If you've stumbled on the nightly news or a daily paper of late, you've heard of the Surge: the wave of Central American children who are arriving, often alone, at the Texas border, and walking right into the arms of Border Patrol agents.
To follow the news is to believe that they started coming last fall, in response to some invitation on heavy card stock and stamped with the presidential seal. The truth is more complicated: Since 2011, as Guatemala, El Salvador and especially Honduras have become overpowered by cartel-controlled gangs, and poverty and violence have gripped their towns and villages, kids as young as 7 and 8 have been making the trek at rates that double every year, sometimes with coyotes and often alone. Many have legal grounds to stay, under laws designed to protect victims of violence and persecution; others don't but choose to make the journey anyway, hoping to somehow avoid deportation or disappear before it comes. Many are reunified with family in Texas — more than 4,000 this year alone, and many more thousands before that — and some wind up in foster care.
We began writing about these kids in April, before their plight ever graced Brian Williams' teleprompter. We've been writing about them since. What follows are a handful of the stories we've written, in print and at dallasobserver.com, that we hope will help explain what causes the kids to flee, what happens when they get here, and what Dallas is doing in response. Joe Tone, editor
How They Get Here
By Obed Manuel
One day in the summer of 2011, Elvin and Helmer Villanueva were sitting at the kitchen table with their mother and father at their home in Honduras. It was a good day, a stable one during a period of instability. Hermenegildo Villanueva, the boys' father, had been targeted by MS-13, the notorious gang that rules the slums of Central America and has helped make Honduras the world's most murderous country. They'd demanded a "war tax" from his shoe sale business for several weeks, but he continually refused to pay. For the moment, anyway, things seemed to have calmed down some.
Then the bullets came. They crashed through a small window and found their target, the boys' dad. They watched him die, and then they fled.
First they went into hiding in Honduras and then, when that proved impossible, the brothers joined their brother-in-law on a charter bus to the Mexico-Guatemala border. They sneaked into Mexico, hiking through a mountainous forest and facing the elements, bloodthirsty mosquitoes, snakes, blazing days and freezing nights. "If something stung us or we ran out of food, we would have died there," Elvin says. "There was nothing there."
The payoff came when they arrived at Tenosique, Tabasco, home to one of the first major loading stations for their ride north: La Bestia, or "The Beast," a train — a network of them, actually — that rambles through Mexico and is used by migrants to travel north. The train station was heavily guarded, so they boarded at 2 a.m., while it was already on its way out of the city. Elmer and his brother-in-law got on first as Elvin ran alongside, trying to keep up. His sweaty palms reached out for a handle or a railing or anything. He jumped and grabbed on. His legs dangled dangerously close to the wheels, but a hand reached out and pulled him up.
"If you're lucky, you get on. If not, you stay and wait for the next one," Elvin says. "For someone getting on for the first time, it's very dangerous because you don't know what to hold on to and you don't know how difficult it is to hang on."
The train chugged toward Mexico City, its rooftop covered by travelers. They stopped between Coatzacoalcos and Tierra Blanca for three days while the railroad was repaired. When it suddenly rumbled back to life, they say, it sliced the legs off a man who was lying on the tracks. "He stayed there," Elvin says. "We were in the middle of nowhere, so who knows what happened to him?"
Between Orizaba and Tierra Blanca, a man stood up to stretch his legs. A tree branch caught him and he fell between two cars and onto the tracks to be crushed and sliced by the wheels. And then they arrived at the Lecheria Station, near Mexico City, the most perilous stop yet.
The powerful Zetas cartel is known to kidnap unwary migrants at that station, to be held for ransom or murdered as a show of force. Knowing this, the boys slipped off the train and quickly made their way to some hills near the station, to hide until the train was ready to take off. From there, they say, they looked on as three black trucks carrying Zetas drove up to the tracks. Several armed men then derailed a cart and kidnapped at least 50 migrants.
"Being on that train is a terrible experience for a person," Elvin says. "You see things that you would never imagine you would see."
They spent about a month on the rails in total, they say, before reaching Nuevo Laredo. They traveled to Piedras Negras to meet their hired coyote by the river. But the original plan to cross the river was scrapped because the coyote said there was too much surveillance. He left them there, and after three days they ran out of food and water. They feared the worst.
The coyote returned on the fourth day of waiting and they crossed the river on a small boat. They walked for 10 hours until immigration patrols caught up with them. Their brother-in-law was immediately deported, but Elvin and Helmer were sent to a youth shelter for a month until they were released into their older brother's custody. Kids with similar stories may soon be shipped straight to Dallas County, where they'll await reunification.
