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Teens Tell Tales Of Traveling — Without Parents — Across U.S.-Mexico Border

By Alfonso Chardy, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — Soon after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, 17-year-old Ana became separated from the group of Hondurans with whom she had been traveling and wound up alone in a mountain cottage where she was repeatedly raped by strangers.

“They threatened me, saying that if I ever said something about this they were going to kill me,” Ana said amid tears during an interview in a Little Havana home. “The only thing I begged them was not to harm me. The only thing I was thinking was that they were going to kill me. That I was going to die.”

Ana’s ordeal was the most extraordinary in a series of harrowing stories told by minors from Central America, part of an unprecedented exodus of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into the United States.

Miami is one of 10 cities where the children are being sent for immigration proceedings as border shelters fill up.

Though unaccompanied children have arrived in the United States for decades, the number has reached levels not seen before after 2011 — with the majority coming from Central America, largely Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The number of unaccompanied children jumped from an annual average of 6,800 between fiscal years 2004 and 2011 to more than 13,000 in 2012 and to more than 24,000 in 2013, according to a November 2013 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). About 50,000 unaccompanied children have arrived since Oct. 1, according to U.S. officials.

While each child may have his or her own reasons for making the perilous journey, immigration attorneys and activists who represent the children say the main reason they are fleeing is intensified gang violence in their home countries as well as abuse and physical violence in their own homes.

Karen, another Honduran teen, said physical violence by her own father and threats from gangs propelled her to leave her country. She said she tried to find safety by moving out of her hometown to other parts of Honduras, but she concluded that the United States was the only safe place for her. Gangs in Honduras and other Central American countries are widespread, posing national security threats because they have become efficient criminal organizations similar to the Mexican drug-trafficking cartels.

Interviews in Miami last week with half a dozen unaccompanied minors who reached the United States show that escaping gang violence is a prime factor in the exodus. Some, like Andrea from El Salvador, were also seeking to join parents who had emigrated earlier. But Andrea herself also cited gang threats as the primary reason for her trip. All of the minors interviewed asked that their last names not be published because of the sensitivity of their cases and pending immigration proceedings.

Ana’s fateful journey began in Honduras in February.

“I was threatened by the gangs of Honduras and, because of the gangs, my 17-year-old brother was killed three years ago,” Ana recalled. “The gangs also threatened to kill me if I didn’t join them.”

Ana was the youngest in a group of 12 Hondurans, including adults, who boarded buses and cars to reach the U.S. border.

After crossing into Mexico from Guatemala, Ana suffered the worst experience of her young life — the rape by several men who abducted her after she became separated from her group.

“It was early morning and dark, and when we reached a cottage in a mountain, the men grabbed me after my group disappeared,” she recalled.

After raping her, the attackers left. At sunrise, her group found her and the trip resumed toward the U.S. border.

Karen, the other Honduran teen, is represented by Elizabeth Sanchez Kennedy, staff attorney at Catholic Legal Services in Miami.

In an interview at the Catholic Legal Services office in downtown Miami, Karen recounted her trip.

She also crossed the Rio Grande on a raft one cold moonlit night when she was 17.

She traveled on foot, buses, and vans through Guatemala and Mexico to reach a border point near Reynosa, Mexico, which is across from McAllen, Texas.

Karen said she fled Honduras because her father physically abused her and gangs threatened to kill her.

“I think it’s very important for people to understand that this young lady’s case is a very typical case and that they embark on this very perilous and dangerous journey only as a last resort,” said Randolph McGrorty, executive director of Catholic Legal Services of the Archdiocese of Miami. “She really tried to seek safety in her own country on many different occasions. She didn’t take this journey lightly. She didn’t take it on the promise of a work permit. She took it to save her life.”

In her own words, this is how Karen, now 19, describes the reasons for leaving Honduras.

“I was fearful of my father’s physical mistreatment of me, and fearful of the gangs,” she said. “They killed my cousin and my aunt.”

While many of the unaccompanied children are arriving from Honduras, there are also significant numbers coming from El Salvador and Guatemala.

