Central American immigrants ride atop a freight train to Ixtepec, Mexico, on their way to the United States.
– John Moore/Getty Images
MCALLEN, Texas — Children from Mexico and Central America arrive at the bus station in tattered clothing they’ve worn for weeks. They’re unshowered, hungry and scared. Boys and girls as young as 3 cry out for Mommy, Daddy or Grandma.
Hundreds who arrive here each week have their immediate needs fulfilled by a new Catholic Charities center that opened June 11 near the McAllen bus station.
The children are part of a massive, unprecedented and unanticipated flood of young immigrants escaping treacherous conditions in Latin America, after President Barack Obama announced plans two years ago to stop deportations of child immigrants who meet certain criteria.
The Associated Press reported that authorities apprehended 47,017 unaccompanied children on the border from October through May, up 92% from the same period a year ago. Other news reports say the surge has overwhelmed federal border facilities that lack adequate food, beds and sanitary facilities.
The federal government is trying to hire temporary border agents to babysit the children, as the government determines one at a time whether to deport or connect individuals with family members in the States. Meanwhile, volunteers from religious communities are stepping in to help.
The days-old Catholic Charities facility in McAllen provides clothing, food and personal items as young children and teens wait for federal agents to open case files. Volunteers sing to the kids, assuring them they are loved by God and will be safe.
The center resulted after a handful of Catholic women took initiative to provide for the children’s immediate needs by showing up with supplies.
“I’m so proud of my people. I’m so proud to be Catholic,” said Ofelia de los Santos, who mostly works as a prison-ministry volunteer in the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas. But today, de los Santos scours churches for Catholic adults willing to endure background checks and immunizations to donate time to help the refugees.
After hours of waiting, some children are returned to Mexico if federal immigration agents can find social workers or relatives willing to receive them. Others are housed in private shelters stateside, mostly established and run by Christians. In the Brownsville Diocese alone, 13 shelters house the immigrant kids. Catholic adults volunteer in all of them. The two largest facilities shelter up to 300 at a time.
Similar facilities are springing up in other border states.
Kids in the shelters are among the fortunate who didn’t get killed, kidnapped or critically injured traveling through Mexico to escape rampant gang violence, corrupt law enforcement and abject poverty throughout Latin America.
Constant news reports of warehoused children have turned the crisis into another political flashpoint for Obama. His critics say lax immigration policies have encouraged the dangerous, sometimes deadly journeys, to a country not adequately prepared to receive them.
Whatever the reason for the surge, Catholics involved in the assistance effort insist that their faith impels them to help.
“Catholics are caring for them because Jesus left us a mission when he left this earth,” de los Santos said. “We are to evangelize to the world and show the people how God loves them. If we are not reaching out to these children, we are not fulfilling our mission, and we will have to account to Jesus for that.”
As the El Salvador representative for Catholic Relief Services, Erica Dahl-Bredine sees the other end of the escalating immigration crisis.
“I’ve seen a lot of children who have fallen off the train,” Dahl-Bredine told the Register.
“The train” is commonly known south of the border as “El Tren de la Muerte” (the Death Train). The network of Mexican freight trains has become the primary means of transit for Central American and Mexican children fleeing for refuge in the United States. Teenagers and younger kids run and try to jump onto moving freight cars. Many can’t pull themselves aboard and fall, with the weight of their bodies swinging them onto the tracks with tragic outcomes. Some survive with permanent, debilitating injuries.
“I see children who’ve lost limbs to the train and return home,” Dahl-Bredine said. “The couplings between the cars are notoriously dangerous. I see children who have lost an arm and a leg or both legs.”
If they get on the train and survive, their troubles are far from over. Many have to contend with hostile gangs and other criminals, some who have been paid to protect them.
“I talk to girls who have been gang-raped by the smugglers,” Dahl-Bredine said.
Others who don’t reach the U.S. border simply disappear, never heard from again.
“I work with families who are looking for missing loved ones,” Dahl-Bredine said. “They wander the desert. The children usually are not found. It is heartwrenching.”
Seeking a Better Life
This year’s annual rate of 100,000 refugee children is up from about 6,000 in 2011. The number doubled in 2012 and grew to nearly 60,000 in 2013, based on government data.
“It results from increasing violence, chaos and lack of economic opportunity throughout Mexico and Central America,” Dahl-Bredine explained.
She said drug gangs have gained control and are recruiting children as young as 10 years old. The children confuse the gangs with a source of identity and security in a world of hopelessness.
“Parents and grandparents are terrified of what will happen to their children if they stay [in their home countries],” Dahl-Bredine said.
They long for the safety and abundance relatives in the United States can provide for their children, if only they can get there. Smugglers are typically paid to help young children, while tens of thousands of teens are taking initiatives to reach the United States on their own.
“The adults who are sending children know about the horrific dangers involved in this,” Dahl-Bredine said. “When I ask grandmas why they would let children make the trip, they say the gangs won’t leave them alone. They believe the children are in more danger if they don’t make the trip.”
At the USCCB, immigration officials have seen a dramatic shift in the rationale Latin Americans cite for sending children to the border.
“It used to be a desire to unify families, provide better opportunity and better education,” said Kristyn Peck, associate director of children’s services for the U.S. bishops’ Children and Migration Office. “Over the past three to four years, we’ve seen the narrative shift. Now, we hear that it’s avoidance of trauma, gang recruitment, extortion by gangs and other extreme dangers. It has gone from hope to desperation. Gangs recruit the children on the school bus. They recruit them in school, on their way to school and on their way home from school.”
Peck said social-welfare programs and schools have deteriorated, as the region’s drug cartels and gangs have gained the upper hand in an environment of worsening poverty.
Peck can think of no practical way for Americans to ensure safe passage for children traveling to the border. Those who make it, she said, should encounter the loving care of Catholics and others.
“These are children,” Peck said. “It is in our mandate as Catholics to care about this population. If you look at Scripture, Christ is a migrant. As a global Church, these are all of our children, and they come from countries that are mostly Catholic. As Catholics, we are well-equipped to respond. Why wouldn’t we respond?”
Peck argues the children who make it are some of the most resilient people in the world. She sees them as an asset to the United States, if given proper care.
“Given opportunities to thrive, they will thrive,” Peck said. “They are incredible people. When you meet them, it is impossible not to see it that way.”