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Children On The Run

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.

If kids do apply for asylum, they must appear for a series of hearings in Tucson or Phoenix at the federal Executive Office of Immigration Review, or Immigration Court, to determine if they can stay in the United States. Frequently, judges rule against them, but the hearings and appeals can take years--a welcome delay for the children.

The INS denies that the detention centers are inhumane or that they are withholding information about asylum. "An INS review of the [Yuma] facility reflects it does meet all the federal standards," says Patrick Kane, the deputy director of the Phoenix District of the INS. "Obviously this isn't the same as going to a summer camp, but it's all we have available. We try to be as humane as possible."

Kane acknowledges that the INS is perceived as an uncaring bureaucracy. And he says that perception simply is inaccurate. "We realize it's easy to criticize us, but we do all we can to help the kids," he says. "And everybody has to understand that our duties are to uphold the laws of the United States. We try to uphold the laws in a compassionate and responsible manner."

Often, kids are rescued from the holding tanks by sanctuary officials who promise to care for them and get them to their immigration-court hearings.

But things don't get much easier once the kids are liberated.
"One of the trickiest things is that these kids are still minors in our culture," says Jan Gustafson, who directs Casa Santiago. "Yet in their culture, they've been working since they were little. They were forced into adult behavior because of the conditions in their country." It often takes months for the INS to grant papers permitting the children to work pending their immigration-court hearing, and they are depressed that they can't send money back to their families. What's more, they are required by law to attend school, which makes little sense to them. They are taught in English, a language they don't speak, and are teased by their American classmates. "They treat us like dogs," says Victor, who is attending Carl Hayden High School. "They taunt us: `Wetback, Wetback' and try to get us to fight."

Today, Maria and baby Miguel, Mario, Victor, and Hector live with families who have volunteered to care for them indefinitely. The children agreed to interview with New Times only if their last names were not used. Hector and Maria also asked that their first names be changed as well.

The woman who is caring for twelve- year-old Maria and her young baby also requested that her name be changed because she wants to keep Maria's location a secret. "I don't want anybody to know where she lives," says the woman, whom we'll call Sara. "She's had enough problems without some do- gooders coming out here and messing things up.

 

"She's just a simple child and we need to protect her."

WHEN CENTRAL AMERICANS harvest citrus in the East Valley groves, they usually run into Sara. The church volunteer helps feed and clothe the undocumented workers who live and sleep in the filthy groves or in seedy apartments in Chandler. Sara is a gringa who can be trusted, so when a form must be filled out, or a doctor is needed, or there is some sort of problem, she is usually called upon to help.

It's not surprising that about a year and a half ago Sara heard from the workers that a Guatemalan Indian child was being beaten and probably sexually abused in a Chandler apartment. Sara decided to investigate.

"I found her in a fetal position in a corner of the apartment," Sara recalls of the day she first met Maria. "She was very skinny and very dirty and her hair was matted. She was only eleven years old. And all I could see of her face were her big eyes." Sara later learned that Maria was being kept by the man who smuggled her up from Guatemala. Apparently, Maria's relatives in Chandler were supposed to pay the smuggler a fee, but the relatives had no money. So the smuggler was keeping the child for himself. The smuggler refused to turn Maria over to Sara. So Sara asked another Guatemalan to persuade the smuggler to allow her to take Maria to the doctor. "We got her out under false pretenses," Sara says. "We took her to the doctor, of course, but then I took her home with me. The smuggler came to my house and we had quite an altercation. He claimed I had no right to take her. To him, she was a commodity that hadn't been paid for."

It took two weeks before Maria would even talk to Sara, and then the woman realized that the child could speak only an Indian dialect--that she did not understand Spanish or English. Gradually Sara taught Maria Spanish, and gradually she learned that Maria's father, who regularly beat her, had sent her to the United States so she could baby-sit for his relatives. Maria's mother had died--possibly from infections and broken bones caused by her husband's beatings. The man had no use for his daughter.

Yet Maria felt--still feels--a deep sense of obligation to care for her father. After staying with Sara for about a month, Maria insisted it was her duty to go work for relatives in Chandler so she could send her father a little money.

Sara took the tiny girl back to Chandler but visited often to check on her. Then one day, Maria's uncle said the child had gone away. What he didn't say was that his wife had sold Maria to a 26-year-old man for $300. Sara and a friend tracked Maria down at the man's apartment. Sara's friend was so apalled by the conditions the child was living in that she called police. The police notified INS officials. The feds took Maria to the Yuma Detention Center.

No one realized that the eleven-year- old girl, who barely stood four-feet-seven-inches tall, was pregnant. She also suffered from venereal disease.

Maria says in her broken Spanish that her stay in the detention center was a nightmare. She was beaten by older kids, and she was lonely and confused. "I cried and cried and could not eat the food," she says. She still doesn't realize that her queasiness was caused by her pregnancy. She wanted to end the pregnancy at first, but as the days dragged on, she hugged the unborn child for companionship and comfort.

From Yuma, Maria was shipped to an INS center in California. In December 1988, immigration officials released the child to the only responsible adult in her life--Sara. She's lived with Sara since, and when she delivered her son Miguel in June, Sara attended the birth.