Andrea, who was 14 when she crossed the border, traveled from Sensuntepque, about 40 miles northeast of the capital, San Salvador.

She said she fled El Salvador because gang members were pressuring her to join. Andrea’s mother, Sandra, said she encouraged her daughter to come to the United States so the family could be together.

“It is very hard for us as parents to expose our children to the dangers of these journeys,” Sandra told reporters in explaining why she had allowed her daughter to come to the United States by herself. “It is not easy for a parent to do this, but it is necessary to keep a family together.”

Andrea, now 15, said that for a month earlier this year she endured hunger, cold, and seemingly interminable walks to finally make it across the border.

“I was very scared,” said Andrea. “I thought I was never going to arrive. That something bad was going to happen to me.”

After being detained in a shelter near the border, immigration authorities released her and she then flew to Miami and rejoined her mother at Miami International Airport.

Andrea said her goal now is to stay in the United States, study hard, and “achieve something in life.”

Photo: El Nuevo Herald / MCT/ Roberto Koltun

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Surge In Unaccompanied Minors Across Mexican Border Is Felt Across The Country

By Alfonso Chardy, The Miami Herald

MIAMI — The crisis of the thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border is being felt across the United States, with Miami one of 10 cities where children are being sent for immigration proceedings as border shelters fill up.

The transfer of arriving immigrant minors to South Florida shelters is taxing the services of nongovernmental organizations that assist immigrants, according to immigration attorneys.

Children have arrived in the United States without their parents for decades, but over the past two years the flow has become a veritable flood of youths — mostly from Central America — crossing the border in groups and sometimes with the help of adult migrant-smugglers. Their numbers are so large that earlier this month President Barack Obama called the situation a humanitarian crisis.

“Last year, we were already extremely overwhelmed by the increase in unaccompanied minors arriving and ending up in shelters in Miami,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Miami-based Americans for Immigrant Justice, formerly known as the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. “About three months ago, the Office of Refugee Resettlement began increasing the number of beds in the Miami shelters, almost tripling the number of children who need legal assistance.”

AI Justice, as Little’s group is known, is one of several NGOs in South Florida that represent immigrants, especially minors. For years, Little’s organization has helped young immigrants resettle in the United States after fleeing their home countries.

The surge of unaccompanied children has put AI Justice at the forefront of renewed efforts to provide the children with legal means not only to avoid deportation but also to stay in the country as lawful permanent residents — a status that enables them to seek citizenship later.

Federal officials say that almost 50,000 children had crossed the border without their parents since Oct. 1, almost double the number over the same period a year earlier. The administration has assigned the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate the response.

The administration also agreed to allow attorneys to represent some of the children, a victory for groups like AI Justice, which for years have advocated for free legal representation for immigrant children before U.S. immigration courts. Legal counsel is not mandatory for those in deportation proceedings.

Last Friday, the office of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), released letters he sent to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and to the ambassadors from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, and Honduras expressing concern about the surge of children across the border.

“Like most Americans, I am outraged and saddened by the ongoing humanitarian and national security crisis on the southwest border,” Rubio told Johnson. “However, I am concerned by how this catastrophe seems to have caught the Administration off guard and without an adequate mitigation plan.”

Citing an example, Rubio wrote that the surge “stands in contrast” to the administration’s assurances that the border was “already secure.”

A report issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that while the number of unaccompanied children detained by immigration authorities averaged about 6,600 in fiscal years 2004 through 2011, the number of children apprehended jumped to more than 13,000 in fiscal year 2012 and to more than 24,000 in fiscal year 2013, with the number rising even more this year.

As border facilities fill up, many children are being sent to shelters in non-border cities, including Miami, said Little and Michelle Abarca, AI Justice’s directing attorney for the group’s Children’s Legal Project.

Abarca said that last year, AI Justice served approximately 1,600 children locally, a figure that will be surpassed very soon.

The children are being housed at three local shelters — a place formerly known as Boys Town, His House Children’s Home, and a new facility for young kids.

