Child Trek

The devastation of Hurricane Mitch propelled thousands across our southern border in search of new lives in America. And those were just the kids.

The INS could not offer an exact figure for how many minors were among them, but there are approximately 400 unaccompanied minors under INS custody nationwide right now. They are housed in temporary INS-contracted shelters, where they usually stay for only a couple of weeks. Many caught entering the country illegally are soon released to relatives or friends in the United States. There they wait for the immigration proceedings that will lead to their removal, the INS's euphemism for deportation. The central INS region that encompasses Texas holds about 200 of these kids, says Mariela Melero, INS regional office spokesperson.

Those numbers, however, do not begin to tell these kids' stories or reflect the magnitude of the problem, as the count includes only the children who were caught by the INS. All the kids who are never caught and never counted remain free to try to live out their American dream, disappearing into this country's pool of approximately five million undocumented laborers as one more construction worker, janitor or kitchen helper.

When these boys -- and they are mostly boys, since the possibility of rape and assault during the long trip scares most girls away -- are too young to interest contractors looking for day labor, they may turn to crime, says Mark Zwick, founder of Houston's Casa Juan Diego. The shelter has one house set aside for minors, many of whom had turned to prostitution to survive.

"I would see cars driving around the blocks, looking for these young boys. If they go down that path, they get lost; they can turn to drugs," Zwick says. "We wanted to offer them a place to stay and an opportunity to go to school."

Others -- the lucky ones, if ever an orphaned or abandoned child can be deemed lucky -- are caught and released to nonprofit agencies such as Dallas's Proyecto Adelante (Project Onward) or Houston's GANO/CARECEN and Casa Juan Diego. If they can prove they are indeed orphaned or abandoned, they may, after years of court proceedings, win the right to stay in the United States and perhaps even find an adoptive family. If they lack the proof, they may be deported.

Thomas Brannen, a lawyer with GANO/ CARECEN, says his agency hopes to establish a third alternative. It wants to start a program to help these kids apply for political asylum. To be eligible, the child has to prove persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political affiliation. The idea of opening the possibility to abandoned children is a new one, but it is starting to happen, says Brannen.

"In a lot of these countries, there has been an increase in the abuse of homeless kids," he says. "Offices down in the Valley have seen an increase in the number of kids applying for political asylum, because there are groups, even the police, that persecute them in their home countries. Now, with Hurricane Mitch, you are probably going to see an increase in the amount of kids that are homeless and an increase in the persecution of these kids."

On December 30, the U.S. government did offer these children as well as the adults already in the United States a brief reprieve, when the INS granted Hondurans and Nicaraguans Temporary Protected Status. This designation meant that the 90,000 undocumented Hondurans and 60,000 undocumented Nicaraguans who had entered the country before December 30 and were being held in jails while their cases were pending would be released. For an 18-month period they would not be subject to deportation, because their governments, busy digging their countries out of the mud, were not able to receive them. They would be allowed to work in the United States and send money home to help rebuild their ravaged countries.

Salvadorans and Guatemalans were granted only a 60-day stay of removal and no permission to work (INSofficials did not feel those countries had been as severely affected by the storm). Texas alone had an estimated 8,400 Hondurans, 2,600 Nicaraguans, 9,500 Guatemalans and 48,100 Salvadorans, all undocumented, who would be eligible for these privileges.

But the children moving north know nothing about new deadlines and developments in immigration law or the legal implications of crossing borders. Their concerns are more about leaving home, surviving the journey and avoiding capture.

Despite these hazards, the immigration of minors is rising. Even before Mitch struck, the trend was alarming: In 1994, 1,188 minors were caught and processed by the INS; by 1998, before Mitch, there were 4,295.

"How can you expect these kids not to look to other countries to find their futures if they are not given any choices down there?" asks Nelson Reyes, director of Houston's CARECEN. "So they make this decision, and it is a big decision, because they can die during the trip, and they know it. They are young; they have no experience, but they have no choice --the situation in their country forces them to do it."

Hurricane Mitch tore at Central America for almost a week in late October and early November, lashing the mountainous and already waterlogged region with 180 mph winds and torrential rains. Some areas suffered as much as two feet of rain in a six-hour period as terrified citizens saw rivers rise and devour the world they had known. Whole villages and crops were washed away by the sudden floods; rotting corpses were buried in the mountains of mud, and the stagnant water brought the certainty of disease: malaria, dysentery, typhoid. The fragile infrastructure of these developing countries, destroyed or overwhelmed by the worst hurricane to hit the region this century, collapsed; whole communities had to be relocated, water and electrical connections reinstalled, roads and bridges rebuilt.

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