An often-forgotten fact in the immigration debate is that lately, illegal border crossings to the U.S. have stagnated. Except that’s not the case for one category of immigrants: unaccompanied children. In just the last couple of years, the number of minors apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol has nearly tripled. Many of these kids come through Chicago, where agencies are scrambling to handle the load.
“My brother, he called me and was telling me about the risk, but I just didn’t listen to that,” said Juan Cordoba, a young 17-year old whose real name WBEZ is withholding because he is an undocumented minor. “I just thought that I wanted to be here, that I wanted to help my family.”
With his attorney providing translation, Cordoba tells of how he was finishing high school in Honduras, living with his mother, stepfather and sisters, when he decided there was no point staying there.
“As we all know, Honduras has a lot of corruption problems, there’s a lot of violence, there’s not a lot of opportunities,” he said, “and so as young people, we graduate and then you have no options, there’s no jobs available, there’s nothing.” Cordoba said he believed there would be job opportunities in the U.S., so he decided to leave his family for what he hoped would be a better future.
It took Juan two months to cross Honduras and Mexico by bus and on foot. He ended up in McAllen, Texas, near the border. But then things fell apart. Juan fell into the hands of U.S. Border Security officials, who threw him into a federal detention facility.
“It was really bad. They don’t treat you nice,” he remembered. “They don’t treat you like a human, they treat you like an animal. It was just not good.”
Juan has two brothers in Chicago, so immigration enforcement transferred him to a child center here, in the custody of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.* He was released after a few weeks to stay with his brothers as his immigration case proceeds.
Most unaccompanied youth are detained near the border, but many, like Juan, end up in Chicago -- one of the largest off-the-border hubs for unaccompanied minors in the U.S. In the last two years, the number of children brought to federal detention facilities here has exploded, from fewer than 400 in 2011 to nearly 1,300 a year later. The Chicago area used to have just one child detention facility; today, it has seven, in undisclosed locations.
The spike in Chicago mirrors a national trend. The Office of Refugee Resettlement expects to handle more than 23,000 children this year, triple what it saw two years ago.
“A lot of them are just fleeing violence or fleeing some sort of bad situation,” said Ellen Miller, an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, which represents all unaccompanied children in federal custody in Chicago. Miller said most of the increase is coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
“A lot of them are coming to reunite with their family members who are already here,” she said. “Some of them, yes, we do have suspicion that there is other motivations in making them come here,” she added, alluding to common cases in which children are trafficked to the U.S. for sex against their will. She said this is a particularly big problem with children who arrive from India and China.
The sudden influx has highlighted problems with how the U.S. handles these children. Lawyers like Miller represent them while they’re here in federal detention centers.
But often that only lasts a few weeks, until they’re placed in the custody of someone else, usually a family member. When that happens, the children are often flown out of Chicago, and the relationships with their attorneys ends. But their immigration cases must continue in the place they now live.
“Right now kids are expected to find their own attorneys,” said Maria Woltjen, Director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights at the University of Chicago. Woltjen said non-government agencies try to find pro-bono attorneys for these kids, but sometimes they can’t.
“We expect these kids to walk into that federal building, to find the courtroom, to go into that courtroom and figure out what to do,” she said. “And there’s nobody there to receive them, there’s no one there to greet them.” According to Miller, some children that come to Chicago are as young as five years old, too short even to see above the bench in a courtroom.
Woltjen thinks there should be other changes, as well. She believes there should be a separate court system for immigrant minors, kind of like juvenile criminal court. Right now, kids are often on the same docket as adults.
“We actually were accompanying a released child to court,” recalled Woltjen, “she was about 16 years old, and the judge, who was a very good judge...(hears an) adult case, adult case, adult case, and then this child’s case, and the judge called her ‘ma’am.’”
Woltjen said judges and immigration officials are struggling with the increase in numbers, too. Without lawyers for the kids, they’re often unsure if deportation is safe or in the kids’ best interest.
But Woltjen said the stress on the system may end up being a good thing.
“It is putting more attention on this population of children,” she said. “So I think it’s not only the NGO advocates who are pushing for changes in the system, but right now we think also the government agencies would like to see a change in the system.”
Woltjen is particularly optimistic about changes that could come about through immigration reform. Woltjen credited U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) with including measures to help unaccompanied children in the so-called Gang of Eight bill. It would allow judges to appoint free legal counsel to unaccompanied minors. But there’s no guarantee it will be kept in the final bill.
As for Cordoba, he says he’s lucky to have a lawyer, and to live with his brothers while his immigration case unfolds. But he is still struggling with the memories of how he got to this country. Cordoba stressed the dangers crossing from Mexico into the U.S., but stopped short of describing how he got caught. His attorneys say before Cordoba was detained he was the victim of a crime. Cordoba’s trying to forget it, and said to some extent, he regrets coming to the U.S.
‘“But now that I’m here, and I have this opportunity, I want to make the best of it and be able to stay here,” he said. Cordoba said he’s eager to get out of immigration court limbo and to to start working. Ultimately he hopes to go back to school and pursue a profession where he can help people.
He said he’d like to become a doctor, or an immigration attorney.
*Correction: This article originally stated that the Office of Refugee Resettlement falls under the U.S. State Department. It is actually under the federal Department of Health and Human Services.