What's driving an exodus of unaccompanied minors across the US-Mexico border?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Aaron Schachter: Imagine you're a kid trying to make the perilous journey across the US-Mexico border without documents and without parents. That's happening more and more. We're talking tens of thousands of kids crossing on their own each year. Last year alone, 24,000 were caught. Susan Cruz tries to help these children once they're in the US in custody. Cruz is a dual citizen of the US and El Salvador. Now she testifies as an expert witness in cases involving undocumented minors.

Susan Cruz: More kids are coming, Air Force bases are being opened up to house these children because the shelters that generally hold them are up to capacity. One of the main drivers that's pushing these kids out of their home countries is the crime and violence that is almost unchecked by the governments by these countries. For example, Honduras, which is not in an armed conflict, has the highest homicide rate per capita in the world - not in the region - in the world.

Schachter: We'd like you to tell us about a few undocumented immigrant kids that you personally have tried to help. Let's start first with a girl you call "Beatrice" or "Betty," you met her when she was 12-years-old, she lived in the Salvadoran town called Chapultepec.

Cruz: Betty was being approached by the young man who was involved in a gang. He was trying to persuade her to be his girlfriend. Betty is 12-years-old and she was going to school and had no interest in this guy. She tried to stay away from him and made it clear to him that she didn't want to be his girlfriend. So he took some of his fellow gang members to threaten her and her grandmother, with whom she lived. They slipped a note under the grandmother's door stating that they were going to kidnap Betty, rape her and eventually kill her if she didn't comply. When the grandmother saw that the threat was real, and having talked to other adults in the community, including reaching out to the police, the police told them that there was nothing that they could do, that it was an anonymous threat. The grandmother, not being satisfied, not wanting to wait until something did happen, Betty was sent to the United States.

Schachter: She was caught at the border or no?

Cruz: Yes, she was, and she was put into one of the shelters where undocumented unaccompanied minors are placed.

Schachter: And you testified on her behalf. What happened then?

Cruz: I stated that I did believe that it was true that she was in a position to be threatened and that there was a very high probability that she would be killed or raped if returned to El Salvador and that the state is in a position where it cannot act proactively to protect children. One thing I want to make clear: when people think of foster care and child welfare and child protection here in the United States - this does not exist in these countries.

Schachter: On that note, if you could tell me about a boy you call "Eric."

Cruz: Eric was a teenager in Honduras, whose father worked at a bank and was being extorted by the local police because he worked in a bank. The police would randomly pick up Eric when he was walking home from school, when he was hanging out with his friends in his neighborhood. They would arrest him and take him to the police station and then they would summon the father to come in and pay a "fine." Eric's father began to realize that he was being extorted and decided not to pay. What the police did is they took a 16-year-old Eric and they put him in a man's prison. His father had to pay basically a ransom, the extortion fee, to the police to get Eric out of the men's prison. What he did was he sent him to California. However, in California he had no family there and Eric got in trouble with the law.

That's where I met him. He would participate in my psychoeducational groups in a juvenile detention facility in Los Angeles county. He told me his story and I connected him with other people that could help him. We were able to find him an attorney and we even brought a retired police commissioner from Honduras who could corroborate what had happened to Eric. However, the immigration judge declined to hear her testimony and Eric was being harassed in the detention facility south of San Diego where he was being held. One time he was handcuffed for 18 hours and the guards said that they couldn't find the keys. More and more, he was being pressured to sign the voluntary departure and Eric couldn't stand it anymore and that's eventually what he did. He lost hope and he was sent back to Honduras and he was eventually killed.

Schachter: Do we know who killed him?

Cruz: There are many theories but the police have not found someone responsible for his murder. As a matter of fact, less than 20% of homicides in Honduras are resolved.

Schachter: What is the way out of this situation where Central American kids face a choice of being swept into this criminal underworld or making a dangerous or illegal journey on their own. What do we do?

Cruz: First and foremost, I think we have to look at what's happening in their home countries and try to address what the voids are, what's missing, what isn't there anyone around protecting these children and youth and why is it when something bad happens to them people have acquiesced to the fact that this is just the way things are. I think there's something very wrong with that and I think that's where we should start.

Schachter: Susan Cruz is a forensic social worker who has testified as an expert witness in cases involving undocumented minors. Susan, thank you so much for your time.

Cruz: Thank you.