“Within the last month, we learned that 98 more children’s beds were being added in Miami and were asked whether we could handle the added work,” said Little. “We’re committed to helping these children even if it means putting in long hours.”

In addition, AI Justice has seen a dramatic increase in the number of children released from shelters in other parts of the country and resettled in South Florida.

Photo: Allen Ormond via Flickr

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Migrant Smuggling On High Seas Bring New Players Into An Old Game

By Alfonso Chardy, El Nuevo Herald

MIAMI — After spotting a disabled pleasure boat with five people aboard drifting 21 miles east of Miami, a Good Samaritan contacted the U.S. Coast Guard.

The five men aboard did have mechanical trouble that mid-April morning, but they did not want any assistance from the Coast Guard.

Turns out, they were not legally supposed to be headed toward U.S. shores. One, the captain, was an alleged Cuban American smuggler and the other four were undocumented migrants from Jamaica and Haiti. Two of the four previously had been deported and were trying to re-enter the United States illegally.

Though Coast Guard interdictions of traffickers are common on the high seas, the case of the drifting boat provides new details of a operation where suspected Cuban boat smugglers now are bringing non-Cuban migrants to South Florida.

Until recently, Cuban smugglers generally focused on bringing passengers from Cuba, but that practice appears to have stopped after the U.S. Coast Guard stepped up patrolling the Florida Straits.

The case also suggests that the Bahamas has become a major staging area for illegal boat trips to South Florida and a significant number of the undocumented immigrants boarding those boats previously have been deported.

Over the last two years, an increasing number of boats have been interdicted or spotted in waters between the Bahamas and South Florida bringing undocumented immigrants of various nationalities, including Brazilians, Dominicans, Ecuadorans, Haitians and Jamaicans.

Despite having been deported previously, many return because they have families, businesses or properties in the United States, especially South Florida.

Details of the recent case were unveiled in a criminal complaint filed in Miami federal court by a special agent of Homeland Security Investigations, a unit of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Coast Guard personnel detained the five men and brought them to their Miami Beach base. Three — Orestes NuNez, Ronald Young and Sabouy Williamson — face federal charges: Nunez with bringing and harboring aliens, and Young and Williamson accused of illegal re-entry after deportation. They pleaded not guilty. Trial is tentatively scheduled for June.

Young and Williamson, both Jamaicans, were ordered detained pending trial, while Nunez, a Cuban-American, was released on bond. Two Haitians, Daniel Guerrier and Petit Fahadae, were not charged. It was not known whether they will serve as government witnesses or whether they will be deported.

After Coast Guard personnel boarded the drifting vessel, Nunez identified himself as the captain and claimed the boat had left Bimini — 58 miles east of Miami — 10 days earlier en route to Cat Cay and Freeport for a day of fishing. The boat broke down four miles out of Bimini and began to drift, he said.

But Coast Guard personnel quickly dismissed the captain’s claims, given the vessel’s location and the absence of fishing gear.

The criminal complaint also noted that Nunez had on him $1,800, a handheld GPS device and three grams of marijuana. Young also carried $5,680, plus several cellphones.

When Coast Guard personnel ran the names through federal databases, they discovered that Young and Williamson previously had been deported — Williamson on Feb, 8, 2013, for having a felony conviction for marijuana possession. Young was expelled Jan. 31, 2013, for having a felony conviction for a prior illegal re-entry into the country, the criminal complaint said.

Investigators learned that Guerrier had agreed to pay Nunez $4,500 for the boat ride.

Williamson told interrogators a friend in the Bahamas paid $9,000 to a person named Sonya for his smuggling trip.

An associate, the complaint said, instructed Williamson to show up at a specific location in Bimini where he met Nunez. There, Williamson boarded Nunez’s boat and met Young. Williamson then overheard Nunez saying that he intended to travel to Key Largo where his home is located.

When the group saw the Coast Guard approach their disabled boat, Nunez instructed everyone not to say anything about the smuggling fees.

Multitrack via Flickr