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Dangerous Exodus: Kids Leave Central America For North Texas -- And They Need Legal Help

William Holston, Commentator
Commentator William Holston considers the plight of Central American immigrants to North Texas.

All week, NPR has reported on life along the U.S.-Mexico border. In his commentary, William Holston focuses on one particular group of immigrants growing in number in North Texas.

What’s the most dangerous activity you experienced as a child? Most of us rarely faced anything worse than a swimming pool. But children in Central America face danger in their lives every day, and that has resulted in an exodus of kids to the United States. Many come to North Texas.

In fiscal year 2012, 13,000 children were apprehended at the border. That number jumped to over 24,000 last year. Ninety-five percent of these children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. One primary factor forcing children to make the dangerous thousand-mile journey to the U.S. is generalized violence and a corresponding break down in the rule of law. Much of that violence is related to violent street gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha. The gangs seek to recruit teenagers for their criminal enterprises.  

Kevin Appleby is a director of the Committee on Migration of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He says: “These children defy common perceptions of migration in this hemisphere. They are akin to refugees in Africa fleeing civil war.”

Human Rights Initiative of North Texas has represented many of these children. In one year, our program to serve the legal needs of unaccompanied immigrant children tripled. Some of the kids want to come to Dallas because they have a parent here. The trip is long and perilous. Usually, they are apprehended at the border, and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. ORR seeks to reunite the children with their parents, if one can be found. 

In North Texas, the children are housed in a shelter run by  ORR with Catholic Charities of Fort Worth.  Some kids are reunited with family here in North Texas. Others are transferred to wherever a parent can be found in the U.S.

It’s sobering to hear their stories. Often these are good kids who were  trying to go to school and live a normal life. One child recently told me she couldn’t sleep at night in her native Honduras because of gunfire noise.

Carlos was involved in his church and going to school. The Maras sought to recruit him. He refused many times. Ultimately, gang members abducted him, slit his throat and left him for dead. Carlos survived and made his way to Dallas. Volunteer lawyers assisted Carlos in getting a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa, so he can live here safely and pursue an education. 

If caught at the border, kids are placed in proceedings in Immigration Court. Thankfully, in Dallas, the courts have designated a specific judge to hear children’s cases. But not every child has a lawyer and consequently children appear in court, facing deportation, with no one to represent them. Unlike a criminal case, no attorney is provided for these children.

Unaccompanied minors should have legal counsel. The best interest of the child standard should be applied, and adequate funding should be provided to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for the shelter of these children and protection of their legal rights No child should be sent away to certain danger. Can’t we agree on that at least?

William Holston is president of Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.