Border refugees flock to Southwest Detroit

Aug 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Whatever it took, Ms. Cruz told herself, to get her son Roger to the States and a chance at life. So she and her 17-month-old son, who because of cerebral palsy cannot eat on his own, nor speak or stand up, got on a bus from her home in the city of Negrito, in the northeastern part of Honduras, and embarked on a two-week journey through Mexico to the U.S. border, where she paid a "coyote," or smuggler, $180 to cross the Rio Grande into Texas.

Along the way, she met other young women like her — many had a little one clutched to their chests and came from Central American countries like Honduras, Guatemala, or El Salvador. Some were seeking economic opportunity, Ms. Cruz says. Others told her they were fleeing the constant torment of gang members, who would stalk them on the streets, capture them, and sexually abuse them before allowing them to pass.

For Ms. Cruz — she asked that her first name not be published because she entered the United States illegally and fears for her life if she is deported back to Honduras — the trip north meant Roger would have a shot at survival.

"If we would've stayed in Honduras, who knows how much longer he would've survived," said Ms. Cruz at Mercado Plaza in southwest Detroit, where she spoke to an immigration attorney who agreed to represent her pro-bono as she sought asylum for herself and her son.

Ms. Cruz's experience mirrors that of the nearly 60,000 unaccompanied minors who've fled deadly gang violence and crippling poverty since October, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, making their way to the Mexican-American border.

The United Nations and others around the globe say these children should not be seen as undocumented immigrants, but rather as refugees, and have called on the Obama administration to treat them as they would asylum-seekers in war-torn Syria.

Nazario and others say the current immigration crisis was fueled by decades of Cold War-era intervention in Central America; the war on drugs, exasperated by American demand; and the mass deportation of gang members known as maras from U.S. barrios back to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, where they now serve as strong arms for the powerful cartels who have taken control of the Central American drug corridor.

To help alleviate the strain on an overwhelmed U.S. Border Patrol and immigration court system now backlogged from the wave of youths entering the United States and awaiting their days in court, President Barack Obama recently called for the hiring of new agents and temporary immigration judges.

A majority of the youths wind up with relatives already in the United States, but for those who've got no one to turn to, they are placed in federal Health and Human Services shelters, which operate across the country, including in Michigan. Because of the large influx of migration across the border, says HHS spokesman Kenneth Wolfe, the department has had to "quickly open temporary shelters on three military bases to meet the needs of this vulnerable population."

Even though metro Detroit physically sits at the opposite end of the epicenter of the crisis, the debate over what should happen to these children has trickled into Michigan, with flag-waving, semi-automatic-gun-toting protesters taking to the streets of Vassar to stop their potential arrival of a temporary shelter there. Meanwhile, Central American families already living in metro Detroit are quietly reuniting with them as they seek asylum.

Census data shows that roughly 1,300 Central Americans reside in the Motor City, making up a relatively small number of the region's immigrant community. HHS figures show fewer than 100 — just 92 — are staying with an approved sponsor as they await their deportation proceedings. Although the numbers are small, the needs of these youth have become quite apparent in recent months among immigrant rights advocates.

"[Migration from Central America to Detroit] has been going on for years and years, but we have seen an uptick in the last six to seven months," says David Koelsch, director of the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School.

Koelsch and his team of students only take on cases they think are compelling enough to win in immigration court, which has limited jurisdiction for adjudicating cases. In the last three weeks, he says, the clinic has taken on six new cases, all involving boys, one as young as 8 years old, who say gangs in their hometowns tried to recruit them.

"When they've said no, that they didn't want to be part of the gangs, well, that's unacceptable," Koelsch says. "Then you just wait for the bullet at that point."

Ms. Cruz described her Honduran neighborhood, Barrio Tatumbla, as relatively quiet, although everyone she knows lives in poverty, so much so that you'd be pressed to ever find a bunch of grapes around the house — they just cost too much. Was she ever raped? No. Nor was she or any of her four siblings ever threatened by violence. But she's always hearing stories about the killings, and when asked about the gang violence, she looks down at the ground and tries to change the subject.

Whether she's been victimized or not, that's not really the point, Koelsch says.

"It's a difficult case because you could say that poverty is driving some of it, because if they had a better medical system in Honduras, well, her son would be OK. If her family had more money, things would be better," Koelsch says. "Yeah that's all true, but it's not just the poverty. It's the gangs too ... Asylum doesn't have to be based on past persecution, but it can be based on a fear of future persecution, that if she goes back, she could be a victim of the gangs. She's really defenseless."

Ms. Cruz has a court date next month, during which time her attorney will file asylum requests for her and Roger. After that, it could take years for her case to resolve.

Fine by her, she says with a smile. In the three months since she's been staying in southwest Detroit with her brother and his wife (who themselves have lived here undocumented for eight years), she says she's already noticing improvements in Roger.