2014-07-02 / Top News

Florida Bound

No one knows how many, perhaps thousands of children seek to reunite with their families in the Sunshine State

Children are crossing deserts, crossing rivers, running from gangs, running from drugs, running to the arms of their mothers. The Department of Homeland Security will not say how many of the 52,000 Central American children who crossed the border unaccompanied have made their way to Florida. Neither will the Office of Refugee Resettlement, responsible for ushering the children to the care of a relative or guardian while their immigration cases play out.

A 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, however, shows more than half of all Central American immigrants live in three states: California, Texas and Florida.

More than 343,300 Central American immigrants, naturalized citizens and noncitizens, live in Florida. Children crossing the border say they are leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador because they do not want to die, they want to go to school, they want to see their moms. Most likely, many of their moms live in Florida. Many dads, many aunts, many relatives.

Oscar looks out the window of the trailer where he now lives with his mother. The last time he saw her, he was 5 or 6. The two feel like strangers living together. Oscar looks out the window of the trailer where he now lives with his mother. The last time he saw her, he was 5 or 6. The two feel like strangers living together. Meet Oscar, a 14-year-old boy from Honduras, one of the elusive children of exponential numbers who has made his way to Florida. The first time Oscar tried to cross the border, Mexican police caught him, detained him for a month, then sent him back to Honduras. Two weeks later, Oscar tried again. He collapsed at the border. That was six months ago, or so. He does not remember the day. He was 13.

Sitting in the West Palm Beach trailer where he now lives with his mother, his Dorito-stained fingers fidgeting with a remote control, Oscar opens up and tells his story.

He rode buses for days, he walked for hours, he hid from authorities in the forest as it rained. He spent a week in a hotel room with 13 other people — he was the only child — as coyotes waited for money to smuggle them across. He was moved to a house on the river. He could not sleep. He saw so many snakes. “I would see things moving in the water, but I didn’t want to know what it was,” Oscar says through a translator. That was the river he would have to cross, the Rio Bravo. Oscar does not know how to swim. He made his way on some sort of raft or canoe, he does not know the word.

Oscar watches World Cup highlights in his bedroom, trying to assimilate to his new world. Oscar watches World Cup highlights in his bedroom, trying to assimilate to his new world. That’s when Oscar collapsed. He has diabetes. Without insulin, he remembers feeling aches for days, stomachaches, headaches. Border Patrol agents took him into custody. Oscar woke up in a cold room.

“I woke up and I laughed. After everything, I was still alive. I opened my eyes and smiled because I couldn’t believe I went through all that and I woke up. I made it,” Oscar says.

The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth has expanded English classes to ready the influx of child immigrants for school. Above, Hugo, 15, writes his name. He crossed the border in May with his 18-year-old brother, who is still being held in a detention shelter. 
ATHENA PONUSHIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth has expanded English classes to ready the influx of child immigrants for school. Above, Hugo, 15, writes his name. He crossed the border in May with his 18-year-old brother, who is still being held in a detention shelter. ATHENA PONUSHIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY He describes his life in Honduras as being shaded by death and drugs. His father was a drug dealer. So many members of his family were in so much trouble, he saw them being killed, dying off, one by one, disappearing.

The murder rate in Honduras has doubled since 2005, giving the country what’s believed to be the highest peacetime murder rate in the world.

Oscar wants to erase his past. He wants people to understand why children are leaving his home country, “to understand the need of being here. … They are running from violence, there are no opportunities, there are so many drugs.”

Oscar’s mother paid a coyote $6,000 to smuggle him in. She works in construction, she paints walls. She was what kept him going, the longing to see his mom, know his mom. The last time he saw her, he was 5 or 6.

There are stuffed animals in Oscar’s room that she used to hold to remind her of her son, her only child. Now he’s here, but she’s not holding him, he’s not holding her, they are two strangers living together.

Sitting in his room — a futbol poster above his bed, a bottle of cologne on his nightstand, next to his glucometer to measure his blood sugar, and a baseball video game, a sport he does not know how to play — Oscar says he has lost faith in the world.

He says he has had people tell him, “If it was up to us, you would have died crossing.”

Belinda, 4, walks across a field with her mother and baby sister, after visiting a food pantry. She crossed the border with her teenage cousin in November to see her family again. 
VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY Belinda, 4, walks across a field with her mother and baby sister, after visiting a food pantry. She crossed the border with her teenage cousin in November to see her family again. VANDY MAJOR / FLORIDA WEEKLY His shoulders slumped over, he looks like he feels unloved.

In the midst of translating his words, Johanna Cuellar says, “Aye, Oscar,” her emotions taking over, thinking of what happened to him and what could have happened to him.

Leaving his home, Mrs. Cuellar says, “In this country too, he’s the perfect target for any gang member to grab him and turn him into something else.”

What officials think

Jill Hanson, a semiretired attorney who volunteers her legal assistance through El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center in Jupiter and sits on the board of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, says, “They are coming here, the children are coming to Florida because they have family in Florida, not just moms, but dads, cousins, aunts, uncles.”

