Dulce Medina, Mayeli Hernandez, and Saúl Martinez all now live in New York, but just months ago, they were on a treacherous 1,500-mile northbound journey to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, running from violence, poverty, and death.
“I am afraid to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid that there is no one to protect me,” 15-year-old Dulce said during a packed ad hoc press conference organized by the House Progressive Caucus on the influx of unaccompanied migrants from Central America. Dulce fled Guatemala because she was scared of being attacked.
“I ask that you put yourself in my shoes and ask how you would like to be treated,” Dulce told members of Congress. “Would you want to be sent back to a place where someone tried to harm you? Please do what is best for the kids that are in desperate need for help.” Her testimony was part of coordinated resistance against repealing a 2008 law that eased the path for child migrants to apply for asylum. Some lawmakers want to amend that law and make it more difficult for Central Americans to claim asylum, claiming it will expedite removal of migrants.
Twelve-year-old Mayeli fled Honduras after witnessing two separate homicides, tearfully recalling, “it was very ugly to see the blood running on the ground.” She also asked Congressional members to “protect children like me and my little sister. We can’t go back to our countries because they’re very dangerous and very poor.” She hopes to one day become a doctor or a lawyer, but is grateful that a judge has granted her the ability to stay in the United States in the meantime. Mayeli added, “I hope that the United States will continue to help children like me who needs a lot of help. I hope that these children will not be returned to their countries because their mothers have to struggle a lot to bring them here.”
“All I was doing was delivering tamales,” 15-year-old Salvadoran teen Saúl said when it was his turn to testify. He fled El Salvador in April after witnessing a homicide and the MS-13 gang threatened to kill him for entering their territory. “A few years ago, I saw a man die after being shot many times on my street,” Saúl recollected through a translator. “One day I was sitting inside my house and I heard gunshots. I saw that on the same block, a man was wounded by bullets and I saw an empty cartridge. There was a lot of blood.
After recounting his experiences in the infamous “ice-boxes,” or holding cells blasted with air conditioning so unbearable that some people turn blue, Saul added, “Please don’t mistreat children the way your government has mistreated me. Finally, I want to ask you not to deport children like me because it’s very possible that you will deport them to violence and to their death.”
The three teens are legally here now — Dulce has special immigrant juvenile status while Mayeli and Saul are on track to becoming permanent residents. But they also represent the kids who were successful in obtaining legal representation, a process that may be upended by Congressional action since some lawmakers hope to strip away legal protections for unaccompanied kids in exchange for a more expeditious deportation process. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) expressed disappointment that proposed reforms don’t include more provisions to ensure legal representation. “The soul of our country is about giving every person access to rights who is in our country,” she said, recalling that her colleague had told her, “‘We cannot have deportation without representation.’ So I also thank the groups who are here, who advocate for proper representation.”
Earlier this month, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Reps. Randy Weber (R-TX), and Louie Gohmert (R-TX) told reporters on the grounds of a relief center that immigrants should still be put into expedited deportation proceedings. Their remarks came on the heels of a tour of the McAllen, Texas detention facility and meeting with families fleeing violence, who were temporarily staying in a tent-like structure about 40 feet away. Some Republicans hope to quickly deport unaccompanied children with Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), who led a House GOP working group, stating, “The president’s supplemental [spending request] asks for a lot of money, but it’s money to spend here to keep the kids, and we disagree with that.”
A recent poll suggests the majority of Americans may disagree with moves to expedite the deportation of kids like Mayeli, Saul, and Dulce. A Public Religion Research Institute poll released Tuesday found that 69 percent of Americans said that they wanted to see children receive refugee status and be allowed to stay in the country if it’s not safe for them to be returned to their home country. And recently, the California Endowment and partner organizations launched a letter-writing campaign for Americans to write messages of love and compassion to be delivered to Central American children in detention facilities. Already, more than 1,800 messages, many of them from U.S. children, have flooded the website.