This is the second in a series of pieces from ThinkProgress chronicling the struggles of immigrant life in Southern California along the U.S.-Mexico border. You can find part one of the series here.
SAN DIEGO, CA – These two Guatemalan brothers can play soccer now. There aren’t gang members waiting to grab them out on the playing field. They are less likely to witness shootings now. They likely won’t get beat up on their way to school. And the death threats — the reason they ran in the first place — are 2,500 miles away. But the stability they sought, the security two host families have provided, may not last.
The 15 and 16-year-old brothers, M.C. and D.C., were among the wave of 68,445 Latin American children and parents, who arrived at America’s southern border this year. Like many others, they said that they fled Guatemala to escape gang violence. It took them a month to make the journey on foot, by train, then bus, before they surrendered at the Tijuana port of entry, a vibrant border city that abuts the border wall along San Diego County. After 20 days in an immigration detention center, the pair were released with three other family members to a host family. Although ThinkProgress is unable to verify the details of their journey, M.C. and D.C. were thrust into the national spotlight when one of two host families that took them in began receiving death threats by anti-immigrant extremists for their hospitality. Now, nearly five months on, the media attention and threats have ebbed away. While the host family has returned to a life resembling cautious normalcy in this coastal San Diego suburb, the Guatemalan teens have only just begun to navigate the complications of being undocumented with the uncertainty of an impending immigration court decision.
Riding Through Hell
On a late Sunday afternoon inside a one-story home aerated by the cross-breeze of an invisible ocean 15 miles west, M.C., the younger Guatemalan brother, sat on a three-seater couch facing two ThinkProgress reporters. His hosts, the Lane family, were also in the room as interpreters. M.C., approaching five feet, wore a courteous boyish smile on his oval face. Fidgeting and tapping his Adam’s apple constantly with one hand, he ran his other hand along the seams of his black and white plaid shorts. Reporters, a presence he had awkwardly grown familiar with over the past four months, were asking him to recount the conditions that drove him and his family to leave Guatemala. He quickly warmed up to them, having seen them earlier that day in Friendship Park when he and his brother talked across the border wall to their mother, who was unable to legally come across the border.
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
“We couldn’t go outside anymore,” M.C. said in Spanish. Interviewed separately, both he and his older brother spoke with ThinkProgress reporters in late October through Mark and Marcos, a father-son pair whose family helped take in these two boys currently awaiting their immigration adjudication process. “The cartels would get us. They shoot up houses. They shoot people on the streets.” The teen recalled that gang members pelted rocks at him on his way from school back in Guatemala. Other times, they beat him up. Whatever suppression technique the cartels had aimed for, they succeeded: both boys stopped attending school.
The cartel also got to his family. Their biological father, a gang leader, forced the boys to take drugs and beat them when they didn’t. The younger brother wouldn’t say whether they ever took drugs, but he did say that he and his brother took many beatings. Their stepsister had been kidnapped, raped, and returned with the threat that the family would be killed unless the boys joined the gang, not an unusual occurrence in Guatemala where a “whole generation” of men were taught that rape is a “generalized and systemic practice carried out by state agents as a counterinsurgency strategy” the Council on Hemispheric Affairs reported.
The night the sister was returned, the family made a decision to flee the country. They traveled northward with their mother, stepsister, and stepbrother. Their stepfather, allegedly himself an abusive and abrasive man, stayed behind for a few days as a sacrificial bounty of sorts, allowing himself to get beat up as the family fled.
“We took The Beast, riding on top of the train while it was going,” M.C. recalled. The Beast, a notoriously fatal cargo train that runs from the northern tip of Guatemala through Mexico, is one of the transportation methods that an estimated half million migrants take every year to get them closer to America’s southern border. The family did not have enough money to ride inside, so they hopped on as the train hurtled past. Many injuries and fatalities have occurred due to people getting sucked into the wheels or from train derailment.
“No one had a good grip and there weren’t bars on the side or anything. In the middle of the train there were stairs and that’s where [my family] held on,” M.C. said. “Some people would hop up top to sleep, while other people would hold onto sides, so it was turn-based to sleep.”
The family was in a constant state of hunger and sleep deprivation. They relied on strangers on the side of the road who would throw leftovers and rotten fruit as the train passed by. M.C. and D.C. caught some only by luck. “The fruit that people threw at us were often rotten bananas, rotten apples. Sometimes the train would stop, and people at those stops would give us a tortilla.” The journey had taken a month, but “in my mind, it felt like a month and a half or two months,” M.C. recalled.
After they got off the train, the family got onto a bus headed for the Tijuana port of entry. The brothers were kept in a holding cell with about 20 other children initially, then transferred to a detention center. “The air conditioning would blow down the center of the room,” the younger brother said. “We didn’t have blankets.” The detention cell was bare and there was never any privacy with detainees coming in and out. A communal metal toilet was shared, while a nearby camera watched. They stayed in detention for 20 days.
