(For the Arizona Daily Star. Published July 30, 2014. Click here for the Star article)
Three young people who fled Central America because of violence and poverty told a congressional panel that the United States should continue protecting undocumented children like them by not changing a law that dictates how the government handles their cases.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., who convened a hearing of the Progressive Democratic Caucus on Tuesday, presented their testimonies as a way to get a direct look at the issue of unaccompanied Central American youths crossing illegally into the United States.
A proposed change to the 2008 law would allow for faster deportations of Central American children caught in the United States. Now, these children are provided safe shelter here as their immigration status is decided. More than 50,000 of these unaccompanied minors have been caught at the Southwestern border this year, reports show.
Opponents of the proposed changes said this could lead to the children, like the three who testified, being sent back to dangerous situations from which they fled.
“We’re missing the point that as a nation, we’re the embodiment of those values that protect the weaker, those values that protect people fleeing persecution and prosecution unjustly and today we’re going to hear from those young people that did just that,” said Grijalva.
The youths’ testimonies centered on the dangers they faced in their home countries and the reasons they decided to come to the United States. Each said they witnessed homicides near their homes and feared for their safety. All three have been reunited with their families in the United States.
Saul Martinez, 15, said he fled El Salvador in April. As he spoke, he sat close to the table, the cuffs of his long-sleeved striped gray shirt rolled up a bit so as not to fall past his hands.
“I have seen horrors that no child ought to see,” he said, looking toward the members of Congress.
MS-13 gang members threatened to kill him if he rode his bicycle through their neighborhood. He was afraid if he stayed in El Salvador, he would
be asked to join a gang or be killed.
Martinez was caught after crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. He was held with about 200 other children. It was the worst experience of his life, Martinez said, calling the center “the icebox.”
He said he was very weak after spending six days there, because he wasn’t given enough food, was always cold and couldn’t sleep because guards came in every two hours, counting the children. There was only one bathroom for all 200 occupants.
Mayeli Hernandez, 12, also spoke of the cold detention centers. Her long dark hair almost hid her face as she quietly read her testimony in Spanish. She rubbed tears from her eyes while describing her loneliness after her mother left Honduras for the United States when Mayeli was 8.
Mayeli and her younger sister left Honduras in July 2013 because they were afraid of the violence and because her younger sister suffered from epilepsy.
Before she fled, Mayeli said she saw two people slain in Honduras. “It was very ugly to see the blood running on the ground,” she said.
“Please protect children like me and my little sister,” she said. “We can’t go back to our countries because they’re very dangerous and very poor.”
Dulce Medina, 15, spoke in clear English. Wearing a shiny plum-colored top, she explained how she was often afraid to walk 30 minutes to her school in Guatemala because of gang violence. Medina lived with her uncle and aunt after her father died and her mother came to the United States.
Medina said she witnessed the slaying of a local woman, with no repercussions for the killer. “I do not want to go back to Guatemala because I am afraid there is no one there to protect me,” she said.
She now lives with her mother in New York. Medina, who has been here for about five years, wants to attend college and hopes to be a pediatrician one day because she loves kids and wants to care for them.
Several immigration experts who work with children spoke at the hearing.
They described the importance of convening hearings for unaccompanied children and stressed the dangers the children face in Central American countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The factors leading to these dangers ought to be addressed, they explained. They also called for funding to ensure unaccompanied children at our border are treated humanely and to continue treating their cases individually.
Christa Elise Reynolds is a University of Arizona journalism student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org