By DIANNE SOLIS
Published: 20 May 2012 11:24 PM
In a Dallas federal immigration courtroom, children as young as 12 are increasingly taking center stage. They are part of a troubling rise in unaccompanied minors charged with coming into Texas illegally — boys and girls in search of a childhood, fleeing violence or desperate to reunite with a mother or father.
Children and teenagers filled the first row of brown wooden benches in Judge Dietrich Sims’ immigration court recently. Heads of the two smallest — 12-year-old Francisco Villanueva and 13-year-old Luis Quiroga — barely bobbed above the backs of their seats.
In the last seven months, the number of children in refugee custody has nearly doubled to about 6,900, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many more minors under 18 are believed to have gotten through undetected, and Mexican authorities report they are seeing an increase in children in the first three months of this year.
The refugee agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took over the child welfare mission in the late 1980s when a Central American surge of soldier boys — ages 14 through 18 — entered the Rio Grande Valley, straining social services and inspiring solutions other than deportation back to violence.
The factions behind the violence this time, though, are strongly linked to the illicit drug trade. In place of military or guerrilla conscription, youths fear drug cartels will force them to become mules or cooks, or kidnap them for small ransoms, advocates on both sides of the Rio Grande say.
“We are at a crisis where we need to respond in a humanitarian way and recognize what these kids are fleeing,” said Vanna Slaughter, the director of immigration services for Catholic Charities of Dallas.
This particular morning in the Dallas immigration courtroom, Slaughter and her staff finish a legal orientation on options for custodians, or sponsors of the children. But five children haven’t shown. Five more say they don’t have attorneys.
A biblical-like decision faces mothers and fathers who send children into the north from Honduras, where the homicide rate leads the world, or from Guatemala or Mexico, where violence is also high, Slaughter said.
She asked one Central American mother how she could send for her son with drug cartels on the route. The mother replied, “‘Señora, you have no idea how I could not sleep. You can’t imagine the hard choice of whether to leave him or send for him.’”
“That is a Solomon decision,” Slaughter said.
The Catholic Charities veteran leads efforts in North Texas to encourage counselors and attorneys to help with cases involving children and teenagers. Other assistance comes from the Southern Methodist University law school, the private bar, and the Salesmanship Club Youth and Family Centers, a Dallas nonprofit.
This month, Gov. Rick Perry asked President Barack Obama to help, too. The Republican governor, however, implied Obama’s immigration policies were responsible for the increased flow of young people and the projections that more teenagers would be coming.
“These unaccompanied illegal minors should be cared for in their home countries, rather than burdening our already unsustainable entitlement systems,” Perry wrote.
Perry’s letter came shortly after news broke that a building at the Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio was being used as a temporary shelter for about 200 children. Government-run shelters with bed space for about 2,000 had hit their limits.
In Monterrey, at a shelter run by the Catholic Church, the Rev. Jesus Garza said he’s seen an increase and is reducing the time people can stay in the shelter to adjust to the new flow.
“We’re seeing kids and many more women — people afraid of being recruited into becoming hit men, or victims of organized crime back home, so they want to get to the United States,” he said.
He pointed to a youngster and said, “He must be no older than 16 and wants to get to Texas. They want to save what little is left of their youth.”
A week ago, another massacre was discovered on the Mexican route between Monterrey and McAllen. Two of the worst known examples were massacres that also took place just south of McAllen. Mass graves of migrants were found in San Fernando, Mexico, in 2010 and 2011. Victims of a variety of ages, including some minors, came from Mexico, Central America, Ecuador and Brazil.
In Washington, D.C., Wendy Young, the executive director of Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, said some children want to reunite with mothers or fathers who are already established in the United States but added that violence partly propels this latest wave.
“In some ways, the gang violence is the same as armed conflict,” Young said. “Kids get caught in the crossfire.”
A legal remedy
Complicated immigration laws and courtrooms can intimidate juveniles and families, but she said youths must be handled differently, Young said.
“You can’t hold kids to the same level of culpability that you do adults,” she said.
In a March report, the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that evaluates criminal and civil justice systems, said 40 percent of minors in custody are eligible for a legal remedy that would provide them with lawful immigration status.
In Dallas, attorneys from the nonprofit Human Rights Initiative recruit other lawyers to take cases.
“Probably every child should be screened by a lawyer,” said attorney Melissa Weaver. “But even if they did, the child would not have any legal relief.”
In the courtroom
In the Dallas immigration courtroom, the interpreter, a tall woman with wild curls and a strong voice, tries to soften the experience as court dates are set by the judge. “Cual es su nombre, corazon?” What is your name, sweetheart?
It’s Francisco’s turn.
Sims, the judge, asks Francisco his age. In a feather of a voice, Francisco responds, “11, 12.”
“Are you sure it’s not 11? You don’t want to go back in age?”
A few muffled giggles filter from the front row.
Then, the judge spots a contradiction in the file. Francisco entered near Laredo with a Texas birth certificate — and the government asserts he doesn’t have documents to be in the U.S. lawfully.
“A 12-year-old was questioned about a birth certificate, at that time an 11-year-old?” Sims asks the government attorney. “It states that Francisco, an 11-year-old, made a false claim to the United States for citizenship. I look forward to seeing how the government intends to establish that.”
Staff writer Alfredo Corchado contributed to this report from Monterrey, Mexico.