The boys met another challenge in the form of Dietrich Sims, an immigration judge in Dallas. Sims denies more asylum claims than almost any judge in the country, and has a reputation for seizing on the most minor of missteps in an immigrant's case. And Elvin's attorney misstepped, mixing up his case with his twin brother's and telling him to arrive at the wrong time. He was 40 minutes late, so Sims issued an order of deportation. Helmer's plea for asylum was also denied, but his case was successfully appealed. "I was very afraid," Elvin says. "I knew I couldn't go back to Honduras."
Hope arrived in the form of a judicial shake-up: After lawyers complained and reporters raised questions, the Department of Justice swiftly moved all kids' cases from Sims' courtroom to another one. The new judge threw out the deportation order, and the boys were allowed to stay, under a provision for kids whose parents have abandoned them or been killed.
The boys have settled into life in Lubbock. They go to high school there, play soccer on the weekends and do a lot of texting. It's taken time to adjust, Elvin says, but they know they're safe now, MS-13 and the river and the Beast safely in life's rearview.
Their Day in Court
By Emily Mathis
On any given day, the 10th floor of the Earle Cabell Federal Building in downtown Dallas is filled with men, women and children waiting to appear before an immigration judge. On one recent day, most of them were Central American children.
Though the room was filled with kids, teenagers, and their families, most were withdrawn and silent. The overhead lights bored into the crowd, as the bilingual secretary addressed them exclusively in Spanish. She arranged the kids and their families in order of age and home country, but just this first step in the court process was complicated and long-winded. Much of that had to do with miscommunication: Some kids didn't know they had to bring their parent or guardian with them to court. Some kids didn't bring the right documents. Some didn't know they could, or should, have brought a lawyer.
It's a process that two Texas lawmakers, Senator John Cornyn and Representative Henry Cuellar are hoping to scale back with their proposed Humane Act, which would cut down court times for these kids' cases, which, thanks to court backlogs, can drag on for longer than a year. Under the Act, the kids would need to file a claim with immigration court within a week of being screened by the Department of Health and Human Services. From there, a judge would have to make a decision on their case within 72 hours, and many of the kids would be shipped right back.
But a morning in court reveals a system ill-equipped to process cases that fast, at least under current laws that provide relief for many Central American kids fleeing violence in their home countries.
The court secretary called roll, noting the absence of several kids. "Yeah, presente," one teen boy responded when his name was called. The secretary immediately chastised him. "You say, 'yes or no, sí o no. Never 'yeah,'" she told him sternly. The boy, Miguel, reddened and looked down at his scuff-marked sneakers. But if the secretary seemed puritanical, it was only to prepare the kids for the ensuing formality of the courtroom.
There was no lack of gravitas when Judge Michael Baird walked into the room and began addressing the kids and their relatives. Baird was relatively new on the kids' docket, having replaced a more veteran judge, Dietrich Sims, whose gruff demeanor and reputation for callousness had, according to local immigration lawyers, recently forced the Justice Department to reassign the kids' cases. Baird, by contrast, is known to be fair and ruthlessly efficient. "All of you are here today because the government of the United States wants to remove you from this country," he said softly, his spectacled eyes slowly moving about the room and lingering on the youngest of the accused, a 10-year-old girl in pink overalls named Mariela.
But Baird has an excellent poker face. When each child was called forward — and some unlucky enough to no longer be classified as children, if their 18th birthday had occurred in the last month — Baird read aloud the same scripted information. Is their parent or guardian present? Was this their address? Had they already provided fingerprints and a signature as court evidence? Did they understand why they were here?
The questions got more complicated when Baird asked each person if they had a lawyer representing them. Some kids, who had arrived without a parent or guardian, didn't seem to know if their parents had already contracted a lawyer or not. For these kids, Baird informed them that their case could not be processed until they brought a guardian. One boy, Javier, admitted his mother was downstairs in the lobby, too afraid herself to appear before an immigration judge. Out went Javier to haul his mother into court, fear be damned.
Only one child had a lawyer. This boy, Juan, was from Guatemala, and was granted Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, for kids whose parents have abandoned them or been killed. Baird informed the rest of the kids, one by one, that they could reschedule their court dates for two weeks from now, if they desired, to allow them time to obtain legal services.
