Children On The Run

They thought they'd escaped to freedom. They found abuse, exploitation and a country that doesn't want them.

Ever since she was smuggled into Arizona at the age of eleven by a Guatemalan man who abused her, Maria simply has accepted the fact that the man who feeds her, owns her.

Maria's father, a Mayan laborer, sent her to America a year and a half ago to baby-sit for relatives--illegal aliens who harvest Valencias and tangerines and ruby-red grapefruit in the citrus groves near Chandler. The frightened child arrived speaking only her native Indian dialect, understanding not a word of English or Spanish, but with orders from her father to work and send him the money.

And he figured if he got lucky, maybe his relatives could sell Maria for a few hundred bucks to a co-worker who wanted someone to keep him warm during all the cold, lonely nights spent sleeping beneath the trees.

Maria's dad figured right. Her relatives eventually sold the little girl for $300 to a man in Chandler. Maria is now twelve and has a six-month-old son. She doesn't know what Miguel's last name should be, since the father never bothered telling her his full name.

The little girl was eventually apprehended by immigration authorities and a federal judge recently decided that Maria should be deported to Guatemala. She will take Miguel with her even though she understands their futures are bleak and that she might be sold again by her father.

Maria is a member of the newest wave of immigrants pouring into the United States--undocumented Central American kids between the ages of ten and seventeen who either travel here alone or with adults who exploit them. They have flooded the country in the past five years and are called "unaccompanied minors" because they come here without responsible relatives to care for them.

But the "responsible adults" who invariably apprehend them in the name of Uncle Sam are forced by federal law to warehouse them in detention camps until they can face an immigration judge and almost certain deportation--regardless of the reasons for their flight to this country.

Mostly these shell-shocked kids come from Guatemala and El Salvador, countries ravaged by years of civil war. Most are as desperate to send back a few dollars to feed their starving, often homeless families as they are to escape the guns and bullets and death squads of their native countries. They make the risky journey to America because they are forced by their parents or because they are terrified of life in their native countries. Victor, for instance, came to Arizona because he'd been recruited into the Salvadoran government army when he was only fourteen. After eating maggot-ridden frijoles and shooting foreign guns at unseen guerrillas, he deserted the army and made his way to Arizona. Deserters are not looked upon kindly in El Salvador, and Victor dreads ever returning home. He's now fighting a deportation order.

Mario was just turning sixteen when he ventured from his village in southern Guatemala to live with relatives in Los Angeles. He wanted to work so he could send money to his hungry grandmother and sister, but he was soon deported. He headed north from Guatemala once again last April. He and a teen-age cousin were beaten and robbed in Mexico, but eventually Mario made it to Phoenix. He recently was picked up by immigration officials, who are starting deportation proceedings against him.

Last year, sixteen-year-old "Hector" and his fifteen-year-old brother made their way from northern Guatemala to the Nogales border, where they paid a "coyote" $300 to take them to the citrus groves near Chandler. For several days they slept on the damp ground beneath the trees. Then a woman offered to "adopt" the boys. After the brothers worked construction for the woman's husband for several months, she kicked them out of the house. "She said she cared for us," Hector says bitterly in Spanish, "but she has never once come to see us." IN 1989 ALONE, about 150 kids--including Maria, Victor, Hector, and Mario--were caught in Arizona by authorities from the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

Federal immigration officials in Washington and Phoenix tell New Times they don't know the total number of Central American youngsters crossing the border in the past five years. But the number of immigrants of all ages in Arizona is so overwhelming that John McCarrick, a federal immigration judge based in Phoenix, asked local lawyers last May to donate their services to impoverished refugees seeking political asylum in this country.

Unfortunately, only 10 percent of Central American refugees nationwide are granted political asylum. Kids, especially, have a difficult time convincing judges that being shipped back to their country means certain persecution. The reason: Kids just aren't very credible witnesses. "Political asylum totally hinges on the credibility of the child," says Carol Cotera, a Phoenix immigration lawyer. Cotera says kids are vague about who persecuted them. And if a kid says he is an army deserter, some sort of identification is required. Often that identification has been lost, thrown away or stolen.

So kids coming to America seeking freedom are rarely allowed to be free or independent.

Some, like Maria, are exploited by the adults who give them shelter. Others, like Mario and Hector manage to make their way to church-owned sanctuary houses in Phoenix and Tucson, which are supposed to be safe havens for refugees. In Phoenix, the local sanctuary house is called Casa Santiago, and it is maintained by a coalition of churches called the Valley Religious Task Force on Central America. Last year, several kids ended up in Casa Santiago, where they were put in touch with volunteer lawyers. Some kids don't make it to sanctuary houses until after they've been caught by federal immigration officials and dumped into "detention centers." These controversial holding tanks are mandated by federal law. Because so many Central American kids are on their own, federal law demands they be detained in a secure facility until they are claimed by a relative or a responsible adult. Nationwide, the federal government operates several juvenile-detention facilities to house these children--especially in the Southwest. But all are spilling over, so the INS rents beds in county juvenile jails, where the Central American kids room with gringo delinquents. In Arizona, many refugees go to the Yuma Detention Center. They can stay there for a few days, or a few months, whiling away the long days sitting in a recreation room where the only entertainment is shabby decks of cards, ratty puzzles and a game of dominoes. Refugee advocates, such as Southern Arizona Legal Aid in Tucson, contend that youngsters in the Yuma Detention Center are strip-searched and often are not explained their rights--including the right to apply for political asylum.

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