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Child migrant expert: The kids will keep coming

Federal officials recently announced they would close three temporary detention shelters in Oklahoma, Texas and California, in part because the flow of children across the southern U.S. border has slowed. The news comes weeks into a heated debate over what to do about large numbers of unaccompanied minors fleeing Central America.

But one Chicago expert, recently returned from studying migrant children in Guatemala, believes the slowdown won’t last.

“There is a culture of migration where, in many ways, it is a rite of passage that you do start to think about your household, you think about your family, you think about your future at age 13, 14, 15,” said Lauren Heidbrink, an anthropologist and Assistant Professor at National Louis University in Chicago.

Heidbrink has authored a book on the topic, titled Migrant Youth, Transnational Families and the State: Care and Contested Interests, and recently returned from a field study in the Departments of San Marcos and Quezaltenango in western Guatemala.

“It’s a different cultural context. There are different expectations of young people in Guatemala than we have of a 14-year old in the U.S,” said Heidbrink.

While there, Heidbrink said she witnessed a widespread campaign to dissuade children from making the dangerous journey to the U.S.-Texas border. The U.S. Department of Customs and Border Protection has launched a multimedia campaign — which included commissioning a radio tune modeled in the tradition of popular gangster ballads known as narcorridos — to emphasize the dangers of the journey to children and their families.

But in the indigenous, subsistence-farm communities where Heidbrink works, the messages are not taking root.

“They know the risks,” she said. “But the risks of remaining outweigh the risks of migration.”

Heidbrink said many children believe subsistence farming won’t be enough to support their families — and that way of life has been further threatened by toxic mining activity nearby. In other parts of Guatemala and Central America, kids may face different hardships. But in most cases, Heidbrink says they decide to leave for the same reason: they see little future where they are.

“People don’t want to migrate,” she said. “It’s a last resort for many people.”

But Heidbrink said once children make the decision to leave, they’re thrown into a vicious cycle. Those that are deported don’t bring home the message that they shouldn’t make the journey. On the contrary, Heidbrink said it becomes more necessary than ever for the children to try to reach the U.S. again.

“Youth and families are being returned to the very situations that they fled, and nothing has changed,” she explained. “And in fact, layered on top of that, for many youth, is the added debt it takes to migrate.”

Heidbrink said many families pay smugglers between $7,500 and $10,000 to get their children to the U.S. safely, with whopping monthly interest rates as high as 15 percent. Even with a college education, Heidbrink said most Guatemalans can’t earn that kind of money. So many kids feel their only way to pay the debt is to re-migrate.

Heidbrink believes the U.S.’s renewed focus on deporting migrant children faster will only make the problem worse. That’s because the stigma of returning to their home without having successfully made it in the U.S. means they feel pressured to try again.

Additionally, Heidbrink said boys typically face ridicule for wearing different clothes, more hair gel, or listening to different music, upon being deported back to their communities. For girls, there’s an assumption that they had to sleep their way to the U.S. — or that they were raped.

“There’s one family that I’m working with who let their community members know their daughter had migrated to Guatemala City to work as a domestic laborer in someone’s home, when in fact, she had migrated to the U.S.,” said Heidbrink. “And when she was apprehended and removed, they met her in Guatemala City… brought her traditional clothing and told her what story to tell the community so that she could avoid that type of stigmatization in her community.”

She said the children see the U.S. as one of their only ways out of poverty, and emphasizing the dangers of the trip isn’t enough to deter them. Instead, she said they might give the decision more pause if they realized how difficult life in the U.S. could be when they get here.

Daniel Restrepo can attest to that.

“I remember my couple first days, I was so happy because I was made it in the United States,” he said. Restrepo was 17 when he made the journey from Colombia three years ago.

Unlike the children that Heidbrink studies in Guatemala, Restrepo had an easy journey to the U.S.: he came on a plane with a tourist visa.

But Restrepo said he overstayed that visa because he felt Colombia was too violent and corrupt. He never thought life in the U.S. would also be hard.

Restrepo said he jumped at the opportunity to be a dishwasher in a restaurant, because his weekly paycheck of $300 was more than he’d make in one month in Colombia.

“But I came again to the real world that $300 is nothing,” he continued, “And I started to owe money, and that’s when started the nightmare in the United States.”

Restrepo works two jobs now, as a cook and a valet parking attendant, at downtown Chicago restaurants. He’s barely making it. Last week the gas was shut off at his Logan Square studio because he owes $600 in unpaid bills. Restrepo said there are still no opportunities back home, but he’s not making much headway here, either.

Heidbrink said it’s been left to other parties — like non-profits in Guatemala — to share stories of struggle like Restrepo’s.

“People don’t talk about those experiences, don’t talk about the challenges and poverty that exists in the U.S.,” she explained. “So there is this idealized image of what it is to be living in America and working in America.”

Heidbrink said, rather than emphasizing the dangers of the journey, the more effective way to convince Central American children to stop migrating to the U.S. may be to tell them what happens once they get here.

Odette Yousef is WBEZ’s North Side Bureau reporter. Follow her @oyousef and @WBEZoutloud.

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