What do you think of when you hear the word “detainee?” My mind instantly flashes to an outlaw being interrogated by governmental agents after a grueling, hours-long high-speed chase. Now, consider this image of a detainee – a twelve-year old boy in the hospital watching a friend be treated after a car accident. It’s not the picture that immediately comes to mind, but sadly, this may be the sweeping reality.
I only became aware of the actuality of child detention last summer when I worked with the U.S. Center for Refugees and Immigrants in the Children’s Center. My task was to conduct intakes of unaccompanied minors that were in deportation proceedings. I asked about their lives in their home countries and soaked in their responses about gang violence, extreme poverty, and their perceived lack of future opportunities. I learned about their agonizing journeys across the US/Mexican Border, also known as “el camino muerte,” whether it was on foot, by train, car, or with the help of a coyote. When I asked about their reasons for traveling to the United States, I received a slew of answers ranging from education, reunification with family members, peace from persecution, and/or work. From time to time, the children wanted to discuss how and when they were detained and the treatment they received from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement- “ICE”.
Remember the 12-year old I mentioned earlier – the shocking visual of the new reality in detainment? To suit his sobering situation, I will call him “Desperada” de Honduras. Desperada had been living in the US for nearly 4 years. He made the journey from Honduras to Mexico on the top of a commercial train and the rest of the way on foot with the help of a coyote. He slipped under the radar in the US for a few years until a monumental event occurred and changed everything.
Desparada was riding in the passenger seat of his friend’s car one afternoon. Another car was turning right and hit the car. The driver was badly injured and was taken immediately to the emergency room. Desperada went to the hospital with his friend because the police thought he could have suffered a concussion as well.
While Desperada was in the waiting room, ICE approached him and asked for his legal documentation. Desperada, unsure how to react, informed the officeres that he did not have legal papers. ICE immediately detained him, questioned him, and proceeded to place him in deportation proceedings. After eight antagonizing months, when given the choice, Desperada opted for a voluntary departure. This young boy, once full of hope, had given up on his fight for a future.
ICE saw Desperada as any other Juan, Miguel, or Carlos. They had failed to appreciate the tragedy that brought him to the hospital and instead zeroed in on stereotypes; he was just another individual being typecasted as an undocumented immigrant. Little did they know that Desperada had escaped Honduras when he was nine years old and traveled “el camino muerte” by himself. After crossing the Mexican border, the coyote left him for dead after receiving the money his mother had collected from selling street food for years. Desperada had no other options. His father was brutally murdered by Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a transnational gang, which had complete control of his drug-driven village. He was the next to be killed unless he joined the gang, which was hardly an actual guarantee of survival.
Desperada came to the US to reunite with his long lost uncle, to get an education, and to escape the gangs and drugs that consumed his destructive village. “I want to go to school, learn English, and get a job to help my mom and sisters at home from hunger.” Unfortunately, he was not given the chance to continue his story. ICE did not care to learn the truth of Desperada’s story nor that of his desperation.
ICE came to Desperada at a moment of weakness. He was terrified about his friend, shaken up after the accident, and not able to comprehend and understand the extent of what was occurring, especially when on considers his language barrier. The hospital waiting room is a public place, and technically it is a location ICE can be. But where is the decency? Where is the heart? A twelve-year old boy is not the face of terrorism; he is not smuggling drugs; and he is not ‘taking our jobs’. He is struggling to survive for himself and for the family that he has been forced to leave behind. ICE tends to lump all immigrants together, irrelevant of their backgrounds or experiences. This may be done for efficiency, but at what cost? It seems that we are slipping into a place full of hard, rigid, and detached agencies pushing laws for a broken system. Pretty soon, all we will have left is…ice.
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For an award-winning documentary on unaccompanied minors, watch: