A boy carries his belongings while police officers look on, as migrants staying at a shelter in downtown Tijuana are relocated to other shelters in the city in Baja California state, Mexico, on January 4, 2019. (GUILLERMO ARIAS/AFP/Getty Images)

The Real Border Crisis: Authorities Physically Blocking Children From Reaching Crossing Points

While Trump begs for his wall, children are fighting for their lives.

BY Jenny Villegas

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It’s going to take a movement that will transform our immigration system and dismantle immigrant prisons and enforcement.

Glenda wrapped her arm around mine and pulled me closer. I was part of a group of attorneys and legal observers who, in mid-November, were accompanying Glenda and six other children from Tijuana to the San Ysidro Port of Entry, which leads to San Diego. As we walked, I racked my brain for mundane conversation topics to distract us both. I could tell from her tight grip that she was nervous. What's your favorite food? Your favorite color? What superpower would you have? The questions went on.

As we reached the entrance to the bridge, she turned to me and said, “God works in many ways, and I hope one day we see each other again.”

“We will,” I reassured her. “And when I see you 20 years from now in the United States, what will be of your life?”

She gazed down the long bridge that would lead us to the port of entry where she would seek asylum and responded in a quiet voice, “I’m going to be someone who helps other people, an immigration lawyer for children. And one day I’m going to have the resources to help those people I left behind in my country.”

Glenda, 13 years old, left her home in Honduras and traveled with the Migrant Exodus alone.

She was forced to flee after her father, who she says physically and sexually abused her for years and nearly killed her, was released from prison. According to Glenda, her father threatened to search land and sea to get his vengeance on her for getting him locked up.

Glenda’s story is not unique. Children arrive at the border every year after having walked more than 2,500 miles—alone, tired and scared. Many of these children have been forced to flee their homes and leave their families behind after having witnessed and experienced unspeakable atrocities. During the course of their treacherous routes through Mexico, they often fall victim to kidnappers, human traffickers and robbers—and are threatened with deportation from Mexican immigration authorities.

Glenda and the six other unaccompanied children had survived that journey and were a few feet away from arriving at the U.S. port of entry to ask for asylum protections that night. As a staff member of the Central American Resource Center - Los Angeles, I was part of a team of U.S.-based legal observers. We were present because we know that refugees have been systematically turned away by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers when seeking asylum. We were there to witness the U.S. government’s non-stop efforts to limit the legal right to seek protection from violence. 

As we neared the end of the bridge we heard a man yelling at us to stop walking. I turned around and saw Mexican immigration officials running towards us. As they continued to shout, we walked faster, hoping to reach the port of entry before they got to us, knowing that once we were there CBP officers under federal and international law would have to process the children and provide them protection. When we reached the port of entry, three disgruntled CBP officers told us we had to go away.

The children approached the officers telling them they were there to seek asylum, and after a few minutes attorney and legal observers were told to leave. We turned around and started walking back, and when we reached the top of the bridge we looked across the bridge at the port of entry and saw that the children were being processed and allowed into the United States. These are minors who traveled alone escaping violence and terrible conditions. Being allowed to seek refuge in the United States will help keep them safe. We walked back to Tijuana relieved, because a small victory had been won.

Not all children have reached the point of entry. Reports in Tijuana have informed us that Mexican immigration authorities are profiling Central American migrant youth for detention and deportation, regardless of their asylum claims. On December 5, a group of attorneys and legal observers, led by Al Otro Lado, an immigrant rights advocacy organization at the border, accompanied a group of 7 Honduran teens. That team of informed us that the teenagers were similarly blocked by CBP upon reaching the port of entry to ask for asylum protections. As CBP prevented them from exercising their rights under international law, Mexican authorities cornered the children and detained them, our sources informed us.

Illegal by U.S. and international law, it has become a common practice for CBP officials to stand outside the port of entry and prohibit people from being able to enter the official port of entry. Even Congressmembers Nanette Barragán (D-Calif.) and Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif). have faced tremendous obstacles when approaching the border with asylum seekers. While there is ongoing litigation challenging CBP’s unlawful practice of depriving asylum seekers access to the U.S. asylum process—Al Otro Lado, Inc. v. John F. Kelly—there is absolutely no oversight or accountability.

U.S. immigration authorities continue to create a culture of violence, abuse and complete disregard of human rights—and continues to impede the right of refugees to seek asylum. American authorities have shot tear gas and rubber bullets at families across the U.S.-Mexico border, and they've murdered several children, including seven-year-old Jakelin Amei Rosemary Caal, who recently died while in CBP custody after being deprived of necessary food, water and medical attention. Claudia Patricia Gomez Gonzalez, 20 years old, was shot by CBP officers earlier this year.

The countless children who have been forced to flee their homes—and those who have lost their lives on their journey to safety, at the border, or in detention—are victims of inhumane policies and practices promoted by every single U.S. administration. These policies did not begin under Donald Trump: The turning away of unaccompanied minors was rampant under the Obama administration, and it will take more than electing well-meaning liberals to office to bring about real systemic change. In his “Border Wall” address last night, Trump escalated the vile, racist rhetoric that has defined his presidency.

It’s going to take a movement that will transform our immigration system and dismantle immigrant prisons and enforcement. How can we work towards a world where children like Glenda don’t have to travel across countries by themselves to stay alive, where children like Claudia aren’t killed by U.S. law enforcement, and where children like Jakeline don’t die inside of cages?


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Jenny Villegas is an Organizer at the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles (CARECEN-LA).

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