As Border Refugee Crisis Continues, Chicago Opens Door for Displaced Youth

Chicago may host as many as 1,000 additional Central American children by December, sheltering youth who could wait years to discover if they will be allowed to stay or sent packing.

Already at least 429 children have been placed in Chicago shelters and 319 have been reunited with family members or placed with sponsors in the area since October, according to Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to expand the city’s capacity for unaccompanied minors, with the federal government picking up the tab and local immigration lawyers offering pro bono counsel.

Children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador wait at the Nogales processing center in Arizona in June. (source: The Wire/AP)
Children from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador wait at the Nogales processing center in Arizona in June. (source: The Wire/AP)

The city already has nine facilities that hold about 500 children. New shelters should already be equipped for residential use and “not be as conspicuous” in order to minimize any security risks, Emanuel chief of policy Michael Negron told the Chicago Tribune.

“The influx of unaccompanied child migrants is a growing humanitarian crisis that we can no longer ignore,” Emanuel said.

Before 2012, most unaccompanied minors came from Mexico, with just a small fraction from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But for nearly three years, these proportions have been reversing: now, US Customs and Border Patrol projects that more than 75 percent of apprehended minors will come from the three Central American countries also known as the Northern Triangle.

The Obama Administration estimates it will apprehend 90,000 unaccompanied minors before the end of the fiscal year in September.

While most children crossing the border have hopes of reunification and better opportunities, according to a report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, very few cited these as their only reasons for escaping their homeland. Of children leaving El Salvador, 66 percent cited violence at home. For Guatemala and Honduras, that number was 20 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

“My grandmother wanted me to leave, said a 17-year-old from Honduras, according to the report. “She told me, ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do join, the rival gang will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

The countries in the Northern Triangle take three of the top five spots for world’s highest murder rates in 2013. Honduras comes in first, with 90.4 murders per 100,000 people, a number that more than doubled between 2005 and 2010 according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. El Salvador and Guatemala are fourth and fifth on the list.

Children who make the dangerous journey from Central America to the Rio Grande are more often than not coming from these countries’ most dangerous cities. A map using data from La Prensa Gráfica during 2009 and 2010 and compiled by data blogger Diego Valle-Jones shows the most violent areas are northern Honduras and all three countries’ capital regions—the very same places from which most of children have arrived.

Therefore, many of these children aren’t just immigrants: they’re refugees, according to advocates pushing for easing the conversation that tries to pit this crisis as a simple immigration matter.

A 16-year-old who participated in the UNHCR report told interviewers about a time a local gang threatened him after he refused to pay them money.

“They held my cousin and me for three hours, tied up,” he said. “My cousin was able to untie the rope and he helped me untie mine. We heard gunshots and we ran. They kept looking for us, but we escaped.”

The Department of Homeland Security screens every unaccompanied child it apprehends in order to determine if they face a “credible threat” in their home country.

The Migration Policy Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington, D.C., estimates that between 40 percent and 60 percent of these children will have a “legitimate protection claim,” said Michelle Mittelstadt, MPI spokeswoman.  This “mixed flow” makes it harder for DHS and immigration judges to figure out who should stay and who needs to return home, especially since U.S. law does not give unaccompanied minors automatic legal counsel.

A credible threat triggers a legal process that could lead to asylum or a special immigration juvenile visa—or a trip back across the border. But no matter their ultimate fate, it’s likely that the child will remain in the US for quite some time. The process of placing a child in either foster care or with a relative can take up to six weeks alone, Mittelstadt said.

This is a small wait compared to the time it takes to be heard in court. In Chicago, an immigration case “can easily take two years or more,” said Derek Strain, an immigration attorney at the Chicago law firm Minsky McCormick & Hallagan. “I’m hearing of 2017 dates right now.”

Asylum cases are difficult to win, Strain said, as defendants must have corroborating evidence to prove persecution, such as a report to a human rights office or physical scars and a medical exam.

“A one-in-10 chance of being persecuted is supposedly enough, according to one Supreme Court decision,” Strain said. “But in practice, it seems the standard is actually applied in a tougher way.”

While children and teens wait for their court date, they usually don’t get any sort of work authorization, Strain said. As a result, many end up working illegally, worsening the perception of them and the exact problem many immigration opponents argue is deflating this nation’s economic opportunities for youth born here.

For children with relatives in the U.S. who can support them, this isn’t necessarily a problem. Both Mittelstadt and Strain said family reunification is a major reason why Central American children come here. Mittelstadt also said a majority of the children crossing the border would end up reunited with family, rather than staying in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services or the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The final destinations for these children are relatively unknown. However, the locations of Central American populations in the US provide a pretty good picture of where they are likely to end up, according to Mittelstadt.

As of the 2010 census, more than 3.3 million people living in the United States were from Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. Of those, Mittelstadt estimates that about 40,000 currently live in the Chicago metropolitan area. Most children are likely headed to areas with a larger Central American population, such as New York City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

All the same, the government has two promising reasons to place children close to Chicago: an immigration court and a willing mayor.

The city houses the only immigration court for 285 miles, and the largest one in the Midwest. The next closest court is in Detroit, hours away and with only three judges compared to Chicago’s nine.

Moreover, many mayors and governors have made it clear that they will not play host to the unaccompanied minors. This makes Emanuel’s proposal not only attractive but, some would say, also necessary as the federal government moves children from packed detention centers at the border.

In the coming months, as Chicago’s court docket fills up, the federal government will continue to be responsible for the care and well-being of thousands of young and lonely migrants, providing them with medical and mental health services, food and a place to sleep as they wait for their turn in court—regardless of whether their next destination is a Chicago neighborhood or a San Pedro Sula barrio.

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