Every year tens of thousands of children unlawfully cross the border without parents or guardians. They’re fleeing violence and poverty.
Manuel was one of them. He says he was forced to leave Guatemala, his home country. We’re not using Manuel’s real name to protect his safety and his family’s. Speaking through an interpreter, he said it wasn’t his idea to cross the border.
“In fact, my parents got me out of the country,” said Manuel.
That was two years ago. He was 17. He remembers the journey.
First, he and his father traveled by bus to the Mexican border. His father left him there with a friend to cross the border.
“When I crossed the border, they put me into the back of a car, trunk of a car,” he said.
There was another person in the trunk. Manuel says there was a hole in the trunk so they could breathe. They were given water, too.
“It was quite hot,” he said. “Actually, they would let us out for about 30 minutes so we could walk about, breathe the air. And they’d put us back in again.”
Manuel says it went on like this for the entire drive. After two hours, they arrived. “When we got out, we were fainting and very tired because we’d been lying down,” he said.
Manuel is considered an unaccompanied minor—a child who has crossed into the U.S. without a parent or guardian. In 2014, border patrol apprehended more than 68,000 kids, mainly at the southwest border.
But this year, it’s picking up again, said Meghan Casey, an attorney with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
“In the past few years, there’s been a huge surge in youth fleeing Central America—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.”
Gang violence has been driving the current surge, Casey said.
“But in our experience, these kids aren’t just fleeing gang violence,” she said. “They all have often experienced situations of abuse in the home or living in conditions of extreme poverty.”
In Manuel’s case, his parents wanted him to get out of Guatemala as quickly as possible.
“The gangs were threatening me,” Manuel said. “They wanted me to join them.”
I asked him how they were threatening him. He started to answer, but struggled to continue. His voice trembled. “That question, no.”
When Manuel crossed the border into U.S., he worried about the dangers lurking in the desert: snakes and drug traffickers. “My family was concerned about me—that the Zetas would pick me up or do something to me,” he said.
The Zetas is one of the largest drug cartels in Mexico. Besides drug trafficking, they prey on people crossing. They kidnap them and hold them for ransom or force them to smuggle drugs. For his safety, Manuel turned himself in to border patrol officers. That’s how he ended up here in Washington state.
Last year there were more than 1,400 unaccompanied minors in Washington who were in a similar situation.
Vulnerable youth—those younger than 21, like Manuel—can apply for special federal protection.
“I would emphasize that certainly not every undocumented immigrant child between those ages would be eligible for this benefit," Casey, the attorney, said. "There are still specific findings that need to be found by a state court.”
A state court needs to make an assessment whether the child has been neglected, abandoned or abused. This part usually takes place in juvenile court. If the court determines it’s not in the child’s best interest to return home, the child can take the next step and petition the feds for special protection until they turn 21. But here’s the problem: Juvenile courts here only have jurisdiction until age 18.
But that’s about to change. A new state law takes effect later this month that allows juvenile court to have jurisdiction over these types of cases. Manuel is now 19 and eligible to start the petition process in juvenile court. Having the special protection would grant him legal status and provides a pathway to a green card.
These days Manuel spends his time playing soccer and taking English classes.
After first turning himself in to border patrol, Manuel went into state custody. When he turned 18, he was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. Northwest Immigrant Rights Project heard about his case and was able to get him out and help him start the process for federal protection.
“I feel very grateful to God that these people have been able to help me,” he said.
The last two years have forced him to grow up fast, without his parents. “The thing is, I’ve never been on my own, without advice,” Manuel said. “I’ve always been given advice by my family, and they’ve been there for me, same as I’ve always been there for them.”
He said he knows they do support him from afar, but it’s not the same as having that support in person.