Safety quest brings minors across borders
Fifteen-year-old Saúl Martínez says he walked, rode small buses, hid in houses with other immigrants and endured a long haul in a dark, steamy trailer, crossing international borders to flee the dangers of an urban area in El Salvador and reach the arms of his mother and sisters on Long Island.
All he knew two months ago when he left Colonia Belén with the hope of joining his family in Brentwood, he said, was that he had to get away from maras, criminal gangs terrorizing his neighborhood and looking to recruit boys.
"I didn't want to be involved in that bad deal," Martínez said in Spanish. "If I don't want to join them, they kill me. And if I join them, I get killed, too."
The three-day journey to the United States border, which he said at one point involved lying quietly in the back of a hearse as he was taken through Mexico's capital, led to Martínez' detention in a cold Texas jail cell and a stay at a federal housing facility in Miami.
His three younger sisters and an older sister made it to the Island before him -- in two separate trips last year and in 2011, led by smugglers who charged their mother $7,000 for each.
They are part of an exodus of Central American boys and girls fleeing violence and poverty by crossing illegally into the United States -- where, under current law, the children classified as "unaccompanied minors" from countries other than Mexico and Canada are released from detention to sponsors in the United States until they get their day in immigration court.
The crisis has intensified concerns about border security, sparking flag-waving protesters in Murrieta, California, to block busloads of children who were to be transferred there from Texas.
President Barack Obama moved last week to ask Congress for $2 billion to hire more immigration judges and open detention facilities that would speed up deportations -- a move that immigrant advocates have decried as harsh in what they said amounts to a humanitarian disaster.
Local immigrant advocates and attorneys said no organizations are keeping track of the number of these children, age 17 and younger, who reach the Island and the metropolitan area. But they believe hundreds are coming here every year from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala -- the three nations of origin driving the surge of unaccompanied minors -- to join relatives in immigrant communities.
"We have been really busy the last year and I am getting new cases almost every day," said Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney in Bay Shore who said he is representing Martínez and his sisters as well as more than 100 others. "Usually, the main reason they are here is because they have been victims of violence, particularly gang violence, and the most common type of problem is extortion from the MS-13 or 18th Street gangs."
Saúl Martínez -- whom federal authorities put on a flight from Miami to Kennedy Airport, where his mother picked him up -- is waiting for his day in court. He hopes to make a life here, perhaps working in something related to electronics. "I feel more secure here," he said. "I feel freer here, like no one will bother me."
His sisters Anyeli Rojas, 13, Meylin Rojas, 10, and Luciana Quito, 6, arrived a year ago, led across fields and rivers by smugglers. His older sister, Elivenia Martinez, 16, came in 2011.
They already have been granted protected juvenile status for immigrant children escaping abuse and neglect, allowing them to stay.
"I was excited to come, but also afraid that something could happen to us," said Anyeli, a sixth-grader who wants to learn English and become a schoolteacher.
Their mother, 33, who asked not to be identified because she is in the country illegally and could be deported, said she was fleeing a violent spouse when she came to the United States in 2008. She said she left the children with relatives, but feared for her children's lives because of rampant crime. She worked at restaurants and factories and saved every penny to have them brought to the United States.
"I made these decisions, because there is too much criminality there," she said in Spanish. "The gangs had killed a boy right in front of our house."
According to border patrol apprehension data, released last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and analyzed by the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., the children crossing the border are coming from impoverished rural areas in Guatemala and "extremely violent regions" in Honduras and El Salvador.
The spike in crossings has resulted in more than 52,000 apprehensions of children 17 or younger along the southwest portion of the United States border with Mexico from Oct. 1 through June 15 -- the latest figures available for the current fiscal year from the Department of Homeland Security. That's a 99 percent increase in the number of apprehensions over the same period in the 2013 fiscal year.
Hundreds of immigrant kids in New York have been petitioning for legal status annually, especially over the past four years, under a program authorized by Congress in 1990 and modified in 2008 to admit more children abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents. It is one of the ways unaccompanied minors can stay after their cases are reviewed by family court judges.
'Refugee issue' approach
About 750 children in the state had applied for the "Special Immigrant Juvenile" status from October 2013 to the end of May, compared with nearly 870 who sought to stay in the previous 12 months, according to figures released to Newsday by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, which considers visa petitions.
On average, about eight out of every 10 minors who requested that status in New York since 2005 have received approval to stay.
Theo Liebmann, director of the Hofstra Youth Advocacy Clinic, which helps unaccompanied minors on Long Island file petitions, said he's noticed the increase in clients over the past 18 months.
"Many of the youth who come to us report extreme, often tragic family situations, but also just unsafe environments," Liebmann said. "I don't really get the sense from clients that they say, 'Let's go and see what it's like in the U.S.' "
Those cases that go before family courts to seek the juvenile status represent but a sliver of the population traversing international borders in search for a better life in the United States. Others seek asylum, file a variety of other petitions or stay without documentation, advocates and attorneys said.
During testimony to Congress on June 24, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said the rise in unaccompanied children has created "an urgent situation," with interagency efforts to process and house them while seeking "to assure faster, secure removal and repatriation."
Obama spoke last week of "an actual humanitarian crisis on the border that only underscores the need to drop the politics and fix our immigration system" while seeking more resources and increased powers to send children back.
The trend has stirred anew the immigration debate.
Pro-enforcement groups accuse the Obama administration of spurring the crisis by sending the wrong message in exempting some unauthorized immigrants from deportations.
Immigrant advocates were aghast at the administration's push for expedited removals, saying in a national news briefing that the country -- in shuttling children back -- would be rejecting the most vulnerable.
"This country needs to look at this issue as a refugee issue, as opposed to an immigration issue," said Kevin Appleby, migration policy director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a public policy arm of the church in Washington, D.C. "Children are specifically targeted by these organized crime networks to join them, or in the case of young girls, to be their girlfriends, at the risk of death."
Curbing the influx
Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C., group seeking reduced immigration levels, said that "just generalized conditions of poverty and violence in a particular country have never been qualifications for admission as refugees and asylees, because . . . you would have millions and millions" at the country's borders and ports.
If the unaccompanied minors are allowed to stay, more will come, he contended.
"Obviously, you want to treat minors, younger kids, with as much compassion as you can," Mehlman added, "but what you have to do is to convince people not to put their kids in the hands of smugglers in the first place."
Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Peter King (R-Seaford) stood against plans to house some of those children at a former Grumman Corp. site in Bethpage briefly considered for a temporary shelter on Long Island.
Addressing the influx of those children in the long term is a more complicated matter that will involve border enforcement, cracking down on smugglers and increasing outreach to Mexico and Central America, King said.
"We have to secure the borders and we have to send them back," King said. "The individual cases, when you look at them . . . are very compelling, but if you look at the overall picture, we have a large number of kids coming across."