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Surge Of Undocumented Minors Closer To Home


There's another migration crisis unfolding closer to home. Thousands of children are currently fleeing Central America and crossing illegally into the U.S. So many kids have made the journey in the last two months that federal agencies are turning to Texas charities to help house the teens, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The numbers had been going down after a peak in the summer of 2014, when tens of thousands of kids sought refuge in the U.S. An enforcement crackdown in Mexico is credited with the drop. I was reporting on that story this past summer when I met 17-year-old Jorge Barrera. He had just tried to make it to the U.S. but was caught in Mexico and deported home. I talked to him at a small house in Jalapa in southern Guatemala. Jorge told me about his long trip trying to get to his dad in Connecticut and about the gangs now taking over his town.


JORGE BARRERA: (Through interpreter) They want you to join them. They keep pushing you to work with them. They're always taking money from people. If you don't help them, they'll kill you.

KAHN: Jorge said he was afraid and would definitely try heading north again. When kids from Central America do make it all the way to the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services takes custody of them. In the past months, with the numbers rising again, federal officials need more beds and have turned to Texas charities, including summer church camps, to take in the teens. My colleague John Burnett took a tour of one of those camps this past week, and I asked him what it's like.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: They're actually really nice facilities. They're usually used in the summer. They have lots of nativity scenes and decorating trees and arts and crafts. They've been playing soccer a lot. You know, there's security so the kids can't get out and no one can get in. The ratio of counselors to kids is 1 to 8. So you know, they're really watching these kids.

KAHN: What does it feel like in Texas right now? What are people saying about the kids?

BURNETT: Well, you know, there's immigration hawks who think that this shouldn't be happening, that the government should take care of this on the border, and they shouldn't have to accommodate women and children. But in terms of the local communities, Carrie, there's just been a real generous outpouring. You know, a lot of churches have put together baskets of presents for these kids. And in one of these places, they actually had some professional soccer players from Dallas come down and give them lessons in, you know, kicking the ball. And so generally there's been a real welcoming attitude.

KAHN: That's interesting because it was revealed this past week that immigration officials are planning a massive deportation of unauthorized migrant families who've also made the journey from Central America. So why does the government treat families differently than kids who come on their own? What - it sounds like a disconnect there.

BURNETT: Well, children are different. When you're 17 and under, Health and Human Services takes care of you when you come here. And so under court order, they have to, you know, have medical care, counselors and so many meals and snacks. If you are an adult with a child, it's the Department of Homeland Security that takes care of you, which is a police agency. And so there have been these very controversial family detention centers in South Texas, where there have been hunger strikes. And so now we have this report that the government is going to crack down on these mothers and children who were turned down for asylum and, you know, round them up and send them back. And so a lot of the immigrant advocates are screaming about that.

KAHN: Why now? Why are the kids coming, the teens, coming again now? We're seeing this, another wave. What's happening right now?

BURNETT: Yeah, that's a really good question because, I mean, we thought that this problem was dealt with. I mean, down in Mexico, the government initiated this southern border plan. And they sent police. And they sent immigration agents down. And they started pulling immigrants off of buses and off of the infamous train. And they started deporting them back to Central America.

KAHN: And we saw the numbers dip quite dramatically, of Central American kids coming to the U.S.

BURNETT: Exactly. And so what my sources have told me, both in Mexico and in the states, is that the coyotes, the human smugglers, have found a way to evade Mexican authorities. And that's what they do. They find new smuggling routes all the time. And so we've even seen an uptick in crossings in West Texas and in Arizona because now they're looking for new smuggling routes. So, you know, these are professional human smugglers. They find a way.

KAHN: And the violence in Central America that is pushing the kids out of these countries hasn't improved.

BURNETT: It's as horrible as it's ever been, Carrie.

KAHN: That's NPR's John Burnett in Texas.

KAHN: The U.S. recently committed three quarters of a billion dollars to help change the conditions forcing kids from their countries. The money will go to strengthen policing, alleviate poverty and battle gang violence. Some local Texan officials and congressman object strongly to letting the teens in, saying the practice just encourages a disregard for the rule of law and entices more to come. For 17-year-old Jorge Barrera, the teen I met last summer in Guatemala, he said he couldn't wait any longer and headed north again. He slipped easily through Mexico this time, crossed the Rio Grande into South Texas and asked for political asylum. Jorge says he was sent to a shelter run by a Texas charity.

BARRERA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He says he was held there for 18 days and treated well. Two days before Christmas, authorities sent him to his father in Connecticut. I spoke with the two of them as they were visiting New York City. Jorge said he had never seen so many tall buildings. His father, Jorge Barrera Sr., says their future together in the U.S. is uncertain. They have many court dates to get through before Jorge Jr.'s fate will ultimately be decided by an immigration judge.

BARRERA SR.: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: But he says he's happy, and at least his son is safe for now. And the two got to spend Christmas together for the first time in eight years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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