NPR Story
2:19 pm
Thu June 5, 2014

Uptick In Guatemalan Families Illegally Crossing U.S.-Mexico Border

Originally published on Fri June 6, 2014 12:28 pm

In recent months, there has been a notable change in the makeup of Central Americans illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Earlier this week, Morning Edition reported that since October, 80,000 unaccompanied children were caught crossing the border. The volume is so great in South Texas that there aren’t enough federal agents to process the incoming migrants.

Meanwhile in Arizona, Jude Joffe-Block from Here & Now contributing station KJZZ has found a pronounced uptick in the number of women and children from Guatemala coming across the border.

This story comes to us from the Fronteras Desk, a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics.

Reporter

Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

Well, staying in Washington, the thinking is that Congress has until August to act on immigration reform if they're going to get something done this year. Meanwhile, there has been a notable change in the makeup of Central Americans illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Earlier this week, MORNING EDITION reported that since October, there's been a huge increase in the number of unaccompanied children caught crossing the border. And in Arizona, HERE AND NOW contributing station, KJZZ, has found a pronounced uptick in the number of women and children from Guatemala crossing the border. From Phoenix, Jude Joffee-Block reports.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK: U.S. Border Patrol's Manuel Padilla hikes out to a remote spot in the Arizona desert. He's the chief of the Tucson sector. Overall, he's noticed fewer migrants have been crossing here. But he's worried about a recent trend.

MANUEL PADILLA: We're seeing women and children that are being crossed across the border in these desolate areas like the one we are walking in and then being abandoned.

JOFFE-BLOCK: These families are coming from Central America. What's curious is often smugglers aren't bothering to get these families to their final destination in the U.S. Instead, they're just bringing them across the border so they can be caught by federal agents. Padilla is worried about these kids, especially in the summer.

PADILLA: Once they start feeling the dehydration, their health quickly degrades.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Between last October and this April, agents made more than 50,000 child apprehensions border-wide. That's more than the entire previous fiscal year. On a recent night, Tucson's Greyhound bus station was full of migrant families. Federal agents had dropped them off. Among them was 7-year-old, Esmeralda (ph). She and her mother and five siblings came from Guatemala and climbed over Arizona's border fence.

ESMERALDA: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: She said she had to climb a ladder and then rappel down the wall. Esmeralda and some of her siblings were actually born here and are U.S. citizens. But her family had been living in Guatemala for the past three years. A few weeks ago, they decided to leave for good. There was nowhere for Esmeralda to go to school. Esmeralda's mother and some of her sisters don't have papers so the whole family came over the border fence. I asked Esmeralda who was on the other side. >>ESMERALDA: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: Border patrol, she says. In fact, her mother Carmen (ph), who wouldn't give their last name, says that was the plan.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: Carmen says the word is spreading throughout Guatemala. Women with children can get into the United States.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: She says she heard women with kids spend a couple nights in jail and then get to go to their destination in the U.S. And as wild as that might seem, that's pretty much what's happening. U.S. policy has moved away from holding migrant families in longer-term detention. Instead, families are often paroled if they can give an address of where they'll stay in the U.S. Immigration officials gave Carmen and her family permission to take a Greyhound bus to her sister's house east of here. But there's a big catch. Something the smuggler didn't mention - Carmen now faces deportation. She has to report to the closest Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in 15 days.

CARMEN: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: She insists she'll follow through in the hopes that she and her daughters can get papers. But she could be deported. And if that happens, the family will have nowhere to go. Carmen sold her home in Guatemala to pay the smuggler $18,000 to get her family over the border fence. >>MELROOD: (Spanish spoken).

JOFFE-BLOCK: Across town, Laurie Melrood, a social worker and immigrant rights advocate, is offering tea to some women and children migrants at her house. She's letting them shower before they ride the bus.

LAURIE MELROOD: We try to give them a sense that the United States is welcoming them.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Families from all over Central America are crossing the border. But Melrood says here in Arizona, over the past several months, most of the women have been coming from Guatemala. She's hosted dozens of these families and says their stories are all similar. The smugglers there have figured out how to build a business by spreading the idea that women with kids will be allowed into the U.S.

MELROOD: And this is so recent, and it seems so well organized that it appears to me that the people inviting them know exactly what they need to tell them about how they're going to get the money that these women don't have. They don't have any money. In that part of Guatemala, it seems pretty endemic that there's a - almost a movement for these women to get out.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Melrood views these families as refugees deserving a protection. Many say they're fleeing hunger, domestic violence and organized crime. Not everyone sees it that way. Those who support strict immigration policies say the government shouldn't be releasing these families from detention since it just encourages more migrants to come. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.

HOBSON: And Jude's story comes to us from the Fronteras Desk. That's a public radio collaboration in the Southwest that focuses on the border, immigration and changing demographics. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.