At least 120 unaccompanied children are crossing the U.S. southern border every day. This surge is fueled by “increased violence in Central America, the desire to reunify with parents and false rumors circulating in their homelands that unaccompanied children can stay indefinitely in the United States” according to a recent LA Times article. Most of these children come from the Northern Cone of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. I hear this stats daily as part of my work with Cristosal’s Human Rights Office, which is the only institution in El Salvador to provide legal advising and assistance to those fleeing situations of violence in country. Until this Sunday, however, those words barely hit home. But after visiting Abbott House, that all changed.
I am in Tarrytown, NY with Susan and David Copley from Christ Episcopal Church. As part of our visit here, Susan brought us to Abbott House, a center where the State Department sends unaccompanied minors caught at the border after spending a week or more in detention centers. When we arrived, there were 19 young boys between the ages of 11 and 18 (though many appeared much younger), playing soccer, running around in flip-flops or waddling around in tennis shoes without shoelaces and too-big basketball shorts. Later we found out the detention center in Texas intentionally removed all their shoelaces and drawstrings so the boys don’t use them to commit suicide.
During the small Sunday service Susan led, we bore witness to the unbelievable dual reality these boys live. At face value, you would think we were in latino summer camp… until they started to tell their stories. One young man, smiling at me, explained his story in Spanish with awkward mannerisms so akin to that of my own 16-year old brother. He had traveled from Honduras alone to the U.S. in the hands of a coyote, then caught at the border he was placed into a windowless jail cell for 11 days, never seeing the sun, sleeping on the floor with one meal a day consisting of white bread and butter. This boy is barely 16. He was not allowed to contact his family in Honduras or the United States during this time. Then he jumped on a plane for the first time in his life to fly to New York (though his father is in New Orleans), which is how he happened to be sitting across from me. Noah and the boy talked back and forth until we asked why he had come. The boy just smiled awkwardly and shook his head. He didn’t want to answer that question.
As a part of the service Susan led for the boys, she asked them what they were thankful for (para qué damos gracias?). One by one, eyes closed and brows furrowed in concentration with hands clasped at their chests as they knelt on the cheap carpet, the boys chimed in: the health of my family, the staff at Abbott House, having passed through to the States safely, mi Mama, mi Papa... And I bit my lip as hard as I could to keep tears from flowing down my face, filled with anger, despair, and disbelief.
Saul Alinsky said action happens when we see the world as it is, and compare it to the world as we think it should be. No child should ever have to leave their family, no child should ever be forced to fend for themselves at 11, nor sit in a jail cell wondering if someone is waiting for them on the other side. It is unbelievable, yet it happens. By the tens of thousands, it happens. And there is something we can all do, even if it simply means reading that next New York Times article from start to finish. Or in my case, to return to my work at Cristosal with renewed purpose and vigor, supporting organizations like Abbott House who provide these young men with the basic services and care that they so desperately deserve, and those like Cristosal that seek to directly address those problems which had them flee in the first place.