Channels for children from the Americas to migrate legally to the U.S. are very limited and choked with backlogs. Few official avenues have been open, even as new levels of danger and desperation have spurred child migration across the hemisphere.
Gangs that live by extortion and bloody turf feuds have dug in across the northern triangle countries of Central America, threatening teenagers with forced recruitment and sexual violence. Hurricanes and droughts devastated food supplies. The pandemic crippled economies in Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which are also staggering under misgovernment and political crises.
Because of the insecurity, workers drawn by the magnet of a strong U.S. labor market no longer leave their children behind at home, as they did for generations, so family migration has soared. Many young people who come unaccompanied are pulled by a longing to be reunited with a parent already living in the U.S.
Early in his term, Biden exempted unaccompanied minors from the Title 42 order, rejecting Trump’s summary expulsions of those children. But Border Patrol stations soon were swamped. By law, most unaccompanied minors must be transferred within 72 hours from the Border Patrol to the Department of Health and Human Services, which runs a nationwide network of shelters. In the disarray early last year, that limit was frequently violated.
The administration raced to establish emergency processing centers to take kids from the stations, and to expand the health department shelter system. But in spite of all the resources and high-level attention expended on that crisis, little was done at the time to upgrade Border Patrol facilities to accommodate children. The opportunity was lost.
By contrast, children who come with their families have continued, under Biden, to be subject to Title 42 expulsion. But increasingly the administration has allowed families with children, like the Zaragozas, to enter and apply for asylum, under regular enforcement laws. In particular, many families from Cuba and Venezuela have been released from detention and allowed to stay in the U.S. with pending immigration proceedings. Governments in those countries do not generally accept deportations from the U.S., and Mexico has often refused to accept expulsions of migrants from those countries.
While the acute crisis for children has ebbed since last fall, according to CBP figures, overall numbers of children detained by the Border Patrol have stayed consistently high.
It was during that chaos in the spring of 2021 when M.J., an unaccompanied 14-year-old girl from Guatemala, landed in a Border Patrol facility in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Instead of the maximum of 72 hours, as required, she was held for 18 days, according to case records reviewed by lawyers with the Immigrant Defenders, who are representing her in her immigration case.
M.J. had been injured in the last days of her journey across Mexico. She leapt from a moving freight train, landing on her shoulder in a bank of rocks, M.J. said in an interview in California in March. (Because she is a minor in legal proceedings, she asked that her name and exact location not be published.)
With her arm swollen and blue, M.J. turned herself in to the Border Patrol soon after crossing the Rio Grande. Agents kept her in handcuffs for 24 hours, she said, aggravating the ache.
She was moved to a vast tent holding families and minors, most likely, based on court documents, in Donna, Texas. Crammed with dozens of girls into a cell defined by clear plastic walls, M.J. slept on a narrow metal bench for nearly three weeks. To leave the cell to use the bathroom, she had to ask each girl for permission to step over. She never had a change of clothes, she said.
She fashioned a sling from a borrowed cloth to relieve the throb in her shoulder. An attendant, citing security rules, took it away, M.J. said. There were nurses on duty, but they declined to give her medication for the pain.
“No one told you to come to the United States,” she said one attendant told her.
The only food was egg burritos and beans, often half-frozen. On the fourth day, M.J. said, she started to vomit from stomach cramps and shoulder pain. The medical staff, relenting, sent her to a local clinic, where examinations revealed a fractured shoulder and severe dehydration.
A physician gave her a sling and prescribed a painkiller. After she was returned to the detention facility later that day, M.J. said, a guard took away the new sling. She never received the medication.
M.J. said she understood that she had entered the U.S. without papers and could be deported. But she recalls the sting of being treated like the gangsters she had fled Guatemala to escape. “Like a prisoner, someone who had committed a terrible crime,” she said.