Giovanni, 16, (left) crossed the border into Arizona when he was just 12. He's pictured with his foster family in Richmond, Va., with whom he is living while he waits for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, designed for those who've been abused or neglected.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Scroll down to read the story of Andres, a teenage Mexican migrant who did not receive permission to stay in the country.
At a Glance
The typical immigrant child is a teenage male. Most come from the Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But they also come from Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, China and India.
73 percent were boys
27 percent were girls
26 percent were younger than 14
In 2000, 4,600 unaccompanied children arrived in the United States. This year, that number is estimated to have risen to close to 8,000.*
Minors in the United States illegally and alone are housed in 38 shelters across the country. The average stay is 45 day, but some remain in shelters for months.
Special Juvenile Visas allow illegal child migrants to stay in the United States legally if they've been abused or neglected. In 2002, 510 such visas were granted; last year, 660 were awarded.
Approximately 90 percent of alien minors in U.S. custody lack legal representation.
About 60 percent of these children get reunited with family in the United States.
About 20 percent are deported or choose to return to their native countries voluntarily.
A small number of children are granted asylum.
Some stay in the country and disappear, becoming undocumented and part of the underground world.
Source: Office of Refugee Resettlement.
*Figures prior to 2003 are from the Department of Justice.
At a Health and Human Services Shelter for migrant children in Chicago, John Muckian (right), a clinician, performs a psychological evaluation of a new arrival from Mexico.
Marisa Penaloza, NPR
Marisa Penaloza, NPR
More and more of the illegal immigrants detained in the United States are children who've come here alone. Last year, there were about 8,000 in custody, up from 4,500 in 2000. Until recently, the federal immigration agency housed these young migrants in juvenile detention centers. But a 2002 court settlement deemed children were being treated too harshly, so Congress asked the Department of Health and Human Services to take custody of them.
Today, the system is a study in contradiction: Immigration officials still work to deport these children, even as HHS operates a growing network of shelters to care for and educate them.
Reuniting with Family in U.S. Often Difficult
One shelter sits behind a locked iron gate, on a tree-lined street north of Chicago, indistinguishable from other low-rise apartment buildings on the block. Its location is kept secret to protect the children from smugglers who may show up demanding payment.
The building is a former nursing home, with walls full of photos and cheery displays aimed at making it feel cozy. Since children stay an average of 45 days, and sometimes longer, there are plenty of activities: academic classes during the day, life skills seminars at night, and a host of heavily supervised field trips to amusement parks and museums. It can all seem surreal, says acting director Ricardo Jonas.
“Some of these kids have been living in the streets or taking care of their families,” Jonas says. “They really didn't have much of a childhood, so they don't know what a toy is, or [what it's like to] spend time without thinking that they need to work or put food on the table.”
The shelter's main goal is to reunite the children with their family. That could mean deportation, unless the child has a strong case to claim asylum or some other type of protective visa. If the child has family members already here, as many do, he or she can live with them while a court decides whether or not the child can stay in the country. But often those family members are illegal, and lawyer Karen Donoso Stevens says they may be afraid to come forward and claim their son or daughter.
"Another tough situation is that you are talking about a family who has been here a while, so they have U.S. citizen siblings,” Stevens says. So the family wonders, 'Do I jeopardize my children who have status to sponsor my one child that's in custody?'"
Lack of Lawyers for Child Migrants
Another problem is a severe lack of legal representation.
"There is an absolute void in immigration law in terms of the best interest of the child,” says Maria Woltjen, of the Immigrant Children's Advocacy Project. It's estimated that about 90 percent of underage migrants don't have a lawyer. Yet even in asylum cases, Woltjen says, the law treats minors the same as adults.
"They've got to show exactly the same evidence, even though a child who comes here might not know details of whatever political reasons they had to be sent from their country," she says.
A bill to require lawyers for young migrants has repeatedly failed in Congress. There are numerous efforts to expand the network of pro-bono lawyers, but a big obstacle is that so many of the shelters housing them are in remote locations.
Lives in Limbo
Since the 2002 settlement, more child migrants have also been placed in foster homes while their cases are decided. In Richmond, Va., 16-year-old Giovanni has found a happy life with foster parents Ben and Henryatta. (Giovanni skipped out on the smuggler who brought him to the United States, and for fear of being tracked down, all three have asked NPR not to use their last names).
Giovanni says he was abandoned by his single mom, and crossed the border into Arizona when he was just 12. He spent three years as a day laborer in San Francisco before being arrested and turned over to immigration authorities.
Today, Giovanni says he's doing well in 10th grade and was voted Rookie of the Year on the local soccer team. He is hoping to be granted a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, designed for those who've been abused or neglected; 660 such visas were approved last year.
Giovanni's foster father Ben is actually a longtime law enforcement officer with a firm view on immigration. While he's fond of Giovanni, he admits the situation is awkward.
"You sound kind of double tongued when you say 'shut the border down,' yet we house someone from Mexico," Ben says. "It's a very touchy subject."
The change to a kinder, gentler system for child migrants has had a trade-off. Once kids are released to families or foster care, there's no more supervision. It's estimated about half never show up in court, simply disappearing into the immigrant underground.
It's hoped that finding more pro-bono lawyers could bring down the number of absconders. But there may also be no perfect solution in the delicate balance between enforcing the law and ensuring children's welfare.
A young girl stands at a bus staton near the U.S-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, where migrants often travel to the interior of the United States. Last year, nearly 8,000 illegal migrants in U.S. custody were children who traveled to the country alone.
Andres sat in the front office of the children's shelter in Chicago, leaning back in a swivel chair, an expression of studied resignation on his face. The 16-year-old Mexican had crossed the Arizona border illegally two years earlier, and worked a string of jobs in the United States, making friends along the way.
But his American dream had been cut short when he was stopped for speeding. ("I was driving 40 and the speed limit was 35," he says.) After spending three months in a shelter for underage migrant children, Andres was due to be flown back home to Oaxaca the week after we met him in early October.
Unlike many immigrants, Andres was making a living before he came, and was even helping out his farmer father. He worked at the beach in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, selling fish and collecting fees at the public restroom there.
"I was happy," he recalls, "but my friend said, 'Let's go and look for something better.'"
It was the friend's third time crossing the U.S. border, and Andres says the two didn't even use a "coyote" to guide them. They walked for five hard days and nights to Phoenix, where another friend met them with a car.
Over the next two years, Andres says he worked chopping tobacco in Morristown, Tenn., and at a car-manufacturing plant in Ohio. Once he visited a friend in Miami, driving for 24 hours. It wasn't all he'd imagined.
"I thought I could work here and send money home, but no more," Andres says.
He said he had to buy a car to get to work, and that cut into his savings. He had managed to buy a Seiko watch for $640, but says the police kept that — along with his car and even his CDs — when they arrested him for the speeding ticket and turned him over to immigration.
"It wasn't worth coming to the U.S.," he says with a low laugh.
Still, Andres says he's going to miss the friends he made, including an American girl he met at a park and exchanged phone numbers with. He says she is "not a girlfriend," but she speaks a bit of Spanish, and they've visited each other's homes.
His friends in Ohio are paying for his plane ticket back to Mexico. That lets him depart "voluntarily," instead of having an official deportation on his record, which would bar him from re-entering the United States for a number of years.
Andres says he's looking forward to seeing his family again, and yet…
He glances at his lawyer. "If I come back and immigration arrests me, what happens?"
She tells him he must only return legally. What's more, if he enters the country without a visa after he turns 18 and is caught, he'll be treated as an adult and put in jail.
Andres mulls that over, then playfully cocks his head. "So, if I come back before I turn 18…?"