These days, the little girl spends all her time caring for baby Miguel, who is well-fed and seems grotesquely large in comparison to his elfin mother. Maria, dressed in Levi's and tennis shoes and wearing a red ribbon in her long black hair, looks like Miguel's big sister. And she looks like she should be playing with Barbie dolls instead of mixing formula and washing diapers for a real child.

Maria knows that an immigration judge has ordered her deported back to her village. She fears that her father might beat her again, and she probably knows she might be sold again. She seems to accept it all without questioning it, although Sara has repeatedly told her that she will send her money so that a man won't have to own her.

 

Sara has looked around for Christian, Spanish-speaking people who might want to adopt Maria, but when the people are told they have to adopt her baby Miguel as well, they are reluctant to make the commitment.

Sara herself, who is middle-aged and in poor health, says she just isn't up to adopting two children.

Yet she loves the little girl and dreads the day when she has to hand her over to the INS. "We're sitting on a volcano, waiting for it to erupt," she says. "And when it erupts, then we'll cry and cry."

VICTOR FIDDLES NERVOUSLY with a rubber band, taps his white tennis shoes on the floor and insists he does not want to discuss the war or El Salvador or his family or anything else. He has talked to many gringos, and what good does it do? He squares his shoulders and tries to look taller, as if he's trying to protect himself from an unknown assailant.

Then he suddenly pours his heart out.
"I am angry because I've had so many problems," he says, recounting how the responsibility for his family rests in part on him, since his father died of alcoholism four years ago and his grandfather was murdered by thugs two years ago. He has four hungry brothers and sisters and his mother to worry about. Before he was recruited into the army at the age of fourteen, he worked to help feed his family. "All we eat in El Salvador are rice and beans," he says. "That is all."

Victor didn't like the army, he didn't like going into the jungle and shooting M-16's at unknown guerrillas hiding in the underbrush. "They did not train us with the guns," he says. "We were dangerous to ourselves with such guns and no training. There are some people who don't want to fight. I am one of them. I don't want to die."

He deserted after six months and hid out with relatives. Eventually, he and his brother decided to go to the United States. "My family wished me luck," says Victor. "They wished me luck but they didn't tell me to send money. But I feel an obligation. And I have sent no money. That is why I don't write them."

In early 1988, he and his brother rode buses and hitched trains to the Nogales border. On the trains, he was cold and hungry, but he says he was sustained by "wonderful, wonderful thoughts of life in the United States . . . I would have a house, I would have a car, there would be no war."

But Victor was picked up by the Border Patrol. He spent nine months in the Yuma Detention Center. He says he was required to sit for three hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon in a small room with other kids from Central America. They whiled away the time playing poker and dominoes and putting together puzzles. He was scared and confused. "I never thought the United States would be this way," he says.

Eventually, a sanctuary official brought Victor to Casa Santiago in Phoenix. It is a run-down little house where dozens of Central Americans spend the night. The close quarters grated on Victor, and he frequently rattled the other members of the household with his hyperactive personality. Two weeks ago, he was placed with a Mexican foster family chosen by sanctuary officials.

He says he likes the family fine, but he's seventeen years old--an adult in El Salvador. He wants to live on his own and doesn't understand why he must be supervised by adults. After all, Victor says, he's already fought in the war. Victor says he wants to be a lawyer. But when he is told of all the schooling a lawyer needs, he says maybe he'll marry an American woman and become a citizen. Or maybe he'll go to Chicago and work. Or L.A. Or Florida.

Although he has completed only a few years of elementary school, he has attended Carl Hayden High School ever since he left Yuma. To pass the time, he lifts weights in the school's weight room and fiddles in the carpentry shop. He says he sometimes tangles with the other kids, who jeer at him because he is a "wetback." He says he wants to work while attending school but only got his working permit from the immigration court a few days ago. In early November, an immigration judge denied Victor political asylum. His lawyer, a volunteer, is appealing the case. Victor doesn't understand why he isn't welcomed by the government. All he wants to do is work. "Hey, George Bush," he shouts to the sky, "I need a house. Clothes. Shoes. Money for my family. I need work. How come you don't like us?"

 

MARIO IS SEVENTEEN and terribly homesick and depressed. He aches for Guatemala, for the brightly colored houses and the taste of a freshly picked papaya. He longs to see his grandmother, who has taken care of him and his sister since his mother was killed several years ago.

He draws pictures of Guatemala, of the famous quetzal bird that has become a symbol of the Indians' battle against rich landowners. The bird dies if it is captured and put in a cage. The boy, who is part Indian, writes patriotic poems and speaks angrily of how the government takes ancestral land away from the people."You cannot blame the people for fighting the government. No one wants to live like a slave," he says. Mario's brother disappeared three years ago. He does not know if he ran away to join the rebels and was killed in the civil war, or if he's still alive. Mario is relatively well-educated-- he's had eight years of school and wanted to be a blacksmith before he began worrying about being drafted. Eventually, he decided he'd go north to avoid the draft and send money to his family. He made his way to Los Angeles when he was barely sixteen and worked in a feedlot. "They didn't care if you had papers," he says, popping his knuckles and tapping his cowboy boots. He earned about $36 a day.