D.C., the older Guatemalan brother, is a soft-spoken, taller version of his younger brother, with a missing tooth. He said that the experience of the detention center left him feeling “like criminals… I felt desperate in the detention center.” He crossed his legs at the ankles, simultaneously fidgeting with and tearing at the seams of a throw pillow on the couch seat earlier left warm by his younger brother. “It was the same thing every day. People slept in lines across the floor. [The border patrol agents] would move on and yell.” The trip was traumatizing for D.C., too. “The whole trip from Guatemala to Mexico, the gangs were chasing us… If you slept, that’s when you fell off the train. I would never want to be on top of that train again. It was really, really hard. If I tried it again, I probably wouldn’t survive the trip and I’d be dead.”
But San Diego — the promised land — proved to be a jarring experience in its own right. After they were released into a group shelter with their mother and stepsiblings, the teens’ stepsister was reportedly sexually assaulted in an incident under investigation by the San Diego police. Mark Lane, a fishmonger by trade, and Paul (last name withheld) were among the 20 or so interested members who immediately volunteered to take in the family. But anti-immigrant extremists publicized Lane’s information and his family began receiving death threats. Mark recalled, “I talked to my wife and my older son. She said, ‘I trust that you’ll make the right decisions. I’m scared, but I trust you.’ They went after me so aggressively.” Paul’s family was spared of the threats.
CREDIT: Jack Jenkins
When border agents deported M.C. and D.C.’s stepfather, his departure triggered a series of setbacks. M.C. and D.C.’s mother acquiesced to demands to follow her husband, a move that has since barred her legal reentry back into the United States. She is currently staying in Tijuana, where she meets with her sons at Friendship Park every weekend. The boys’ stepsiblings also left San Diego to live with other family members in the United States. M.C. and D.C., now considered by the state to be abandoned, no longer qualified under their mom’s asylum application. A legal aid advocacy group has now begun the teenagers’ legal process to stay in the country through the Special Immigrant Juveniles Status (SIJS), sought by children who were abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. Children who successfully petition for SIJS can remain in the U.S. and apply for lawful permanent resident (LPR) status.
As with the 68,000 other Central American children that streamed across the border this year, M.C. and D.C. essentially became unaccompanied minors. A few weeks after reporters visited the Lane home, the state moved the two teens into a group shelter. Neither the Lanes nor Paul are certified as foster families and thus cannot legally house the teens. The two are technically wards of the state and up for adoption, since U.S. law limits adoptions to those under 16 years old. D.C. is already 16. In a recent email, Lane rationalized, “the easier route was to re-turn [sic] them in to Immigration and start their case over as abandoned minors, immediately putting them back into the [Child Protective Services] system… [Paul’s] family is working on becoming a certified foster home where they can have both boys assigned to them so they wouldn’t be separated.”
It’s unknown how M.C. and D.C.’s case will wind up, but the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has overwhelmingly approved SIJS petitions over the past four years, with the latest statistics from 2013 showing that 86 percent of applicants were approved. The two teens are likely fortunate that they wound up in California. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) passed a bill that provides $3 million in legal aid to unaccompanied minors in removal proceedings and imposed an “affirmative duty to make SIJS findings if presented with evidence that a child qualifies,” the Immigrant Legal Resource Center reported. Though M.C. and D.C. are attending school at the moment — “[M.C.] is picking up chess,” Paul said, beaming when he talked with ThinkProgress reporters — their lives are currently in suspension.
The outcome is less clear for other unaccompanied kids. President Obama’s latest executive action on deportation relief excludes migrants like unaccompanied children who came into the country after January 1, 2014. The president affirmed in the past that unaccompanied children would be sent back to their countries and acknowledged that the uptick in border crossers undermined public support for an immigration overhaul. Even lawmakers came to an impasse, with the House passing a supplemental bill in August that sought to expedite the deportation of such kids. And one recent startling Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) report found that only one-third of unaccompanied children among the 63,721 cases currently pending in immigration court have legal representation.
For some kids who successfully receive SIJS, their lives seem to have changed for the better. In July, Dulce Medina, a 15-year-old Guatemalan who fled across the border, spoke at an ad hoc press conference with congressional members, pleading with them to allow migrant children to have the opportunity that she has been given. “Would you want to be sent back to a place where someone tried to harm you?” Dulce asked. “Please do what is best for the kids that are in desperate need for help.”
At the moment, the only long-term aspiration that both M.C. and D.C. have are to stay alive. Reflecting on their journey, M.C. said, “the brave man lives, while the cowardly man just survives.”
The first English word that D.C. said he learned: “happy.” But if first words are an indicator for the life they’re aiming for, these kids still have a long way to go. Children like the two brothers are living on borrowed time. Until their legal case is heard, a whole debacle in and of itself, nothing they have now could last. Though the waves of Central American children coming across the U.S. southern border has come to a trickle in recent months, many are still being deported. Some return to the same economic poverty. Others return to isolation. And then there are those who become a grim statistic.
There is no guarantee that staying in America would offer a better life: while they face abandonment here, they face almost certain death back home. But for two teenage boys from Guatemala, their lives in America, like their immigration application, are still pending.
“One day, I just want to have a job and a house,” both teenagers answered separately, in responses that were so similar they were translated the same way, when asked about the future. “Whatever life gives me.”
Jack Jenkins also contributed to this report.