Coyotes are carrying children to the border, they cross, they are caught by Border Patrol, they camp out in makeshift shelters until they are bussed or flown to the care of a relative, many of whom reside in Florida.

“I feel very frustrated,” Ms. Hanson says. “Nobody’s paying attention.”

School district members say the state was expecting a surge in immigrant students after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, but the Florida Department of Education does not put this humanitarian crisis on par with that natural disaster.

Sen. Bill Nelson says he’s monitoring the situation. Sen. Marco Rubio says the country must care for the children while they are here, but the country must send them back. The administration of President Barack Obama wants to send a message to Central America: “Do not send your children to the borders.”

This humanitarian crisis remains fluid, politically charged and changing daily. A tangle of government agencies are dealing with the border and the children — trying to process the ones who are here and intercept the one who are coming. As of June 30: President Obama will ask Congress for more than $2 billion to control the surge and speed up deportations.

Ms. Hanson says, “I can’t image how the U.S. government could deport a 5-year-old or 12-year-old child.” As a caveat, the attorney adds, “I know of no law that says they can’t be deported.”

She describes such a law as a myth passed by word of mouth around Central American countries. People are spreading the myth and children are coming to reunite with their parents, who left them in the care of their grandparents as they came to the United States in search of a better life for the family. Grandparents are aging, no longer able to care for the children, now adolescents, who perceive the dream of living in America as attainable as they hear the promise of it slip from more and more lips.

“It’s a tragedy,” Ms. Hanson says. “It’s been a tragedy in the making … as the years have passed with no action taken to reform immigration law.”

Ms. Hanson has not seen a single child deported. She foresees them staying here, going to school here, working here. “Ten years from now, people will still be talking about all the children who came over 10 years ago, asking, ‘What are we going to do about them?’”

The Department of Homeland Security will not disclose the number of children deported or the cost to deport them. (A quick Orbitz search shows one-way flights from Miami to Honduras for $375. One-way flights from Houston to El Salvador for $325. Flights from Houston to Guatemala cost over $400. Multiply by 52,000 children. Such math is simple projection, but neither Immigration and Customs Enforcement nor Customs and Border Protection are giving out any numbers).

Nonprofits and faith-based organizations seem to be the ones stepping up. These groups are focused on education and health care, trying to teach the children English, trying to keep them healthy. A number of nonprofits would not speak on the record, not wanting to lose funding from donors, who oftentimes, when they hear of child immigrants, immediately ask, “Are they here illegally?”

Priests see the migration as a chance for the U.S. to be civilized and care for the children, or be ignorant, and hope the children go away.

U.S. responsibility has become part of the conversation, as immigrant advocates argue the country’s appetite for drugs fuels the drug cartels, and the rearing and deportation of criminals has amplified gangs.

Throw in a lethargic Congress, no immigration reform, and Florida Immigrant Coalition Deputy Director Isabel Vinent says, “The United States must look at our role in this. What are we doing wrong? We are doing something wrong.”

Children are sleeping on the cold, concrete floors of improvised warehouses, traumatized in their home countries, traumatized on their journeys. Some agencies may classify them as unaccompanied aliens, some politicians may call them illegal, but Mrs. Vinent stresses, “They are children, not criminals. They are refugees.”

She points out that children are not only escaping to the United States, they are fleeing to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Belize. But back here at home, she says, “If we value families, we have to prioritize family reunification. With the current immigration laws, families are separated daily.”

Colin Abbot, managing attorney of the migrant unit at Florida Rural Legal Services, tries to unriddle, from a legal perspective, what life looks like for these kids: Children crossing unaccompanied may receive Special Immigrant Juvenile status if they have been abused, abandoned or neglected. Thereby, secure a green card, earn citizenship, live and work in the U.S., but never petition for a green card for their parents. They can also receive a visa if they can prove they have been the victim of crime or human trafficking.

Jupiter attorney Ms. Hanson chimes in, “Part of the craziness of immigration law, the methods to get legal status are so limited, you have to prove you were abused by family in order to obtain legal status, so what if your family loves and takes care of you?”

More and more children are showing up at her desk, some with a court date, some with a directive to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, some with no papers. Ms. Hanson says there seems to be no consistent policy, just the same question: What to do next?

Thinking back on how the U.S. has historically provided safe haven for Cuban, Haitian and Sudanese refugees, reflecting on past amnesty for farmworkers, Mr. Abbot foresees an akin-veined amnesty being given to the children.

“If enough pressure’s put on government — ‘These children need help’ — the president can always use his administrative discretion,” Mr. Abbot begins, “We do have remedies. We can create a new status for these kids, some deferred action for them to stay here. There are ways around this and I think that will happen.”

As ambiguous as their futures might be, Mr. Abbot says their arrival is certain. Based in Fort Myers, his role has him traversing the state from the Panhandle to the Keys. From rural towns (Immokalee, Belle Glade, Arcadia, LaBelle) to inner cities (Tampa, Orlando, Jacksonville), Mr. Abbot says he’s hearing the same thing: The children are coming.

“There’s this sense coming from within these communities that this is going to be an issue, very quickly,” he says. “We will quickly see a wave of children, within weeks, maybe days.”

