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Child Migrants Transition From Shelters To A Life In Limbo

Over the summer, Phoenix's Central High School held a summer session for refugee children, including a handful of teenagers from Central America who had recently been released from shelters after crossing the border alone. (Jude Joffe-Block)

The number of unaccompanied child migrants apprehended at the Southwest border fell by almost half between June and July, and there are reports that the number arriving continues to fall.

That trend has helped ease the crisis of finding shelter space to house these children.

However, the polarized debate on what do with these young migrants continues both at the political level and around the kitchen table. This is a story not on the debate itself, but on one family caught up in it.


PHOENIX — On a recent weekday evening at an evangelical church here, the prayers are in Spanish and the pews are packed with families from all over Latin America.

Two of the newest members here are Jose, 15, and his sister Lucia, 18. They asked to be identified by their middle names.

This spring they left their grandparents' home in Guatemala to join their mother and three siblings in Phoenix.

“One of the things that I didn’t like there was there were a lot of dead bodies,” Jose said in Spanish. “People were killed all the time.”

He said townspeople would shoot drunks in the street. They are from a part of Guatemala where vigilante justice is common.

“You couldn’t go out at night because it was dangerous,” Lucia said in Spanish.

Their mother, Xoana, sent for them.

“I wanted them to be with me, I didn’t want to lose them,” Xoana said in Spanish. “Because there are sometimes gangs around.”

Xoana is undocumented herself. She is indigenous Maya Mam. Spanish is her second language and she doesn’t speak English.

She earns $250 a week cleaning houses. The coyote charged $6,000 to bring the two children here. Xoana borrowed money from friends.

Lucia and Jose's trip across Mexico to the Texas border was long. They alternated between buses and the top of a freight train, known as La Bestia.

It was a much more dangerous trip than the one Xoana had made years ago when she crossed the border. Xoana didn’t realize how much had changed. Nor did she realize that the coyote’s plan was for her children to turn themselves in to U.S. Border Patrol.

Lucia said the smugglers left them at the Rio Grande with instructions.

“They said to cross to the other side of the river, and that we’d find a big white sign,” Lucia said. “They said if we stood under it, Border Patrol would be alerted to come get us.”

At first they were taken to a Border Patrol holding cell. Then they went to a Texas shelter that is part of the network of shelters for young migrants administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Federal law states that migrant children like Lucia and Jose who are caught at the border without parents must be held in the least restrictive way possible. So 20 days later, they were able to join Xoana and their siblings in a small two-bedroom apartment in Phoenix.

They are among more than 37,000 unaccompanied young migrants who have been released from federal shelters to relatives and sponsors between Jan. 1 and July 31 of this year, according to Health and Human Services data.

Only 203 child migrants have been turned over to relatives in Arizona, compared to 5,280 in Texas and 3,909 in California.

Lucia was 7 years old and Jose was only 3 when their mother first left to go work in the United States. Their reunion with their mother was long awaited, but Lucia said it’s also complicated.

“We aren’t used to her, we are used to our grandparents,” Lucia said.

Their church is trying to help with the transition. The pastor, Mario Porras, is a Guatemalan immigrant himself. Porras said his congregation has welcomed a number of young migrants who joined relatives in recent months.

One teen arrived this year to find her parents who had migrated to the U.S. when she was still a baby.

“These children have grown up far from their fathers, far from their mothers,” Porras said.  “I believe their faith can give them strength and help them progress in their daily life.”

Porras is trying to guide these families through the adjustment of reuniting.

Transitioning to the U.S. isn’t the only issue. There’s also the very real possibility the children will eventually be deported.

It’s something  Xoana thinks about constantly.

“Sometimes I wonder what I will do when they have to go to immigration court,” Xoana said.

Immigration courts are prioritizing juvenile deportation hearings because of the current wave of migrant children at the border. But they are not providing lawyers to the families.

Xoana doesn’t know when her children’s court dates will be or who to ask. She asked me if I knew any lawyers. I passed on some numbers of legal service providers.

“It’s not easy,” Xoana said afterward. “Sometimes you don’t have a way to find information.”

After all, she doesn’t speak the language.

Meanwhile, Lucia and Jose are in their second week of high school here.

Lucia's goal? To learn English.