The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America
But, by and large, these kids are not treated as refugees.
Andrew Pielage Peña takes a test during his English summer school session at Central High School in Phoenix.
By federal law, when the U.S. recognizes a humanitarian need, it arranges for people from overseas to resettle in this country because of the possibility of persecution and violence.
When refugee children arrive, the government rolls out the welcome mat with services and assistance because there's a process in place to protect them when they are in need.
But "unaccompanied alien minors" reaching the U.S. are met with a government whose goal is to deport them, not protect them.
Not all of them have asylum cases, but when they do, they have to persist. They are faced with an immigration system that judges them as adults and doesn't provide them with public defenders.
This said, it's true there is a set of unique laws that have been passed to make sure children are not detained as adults and can be reunited with family. There are shelters for them all over the country, and their custody is under the authority not of immigration officials but of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
This happens for most after 35 days, but they still face "deportation" proceedings.
The options to protect them have roadblocks.
Children like Peña who have suffered neglect, abandonment, and abuse have unique access to a special status that allows them a green card. But in 2013, only about 3,500 of them -- mostly from Mexico and Guatemala -- gained this status, according to Immigration and Citizenship Services.
It used to be that about 50 percent of such kids got to court with an attorney. But the percentage might be lower now that so many young people are arriving in this country, Young says.
"These are traffic-court-like proceedings with life-and-death consequences in some cases," she adds.
And what is even more alarming to advocates is that the Obama administration could move toward fast-track deportations on the border. This would require a change in a law passed in 2008 that allows Mexican and Canadian children (unlike Central American youths) to be deported within 48 hours.
The Obama administration is asking for resources to deal with what the president called a humanitarian crisis.
The worry for immigration attorneys like Gladis Molina, who manages the Children's Rights Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Phoenix, is that kids won't get an opportunity and the protection they need.
For her, the answer is simple.
Put a system in place to "do right" by the kids if we care about them or deport them, Molina says.
"And if we don't care about them," she adds, "then let's talk about why it is okay not to care about them."
Peña was born in La Sidra, near the mountains three hours from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. He is the first child of Arturo and Consuelo Peña.
Peña told New Times the story of his life in a series of interviews at his workplace, at local Salvadoran restaurants, and on a bus on the way to school. Though he speaks some English, the interviews were conducted in Spanish.
As Peña recalls, his dad was a farmer who drank too much while his mother did nothing about it. When Darlin was 5, they went to work together in the milpas (cornfields). There were days when it rained so much that the ground became slippery and Darlin worked while trying not to fall. It made his father so angry that he would slap Darlin.