Each unrepresented child opted for the extension to find legal service. "Do you understand that not appearing in court on your appointed date would be devastating to your case?" Baird prompted each child before they left. He informed them that failing to appear would result in deportation and future permanent barring from American immigration services. A few visibly flinched, as the finality of the words cut each person he addressed.
Some will return to the Cabell building in August, sans lawyer. That doesn't mean they didn't try. Immigration lawyers, especially in Texas, report stretched resources and the increasingly desperate need for pro bono lawyers. If the kids can't convince the lawyer, very quickly, that they have a case to stay in the United States, they will have to argue their own cases.
"It's tough. You need to get their whole story," says Stacy Jones, an attorney for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. "The younger a child is, the less able they are to articulate what happened to them or why they came to the U.S., and the younger they are, they're likely not traveling with a ton of documents."
If the scene sounds confusing and laborious, it should. And imagine if you speak only a smattering of English. Judge Dana Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says that this is precisely why the Humane Act is so absurd to those in the know. "Immigration law is repeatedly compared to tax law in terms of complexity," she says. "So it's problematic to think that a judge can explain to minors what their rights and responsibilities are, and to do it in an expedited fashion is extremely difficult."
It's hard to look around the courtroom at the faces of these kids, sitting next to their tíos and tías — less frequently with a parent — and not think about what awaits them if they are sent back to their home countries. "The stakes for these kids can be life threatening. We often say we're doing death penalty cases if a person is fleeing persecution," Marks says. "If a judge makes a quick call and sends them back to their home country, they risk the fate of sending them back to possible death. And that's why it seems unrealistic that this bill would be workable."
With Not-So-Open Arms
By Sky Chadde
Sarah Buchanan's mother grizzly was showing. On her Highland Park block, in which the large branches of trees provided some relief from the 100-degree day, her son and his friends had set up a lemonade stand in front of her house. Two doors down was the home of Judge Clay Jenkins, who has made headlines nationwide with his plan to temporarily shelter thousands of young migrants, apprehended by the Border Patrol as part of a recent surge from Central America, in Dallas County. It sparked protests around DFW, and on a Saturday last month, about 20 protesters held signs outside Jenkins' home.
They also partook in the pink lemonade offered, for 75 cents, outside Buchanan's house. The week before, residents on Jenkins' block received notice through the mail that protesters would be there. For Buchanan's son, it was an opportunity to make some money. Buchanan had thought it was a great idea, but at the moment she wasn't so sure.
A man carrying the first flag of Texas and wearing a blue do-rag with white stars had walked down the block from Jenkins' home. His name is John Fournace, a welder and a self-described Texas Nationalist. The most important thing when it comes to the border, he said, is education. So, he decided to educate the kids at the lemonade stand.
He wanted to make sure they understood the dangers the immigrant children posed. Stay safe at school, he said. They carry infectious diseases, he said.
"Sir," Buchanan said, concern creeping into her voice. She said she's known the judge for the past eight years, but she wasn't in her yard for any political reason. Her kids, she thought, didn't need to hear that.
"The kids deserve to not be diseducated," Fournace said as he walked down the sidewalk, back to the protest.
Buchanan turned to her friend.
"We might be closing up soon," she said, with a small laugh.
It was probably the tensest moment at an otherwise uneventful protest. The judge wasn't home, apparently out of state. Two Highland Park police officers stood outside Jenkins' door, and police Suburbans were stationed around the block. After about two hours, the protest was called, due to heat.
Many of the protesters said they were legal immigrants or had family members who were. Fournace said his fiancée and her family had migrated legally from Mexico City. It took them 10 years, he said. He believes the people crossing the border have no respect for the law, and that housing their children is just another step in America's path to being a welfare state. In terms of national debt, he said, "We're already Greece."
Q Coleman, who runs an organization named Rally Force that assists conservative groups in putting together protests, said he migrated from Cuba in 1960. He was 17. He waited his turn, he said. To him, Jenkins' proposal was not just unfair, but "unjust, immoral and very illegal."
"I'm not just bitter," he said. "I'm pissed."
Local protests increased in recent weeks against the expected influx of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children, part of an unprecedented surge of kids fleeing poverty and violence in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. As resources are stretched at the border, at Lackland Air Force base and other shelters, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins proposed, to both criticism and acclaim, that the county house some kids at Hulcy Middle School, Lamar Alternative Education Center and a Parkland Hospital warehouse.
Not all Dallasites took the news well. "We are being invaded. And we cannot afford to take care of these children," said one woman at a recent protest. "For Clay Jenkins to make a decision to invite the illegal immigrants to come to Dallas is completely unacceptable," said another.
