Life for child immigrants is even harder beyond the U.S. border

Violence and poverty are not things of the past for those who come of age in the shadows

(Image credit: (John Moore/Getty Images))

Between 2003 and 2011, 8,000 to 40,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Central America were stopped every year on the southern border of the U.S. When this number boomed to more than 57,000 during the first nine months of 2014, President Barack Obama announced an "urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response" at the border.

In early July, Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to increase manpower and surveillance at the border, and expand facilities and legal services for detained children. Later in July, Obama met with the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, from which many of these children come.

There have been many debates about the causes of this surge of child migrants, as well as the best strategies for addressing the trend along the border and abroad. But there has been little if any discussion about what happens to child migrants who successfully enter undetected. We can only speculate on the consequences of the U.S.'s failure to address the crisis.

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Since the summer of 2012, I have conducted observations and interviews with Guatemalan Maya young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 who arrived as unaccompanied minors between four and 19 years ago. My research shows that violence and poverty are not things of the past for unaccompanied Central American children who come of age in the shadows.

Life in Los Angeles

Although it is violence and poverty that push children to emigrate, many whom I've worked with report that a big motivation is the lack of education and job opportunities to escape these conditions, and the replication of their own suffering in the lives of younger siblings.

Arriving between the ages of 12 and 17 without a parent or guardian awaiting them, unaccompanied Guatemalan children enter Los Angeles' low-wage workforce to support the families they left behind. Many enter the garment industry where they work 11-hour days for up to six days per week without a break, proper lighting, or ventilation.

A young garment worker in his or her first weeks on the job might make $85 per week for anywhere between 58 and 66 hours of labor. Over time, these young people make between $280 and $420 per week. Children work feverishly to make the most of their two cents-per-button and six cents-per-seam wages, a workday that is no less physically exhausting as it is mentally and emotionally. Legal status, age, and ethnic discrimination, and often language barriers keep children in the most vulnerable work conditions.

Migrant children go to great lengths and endure physical and emotional pain to pay their living expenses, repay the debt of their migration (which is upward of $4,000) and send money to expectant parents and siblings. In one case, an 18-year-old who had lived in the U.S. for five years at the time of our meeting said he puts all of his money toward rent and his family, saving only five dollars per week for himself. All the while, children feel depression, isolation, and a longing to be with their families again.

Trapped in the margins

The young people we've interviewed say education is the only way out of their circumstances. But many are unable to attend school due to work schedules or unable to afford continuous enrollment in English classes. Those who make it to class do so with tired eyes and little energy left to give.

Life is particularly tough for Guatemalan Maya youth who primarily speak indigenous languages such as K'iche and K'anjobal. In the U.S., these young migrants learn Spanish at work or in their communities. The transition from indigenous language to Spanish and finally to English often requires the repetition of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and results in years of "retraso" (setback). Of the approximately 100 unaccompanied young adults I have met, only one in his early 30s has completed high school.

When it comes to access to services, unaccompanied child migrant workers transition into young adulthood under impoverished and exploitative conditions, without the support of parents and guardians. The pressures of financial responsibility, isolation, and cultural dislocation push some youth into drugs and alcohol, others to isolation and depression, and others as far as suicide. The need for support services is great, but their availability is sparse.

Though many new services are now opening due to heightened attention to unaccompanied migrants, there are very few existing services that cater to the settled population, particularly those older than 18 years of age and the indigenous language speakers.

Support services available during business hours are inaccessible for those working for their own survival and those of families abroad. Fear of deportation hinders young people's confidence in seeking professional, legal, and financial services. Medical services are perceived as luxury and sought out only after weeks or months of discomfort or pain.

Reform needed

These youth recognized their marginality but are not paralyzed by it. Since summer 2012, I have witnessed the launch of book clubs, community gardening groups, sustained involvement in an informal support group, which I have called Voces de Esperanza (Voices of Hope) in my work, and commitment to the local church.

While debate rages about the numbers of children now arriving at the Texas border, countless children have already entered the U.S. and are now young adults, forging a life in the margins. Rather than stalling immigration reform in the U.S., this reality should press the government to move forward confidently.

In a recent report I recommend providing legal protection based on the length of stay. U.S. immigration policy geared toward the inclusion of undocumented youth, such as the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act which was proposed in 2001 and the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals signed in 2012, require they meet education or potential military service requirements.

Though most of the unaccompanied migrant youth do not meet these requirements, they have contributed to the U.S. economy for many years, build their local communities and aspire to a full life in the U.S., but lack the resources to thrive. The time to act is now.

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