From Victims to Detainees by: Gabriela Hernandez

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In 2014 the United States saw a sudden increase of children crossing the U.S./Mexican Border. The majority of these children and adolescents came from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. United States Custom and Border Protection reported 68 thousand unaccompanied children (UAC) that year. The year 2015 proved that this influx of UAC’s was not a one-time phenomenon. Over time the topic moved away from the limelight as the focus was shifted to the possibility of mass deportation, ICE raids, SB4 and talk about eliminating DACA. However, there are still many children crossing the border alone as well as children crossing the border with their families. CBP reported 59 thousand UAC’s and 77 thousand family units for the year 2016.

As a first generation Mexican-American I understand the reasons as to why my family left their home country to come to the United States. My grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles all came in search of the “American Dream.” None of my family was ever persecuted while living in Mexico. In fact, about half of my aunt and uncles eventually returned to Mexico, realizing that they simply missed their old life too much. They were able to return to Mexico because they faced no danger in returning. Over the past six years, as I have worked with immigrants, I have learned that this is not the reality for everyone. Many immigrants are coming to the U.S. seeking asylum. I have worked most with people from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador and from this have expanded my understanding of the reasons people leave their homes.

Clients have shared stories with me; explaining that they have brought their children to the United States because of the horrible conditions in their countries. I have heard countless times about the daily fears and struggles people face. While there are many other factors contributing to the influx of UAC’s into the United States my experience with immigrants is that the main issue is fear of gangs and violence. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all in the top five countries with the highest murder rate in the world. Children are not coming to the U.S. in search of the American Dream; they are coming here to survive. It is no surprise that majority of UAC’s are boys in their teenage years. Many of these young boys are terrorized daily and forced to join the gangs which plague their homes. When facing the two choices of either being murdered or becoming murderers many of them decide that making the long journeys to Mexico or the U.S. is truly the only choice.

The stories I have heard in the past few years are downright heart breaking. I have watched as mothers, teary eyed, tell me about their son’s upcoming court hearings and express fear for their children’s lives. From what they have told me, returning to your home country after leaving is often a death sentence. Gang members perceive leaving to the United States as an attempt to run away from them, which ultimately makes that child an even bigger target if they return. Many of these children have witnessed violence that we cannot begin to understand.

Asylum cases require detailed declarations of the persecution the applicant has faced. While working on these declarations I have heard about the rape one victim went through at the age of only 16 and the details of how her two sisters, cousin and aunt were raped at an even younger age by gang members. I have heard the love a sister has for her little brother even after he was forced into a gang. I have had mothers tell me that their sons were threatened daily to join a gang and had to drop out of school just to avoid leaving their home. I have also heard immigrants tell me about how they watched their family members murdered right in front of them. The horrors they have witnessed are unimaginable. Yet, what happens to them when they arrive in the United States? They are placed in detention facilities.

The detention facilities in which immigrant children are placed remind me of the detention facilities in which juveniles adjudicated delinquents are placed in. It feels almost wrong to call them “detention facilities” when these places are so similar to prisons that using a different label for them is insulting. Detention facilities have countless concerns including issues with medical care, inappropriate treatment of children, and inadequate access to legal services. People come seeking asylum but are not given the tools or resources to navigate the complicated immigration system. All of these issues are exasperated when the person seeking asylum is a child who has come to the U.S. without their parent. Plain and simple detention facilities for children, who are already so incredibly vulnerable, are unjust. Children are re-victimized in these facilities and often face mental health issues while detained. These children leave their homes in hopes for safety but arrive and lose their freedom.

Imprisonment of children is already horrifying but it gets worse. Two of the three family detention centers in Texas are for profit. It is no wonder that the well-being of children is not a priority. How can it be when they are seen as a way to make money? There have been many alternatives put forward which truly take into consideration the child’s needs. Children need to be placed in unrestricted settings where their needs are being met and where they can get legal resources.

Working on asylum declarations, researching country conditions and in general having conversations with people from different countries has opened my eyes to so many things I did not know just a few years ago. While I knew about the detention facilities in the past it was not until I met victims personally that I realized the urgency of the issue. This has sparked my interest in contributing to the fight of ending the detention of immigrant families. As an advocate of immigrants, I urge others to learn more about detention facilities. Currently, there are many organizations out there who are fighting to end the detention of children who have already suffered enough. For more information, please visit some of the websites below.


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