He was deported in early 1989. As soon as he got to Guatemala, his father, a farmer, told him to return to the United States to avoid the war. He and a cousin took a bus to the Mexican border, where the guards beat and robbed them. "They told us they would kill us," he says, pulling on his sweatshirt.

The two kids hopped on freight trains and made it to Nogales, where they split up. Mario worked construction on the Mexico side of the border for a month, earning $10 per day. But he was beaten and robbed again, and he decided to go to the United States.

About six weeks ago, he hitched a train to Phoenix and ended up at the homeless shelter on Madison Street. After a few days, he met a fellow Guatemalan who directed him to Casa Santiago.

He says he'd been there only a few days when immigration officials raided the house. Although guests are instructed not to open the door to anyone they don't know, somehow the immigration officials entered without a search warrant. Mario was hiding behind some lockers outside. Because Mario had no papers, he was arrested and taken to an immigration office until Casa Santiago officials came to claim him. He is depressed because he knows that deportation proceedings have started and that he may be sent back home. Sanctuary officials are now seeking a lawyer to represent him, and he will ask for political asylum. "I sometimes feel," says Mario, "that people here help you because they feel politically obligated to help you, not because they feel a need in their hearts to help."

Mario is living with the same foster family as Victor. He also is attending Carl Hayden High School. He says some students make fun of them because they are illegal and often treat them "like dogs."

"I cannot help but think of the difference between Christmas here and Christmas in Guatemala," he says after spending his first yule in Phoenix. "Here, they give you little candies on Christmas Day. There, it's just another day of war. I know if I return to Guatemala, the soldiers will come and put me in their trucks. If you resist, they beat you up. I know. I've seen it with my own eyes."

HECTOR WAS ONLY SIX years old when his father was killed "by some kind of soldier" when he was traveling to southern Guatemala to look for work. Hector's mother abandoned him, so he and his brother lived with an uncle in northern Guatemala. After going to school for seven years, he worked in his uncle's dry goods store.

But the store was looted several times in the chaos of the civil war, and Hector's uncle lost his money. "I watched him cry and had no use for that kind of life," says Hector. He did not want to burden his uncle or be drafted to fight in a war he didn't believe in, so when he was just turning sixteen, he and his fifteen-year-old brother bought bus tickets to Nogales. They hid out in Nogales until they found a "coyote" willing to drive them into the United States to a place they could find work. They paid the man $150 a piece to drive them from Nogales to the citrus groves of Chandler Heights. They slept under the trees until they met a "gringa" who offered to adopt them. For six months, the brothers lived with the woman and helped her husband with construction.

 

Hector says the living arrangement didn't work out, and he and his brother were dropped off at Casa Santiago. As soon as the two arrived at the sanctuary house, Hector's brother hightailed it to Florida with a "coyote," who promised to take him to the citrus groves. But Hector remained at the house. He attended Carl Hayden High and became more and more depressed. He was apprehended by immigration officials during the same raid that claimed Mario and was immediately rescued by sanctuary officials. Without papers, Hector couldn't work. He was ashamed and embarrassed not to work.

"I've been sad for a long time," says Hector. "I've had to change my entire life. I am teased by the students, and I have been beat up on the streets. I don't like the life on the streets--the drugs and gangs. I just want to work all my life. I will do anything, but I don't have the papers. I will clean offices, houses anything. I just want to work. I do not understand why the government doesn't want us to stay. We are just kids." KIDS LIKE HECTOR, Maria, Victor, and Mario will continue pouring into the United States until they are no longer frightened of being drafted and until their families are no longer starving and homeless, refugee advocates say. Many advocates blame United States intervention for prolonging Central America's chaos. "Kids know it's a risk coming up here, but they have no choice," says John Goldstein, who heads up a Yuma Lutheran immigration-counseling group called Proyecto San Pablo. "And the more military equipment we send down there, the more violence we'll see. We [America] send so much money down there that we are unwilling to be objective and recognize the social turmoil beyond our own border." The explanation doesn't wash with more conservative Central American scholars, who blame the problem on the area's lack of a middle class and the stability it generates.

But all agree that it's impossible to predict when, if ever, conditions in Central America will improve. In the meantime, the crisis of Central American refugee kids has become so overwhelming that several refugee advocates in the Southwest--including a handful of Arizona groups--met last September to see if something can be done to make life a bit more tolerable for the young immigrants. One group of Lutheran churches offered a plan called Esperanza Para los Ninos--"Hope for the Children." The Lutherans suggested that refugee advocates band together to coordinate a national effort to get these stressed and depressed youngsters out of detention and into foster homes or with relatives as soon as possible. They wanted to end the long stays experienced by Victor and other kids.

Immigration lawyers are suggesting that laws be changed so youngsters can be tried in immigration courts as kids and not as adults. But everybody knows that changing laws and plunking kids into foster homes is really only a bandage for the real problem: poverty and unrest in Central America. Everybody knows that when the children get deported, they will try to return to the United States. "They will try again," says Goldstein. "They have to. They have no place to go home to. They have no choice."


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