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Why Are Kids From Central America Risking Solo Travel To The U.S.?


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.


And I'm Renee Montagne. The Obama administration, this week, said it will be asking Congress for over $2 billion to respond to the record number of unaccompanied children arriving at the U.S. border from Central America. Those funds would be used for emergency shelters for the young migrants and to increase enforcement and process faster deportation proceedings. In a moment, we'll talk with NPR's Carrie Kahn about what's pushing these children and teenagers north by the tens of thousands. First NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, from here in Los Angeles, on what awaits under-aged migrants after they're released from the shelters.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Speaking Spanish).

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: This boy is 9 years old. His family doesn't want us to use his name. In early May, he left his house in Guatemala, hooked up with a smuggler, got on a bus for a night and a day, hiked for awhile, hid behind a mountain, road in a car, hiked some more. Then the smuggler left, and the boy walked up to a U.S. border patrol crossing and into detention.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: His mother says the boy had an infection that ruptured his eardrum. We can't use her name, either. She says the boy was taken to a shelter and given shots of antibiotics. Authorities contacted her here in LA. Just last week, he was released to her custody.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).


MCEVERS: I met the boy and his mother here, at a class given by the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, which is funded by Catholic Charities in downtown LA. Dozens of parents and guardians, with their young, wide-eyed new arrivals, sit in the classroom and listen. Even though the kids have been released, they eventually will have to go to court, the teacher explains. Some will be allowed to stay in the U.S. - many will not. The class helps explain their rights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Caitlin Sanderson heads the Esperanza Project. She says the kids don't even realize they have to go to court. And when they do, some kids will just go by themselves. Her organization provides legal counsel to kids who've been released here to LA. But she says that's barely scratching the surface of what officials estimate could be 90,000 kids just this year.

CAITLIN SANDERSON: So if you're thinking about 400 to 500 kids that are getting representation for free from experienced and professional immigration attorneys, it's a fraction of a fraction of a percent.

MCEVERS: Sanderson says on the one hand, the Obama administration is providing humanitarian services, like funding for these legal programs, shelters, medical care. But on the other hand, it's cracking down on enforcement, sending more border agents and judges to quickly prosecute the kids' cases. She says these days, the humanitarian approach is losing out to the enforcement approach.

SANDERSON: I think it's really heavily skewed towards treating this as a type of dangerous invasion, rather than a refugee and humanitarian crisis that it really is.

MCEVERS: Republicans say it's lax enforcement at the border that caused the surge of children in the first place - that, and rumors in Central America that kids won't be turned back at the border. Sanderson says deporting these kids back to their home countries won't solve the problem.

SANDERSON: What do we want to do? We want to send all these kids back to a region that has the highest murder rate in the world? People and the kids will keep coming as long as they do not feel safe.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Back in the room with the 9-year-old boy and his mother, they tell us why the boy came to the U.S.. There is a lot of crying. The mother came here years ago and now cleans houses in places like Beverly Hills. She left her son behind in Guatemala with the grandparents.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: First, the grandmother got sick with diabetes. She went blind, had to go to the hospital every day for injections, and now uses a wheelchair. Then, last year, the grandfather was stripped, beaten, robbed and briefly kidnapped after picking up his pay at a coffee plantation. He stopped working.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish, crying).

MCEVERS: My son lived through all this, the mother says. I didn't want him to watch his grandmother die. Older boys were threatening him and beating him, so I sent for him. But when the boy goes to court, advocates say, this might not be enough to allow him to stay in the U.S. legally.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: We did not do this because we're trying to take advantage, the boy's mother says. We did this because there is violence. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

GREENE: And NPR's Carrie Kahn has been in one of the countries that these kids are coming from, doing some reporting. She's on the line with us. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: So Guatemala - you have done some reporting there recently. And I feel like we've heard so many stories of these kids arriving in the United States. Can you take us to the other side? What is the scene in Guatemala, and why are these kids being driven away?

KAHN: When you think of Guatemala and the situation there versus other countries, the driving force is extreme poverty for these children. These kids are living in very desperate situations. If you look at indices of kids in Guatemala, all of them are just alarming - infant mortality, underweight, malnutrition. And then you have teen pregnancy, which has exploded in the country. The number of girls between the ages of 10 and 14 has dramatically risen in teen pregnancy. There's also a lot of domestic violence that's affecting kids. And there is gang violence, too, in the urban centers of Guatemala. So it is a dire situation for kids there.

GREENE: You said girls between 10 and 14 are pregnant?

KAHN: Yeah. If you look at them from 10 to 18, the numbers are high. But just looking at those young numbers it's just - it's incredible. And it's scary. And it's a trend that is growing in Guatemala.

GREENE: OK. So that just gives you a window into the difficult life that a lot of people are facing, one reason that families might try and send their kids away, towards the United States, which has been happening. You have actually been speaking to some children who made that trip to the United States and were deported and arrived back in Guatemala. What did they tell you about that whole journey?

KAHN: It was a long journey. It was difficult, arduous. And what is incredible - a lot of them are boys because boys are facing different realities in Guatemala, too. A lot of them are from broken homes, single families. And they're young boys, but they feel an economic responsibility to help their mothers, to help their younger siblings. A lot of the boys I spoke to, that's exactly why they went. They said it was their decision. They wanted to go and send money back to their parents, or they wanted to be reunited with a family member that was in the United States. They talked about long journeys through Mexico, riding trains, riding buses, being approached by Mexican immigration officials, having to bribe their way out. A few of the boys were held in a warehouse, right at the U.S. border for 15 days by a smuggler, and had nothing to eat but rice and tomatoes. So it's been an incredibly arduous journey for these kids.

GREENE: And how do they arrive back once the United States deports them and sends them back home?

KAHN: There's usually a flight a day that's bringing kids back. And they're reunited with their parents. And in Guatemala, there is a very emotional scene when the parents receive their children that they were worried about, hadn't seen, didn't know what had happened to them. And they also have to be interviewed to make sure that the kids are not being returned to violent situations. But every kid that I talked to that day, David - every, single one of them said they're going to try again. That they - there's nothing for them back at home. And despite the journey that they traveled, despite being deported, despite being held in the detention center, they're going to try again because they want to help their families.

GREENE: Which tells you something about the challenge that the Obama administration faces in trying to get this message to people in countries like Guatemala - that if they send their kids to the United States, it's not necessarily going to work, that they might be deported. I mean, is that message getting through at all?

KAHN: Not really. The governments are trying to put out public service announcements and say, look. The journey is arduous, and you're not going to be let into the United States. Don't even try it. Stay here. But it's a difficult message to get out, especially when people are hearing from their relatives in the states or they're hearing from smugglers who are taking them there that, you're going to get in. That's a stronger message, and it's really hard for these local governments to counter that message.

GREENE: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn, talking to us from Mexico City, her base. But she was recently in Guatemala, reporting on violence there and reporting on a situation that's driving many young people out of Guatemala to try to make it to the United States of America. Carrie, thanks very much.

KAHN: Thank you for having me.

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.
Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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