More young ones

Meet Belinda, a 4-year-old Guatemalan girl who crossed the border with her pregnant, 16-year-old cousin in November. Belinda stands 3-feet 2½-inches tall. She weighs 28 pounds. She remembers walking across the desert. She remembers being thirsty. At 4, she knows the word “inmigracion,” literally translating to “immigration,” but used colloquially by immigrants to refer to Border Patrol agents.

Belinda now lives with her parents and baby sister in Golden Gate City, a Collier County community often lost in the shadow of migrant magnet Immokalee.

Belinda’s parents paid a coyote $4,000 to bring her here. Her father works in roofing. He makes $80 to $90 a day. They saved and somehow ate.

Belinda’s parents crossed two years ago. They left her with her grandmother. She was not yet 2 years old. “I really didn’t want to leave her there. I wanted to have her here … We did not have enough money,” Belinda’s mother Bernarda says through a translator. “We had to come, figure it out here, find work, save money.”

Bernarda could not sleep as her daugh- ter was crossing borders, reliving the eight days she walked across the desert, every possible scenario playing out relentlessly in her head.

The coyote was supposed to deliver Belinda on a Friday. Saturday morning came and went. Sunday morning, nothing. She remembers the day and time she got the call from Border Patrol: Sunday, Nov. 3 at 5 p.m. She thanked God. She felt relief. She saw her daughter a month later.

Bernarda shares her story because she wants people to know it’s real. “A real struggle,” she says. “Kids want to be with their parents. Their parents are here.”

In Guatemala, Bernarda says women are treated like minorities and stuck in a poverty cycle: “You learn how to write a little, to count a little bit, then you’re done. You go off with your husband and have kids. That’s all you do.”

She came to the U.S. because she wanted her daughters to have an education.

Rev. Frank O’Loughlin, a Catholic priest, worries the school system has not stood up to meet the rise of child immigrants. He says providing summer school for the children would have been the obvious thing to do.

Executive director of the Guatemalan- Maya Center in Lake Worth, the Irishman has a head full of children. Eager to help those new to the land, he asks the children at his side, “How do we reach them? Who have you got? Have you heard of anybody?” A little girl answers, “My brother. He arrived yesterday.” Not a day goes by that he doesn’t find another child to think about.

“At this level here, we’re worried about the America that receives the child and that’s just what this center is supposed to do, it’s supposed to see to it that the America that receives the child is simpatico,” says Rev. O’Loughlin, affectionately know as Father Frank.

Focusing on education and health care, the center has been expanding their English classes and lining up appointments with doctors.

“There’s the invitation for all of us to step up and be civilized,” Father Frank says of the children-crossing-border crisis. “It’s well within our happy capacity to look after them. And without doing all the politics of why they are coming, or what economies we broke with the trade agreements, without doing all that, without being mean about the fact that their communities are being destroyed supplying our drug needs, without doing any of that wacky stuff, that fact is, they’re ours to look after.”

Like a shepherd giving a sermon, he goes into the freezing of the Rhine, immigrants from the north walking across the frozen river, the Romans killing 1,000,000 to stop them from coming, their perseverance, the creation of Europe.

“What’s happening here is so much bigger than any of our imaginations,” he says. “The romancing we do about America as the land of the immigrant, this revives it all for me.”

Thinking of the resilience of the children, everything they have done, everything they could do, all the places they could go, all the obstacles they could overcome, he says, “Nothing in my life ever required me to do anything like they have done.

“What would be the matter with me if I couldn’t see what’s before me? The heroism of the moment isn’t San Antonio beating Miami, the heroism of the moment isn’t La Copa, the heroism of moment, it’s these children.” ¦

— Florida Weekly did not print the last names of the child immigrants or immigrant families.

What Florida statesmen are saying

Gov. Rick Scott, Sen. Bill Nelson and Sen. Marco Rubio were asked: How do you feel about the children who have crossed the border unaccompanied and made their way to Florida? Is Florida ready to receive them? From your vantage, what’s the conversation? What do you want Floridians to know most? What do you want immigrant families to know? What has not been said? What’s going to happen to these kids?

Here’s how they responded …

Gov. Rick Scott

“The images of these children are truly heart wrenching and magnify the federal government’s ineptitude in dealing with our border in a safe and secure manner. Congress should move promptly to find an immediate solution to our defunct immigration system.”

— John Tupps, press secretary

Sen. Bill Nelson

“Sen. Nelson is aware of the situation at the border. He’s asked the administration for details on its plan of action and has been told they are working to locate families and find temporary housing. He’s also been told the recent influx stems in part from a dramatic increase in gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The senator is continuing to closely monitor the situation.”

— Ryan Brown, press secretary

Sen. Marco Rubio

“The ongoing situation involving unaccompanied children crossing our southwest border is a serious humanitarian and national security crisis. Florida and other states receiving them should certainly treat them with care, as the U.S. does with all those who come here seeking refuge, but ultimately these children are here illegally and must return to their country. The Obama Administration must enforce current immigration laws to discourage others from illegally crossing the border and I hope we can send a clear message that what they are doing is illegal and puts these children in great danger.”

— Sen. Marco Rubio

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