here for now, but nothing more. I don’t know what will happen in the future.”

We speak to Jeanne Cohn-Connor, Cesar’s lawyer, and Jennifer Podkul, the programme officer for the Migrants Rights and Justice Programme at the Women’s Refugee Commission, and ask just what is behind the influx of child migrants and how is the US dealing with it.

Children like Cesar do not qualify for President Barack Obama’s deferred action memorandum. That programme allows US immigration officials to practice prosecutorial discretion in deferring deportation proceedings for undocumented migrants who grew up in the US.
But, what about the undocumented migrants who have lived in the US for their entire lives? How are they faring after the implementation of Obama’s deferred action programme?

To discuss this, Inside Story Americas, with presenter Shihab Rattansi, is joined by: Jonathan Perez, the project manager at the Immigrant Youth Coalition, and Marshall Fitz, the immigration policy director for the Center for American Progress.