Acceptable or not, as things turned out Jenkins' invitation was unnecessary. Although some 60,000 kids are expected to flow into the United States this year, border crossings have dramatically decreased in the past month, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has elected not to create any temporary shelters for the kids, in Dallas or elsewhere, Jenkins announced last week.
At a news conference, Jenkins acknowledged his disappointment that Dallas would not be sheltering the kids. "There's a part of me that has a Marine mentality," he said. "When you say you're going to do something, you get fired up and do it."
The number of migrant children crossing the border has decreased from more than 300 per day in June to fewer than 150 per day in July. Jenkins cited the hot summer months and recent federal initiatives, including a public service campaign and partnerships with Central American and Mexican governments, for the decrease in numbers. The numbers are expected to rise again in the fall, but not as dramatically as was originally expected.
Jenkins was surrounded by faith leaders, representing local churches and synagogues. "Our faith community responded with grace and led a strong majority bent on mercy because we see these scared and alone refugees for what they are: children — just like your child and my child," Jenkins said. "Dallas County has become an unexpected outlier to those who don't know us. A place where compassion and love overcome fear and anger."
Jenkins and faith leaders were careful to stress that help is still desperately needed for the kids. "Children without lawyers go back home to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras 90 percent of the time," Jenkins said. Rabbi Asher Knight, of Temple Emanu-El, cautioned about the need for continued community support. "Many of these children are going to need lawyers. They're going to need translators. They're going to need support going to the immigration court," he said. "It's an issue that speaks loudly to us, and to our sensibilities. And that is why you see the concern of so many faith organizations."
In fact, although Dallas County won't be opening any shelters now, immigrant kids will still find their way to the city.
Since January 1, around 4,300 unaccompanied Central American kids have been released from federal custody to reunite with their parents or guardians, or have been assigned to local foster families, in Texas, more than any other state. Scores of these kids are already here in DFW, and have been here for a long time.
What Life Here Holds
By Obed Manuel
October 2011. Luis Chamagua woke up, showered, ate cereal and headed for school. Typical morning. "I always left early because I wanted to play soccer," Chamagua says, smiling.
A block into his usual route, Chamagua ran into Pablo, his cousin's husband, and Cuca, a close friend. "It seemed strange to me that they were together," Chamagua says. "I thought they wanted to make plans for after school."
Pablo walked toward him with a little grin and then walked away. Cuca shoved Chamagua against a wall, drew a knife and held it to his neck. Chamagua was an above-average student, as his report cards from El Salvador show, and mentored children from around his neighborhood. Joining MS-13, the notorious gang that rules the streets of El Salvador and is sending thousands of kids streaming for the Texas border, was never an option.
"What do you want?" Chamagua asked.
"Someone wants you dead," Cuca said.
He directed Chamagua to the outskirts of the school's soccer fields. He covered Chamagua's mouth and thrust the knife into his throat twice.
Chamagua fell and rolled down into a ditch.
Chamagua sat still for five minutes so Cuca would leave him for dead. He felt weak, and for a moment he thought about giving up. But he thought, Why should I die if I do good things?
He stood up and unbuttoned his school uniform oxford shirt and wrapped it around his neck, a tip he picked up from watching Grey's Anatomy. He climbed out of the ditch and managed to get on a bus to a nearby clinic, where doctors and nurses cleaned him up.
An ambulance took him to a hospital. He suffered two strokes, one of which left his brain without a steady blood supply for four minutes. But he survived.
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That winter, Chamagua's mother, who lives in Dallas, paid a lawyer in El Salvador to orchestrate the passage of Chamagua into the U.S., with the help of Los Zetas, the drug cartel that controls some human smuggling through Mexico. He arrived in Dallas, where the Human Rights Initiative helped him win reprieve from the immigration system.
The attack affected Chamagua's motor skills. He has to use a walker to get around now. He sometimes finds himself short of breath. But he's quickly learned English and excelled at North Dallas High School. Last year, he took part in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's Ready 2 Lead program in Washington, D.C. In April, he was invited to Molina High School as a guest speaker for DISD teachers and administrators. After his speech, Chamagua says several administrators invited him to their schools to speak with students.
Chamagua is still nervous about speaking in front of large crowds, but he makes himself do it, because he knows his message is a positive one.
"Despite everything, I never gave up," Chamagua said. "They shouldn't give up either."