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The Tragic Life of Immigrant Children on the Border

By Antonio Noé Zavaletai

Introduction: The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas

Over the course of the last 20 years, more and more attention has been focused on the condition of Latino children living along the U.S.-Mexico border; especially in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas (Valley). This is partially due to the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions they face and the rising rate of poverty they live in. The Valley was recently declared the poorest place in the United States.ii iii

On the average, the percentage of childhood poverty in Texas border counties is almost twice as high as for all other Texas counties. iv The debilitating effects of poverty are exacerbated by a high school dropout rate, a rising number of single-parent families, a high unemployment rate, increasing gang activity and in general a growing sense of hopelessness. In the Valley, immigrants are faced with segregation in a colony of despair, and immigrant children are worse off. v

On the border, large populations of immigrant children are thrown together in the mix of the culture of poverty and forced to struggle for survival. In most cases, children in the Valley are overlooked by an already overwhelmed system. Even more serious is the fact that a substantial percentage of the immigrant population is illiterate. This fact further distances them from the hope of attaining the American Dream. vi

Poor Children and Crime

Extreme poverty often directs children and adolescents into criminal activity, and today, poor immigrant kids are easy recruits for gangs and transnational criminal organizations. vii

Disenfranchisement is the etiology of gang participation and the medium of choice for the transportation of drugs, people, weapons and cash across the border. Gang membership replaces the alienation from family and school cohorts and establishes a feeling of belonging to alienated children.

While it is difficult to predict future flows of immigration across the U.S.-Mexican border, we seem to be at a tipping point on the border, a point of diminishing return regarding the improvement of border security through increases in staffing and physical infrastructure.viii That is to say that the so-called Border Wall and increased boots on the ground have done little to deter illegal immigration. In spite of this fact, the border continues to militarize on the ground and in the air. Only a few realize that guns and fences are not the answer to this growing problem. ix

Building elementary schools in colonias, which are pockets of immigrant poverty, is common today but unheard of 10 years ago. However, the school building is a mixed blessing since attracting colonial residents to attend school within their colonial home boundary is nothing more than extending isolation, separating children from the mainstream of society and moves them toward segregation and discrimination.

Society’s well-being may be assessed both individually by a child and collectively for families, and communities. Critical measures for assessment include emotional and mental health, overall morbidity, nutritional status, growth and cognitive development as well as educational attainment. The border lags behind the rest of the state and nation in each of these measures. x

On the U.S.-Mexico border, the overall condition of child health and wellbeing has declined dramatically in the past decade. One indication of this fact is that emotional and mental health problems of immigrant children are on the rise. xi Additionally, immigrant children have little or no access to health care in the United States. xii

Although the U.S.-Mexico border shares many characteristics with other border regions of the world, the U.S.-Mexico border region is unique because of its irredentist nature. That is, it is an area in which the ethnic majority is greater in number than the ethnic minority but lags behind in every other socioeconomic and political indicator. The Latino ethnic majority is helplessly maintained at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale compared to the numeric minority. xiii

The vast majority of the border population will live in urban slums by 2030. Already, highly urbanized cross-border communities like Ciudad Juarez-El Paso and Brownsville-Matamoros blend across the border, forming dynamic trans-border regions with huge populations of poverty which drag their prosperity down. xiv

The U.S. Census Bureau’s Small Area report indicates that in the 23 U.S. counties that border Mexico, the poverty rate is 28 percent, while in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, child poverty soars above 50 percent. Valley poverty rates are driven upward by immigration from Mexico and Central America and by invisible transnational migrants who are forced to filter into the poorest neighborhoods, barrios, and colonias on the U.S. side of the border to escape detection. xv

In fact, most of the regional population growth in the decades to come will cluster in large urban centers, intensifying the social problems associated with border urbanization and the continued insulation of the urban poor.

For example, the cross-border Valley is expected to grow into a single metropolitan area with a population surpassing four million inhabitants. xvi

Unaccompanied Childhood Immigration

Data from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) indicate that an ever-increasing number of immigrants crossing into the Valley are unaccompanied children. The majority of impoverished immigrant children are disproportionately driving up the percentage of all children living in the crushing grip of poverty and social isolation in the Valley. The fact that they come alone exacerbates the problem. xvii

The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended in south Texas this year has already reached 100,000. xviii The RGV sector encompasses more than 34,000 square miles in 34 Texas counties, and 316 river miles and 317 coastal miles and is covered by 3,000 agents xix

In 2011 there were nearly 61,000 apprehensions in the sector, of those 21,000 were classified as “Other than Mexican.” In 2012 the number jumped to nearly 98,000 with 50,000 OTM. xx

In 2013 the numbers exploded with apprehensions reaching 154,000, and approximately 100,000 classified as OTMs, “Other Than Mexicans.”

Half way through 2014, more than 95,000 have been apprehended with 69,000 OTMs. It is estimated that to house and feed and transport children to shelters or reunite them with family already in the United States costs $2.28 billion each year. xxi Faced with rising numbers and cost, the Border Patrol added 540 agents in the 2012-2013 fiscal year, for a total of 3,086 agents working in the region. xxii

The Border Patrol has recently announced the hiring of 2,000 additional agents with approximately 500 to be stationed in the lower border region bring the total to nearly 4,000. xxiii

The more than 18,500 agents who patrol the southwest border amounts to approximately ten agents per linear mile for the entire 2,000 miles of border between Mexico and the United States.xxiv

The number of children attempting to cross the river illegally into the Valley is also on the rise. It is not clear why but approximately 120 unaccompanied children are apprehended each day. Many are simply abandoned on the U.S. side of the river. xxv

The U.S. Federal government categorizes apprehended children as either accompanied by an adult family member or unaccompanied and the increase in the number of children apprehended in the region has increased by 280 percent since 2011. Unaccompanied child apprehended is up sixty-seven percent in the current year 2014 making the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas one of the top entry points on the entire 2,000 mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.

More than 21,000 unaccompanied juveniles were apprehended in 2013 crossing illegally into the United States through the Rio Grande Valley. This represents approximately 55 percent of all children entering the U.S. More than half are from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. xxvi

Each year, people come to the United States seeking protection from ethnic, political and religious persecution. Children make up an important segment of that population ranging in age from infants to teenagers.

The United States currently lacks a clear policy to govern the process of holding, removal, and repatriation of unaccompanied children. This fact seriously challenges whether their human rights are being respected. xxvii

The Guatemalan consul in McAllen, Texas indicates that the number of cases involving Central American children who cross alone is on a steady rise. Meanwhile, the United States fails to upgrade and enforce international conventions allowing children access to their respective consulates and legal representation. xxviii Most recently in May of 2014, the nation of Honduras has opened a consular office in the Valley.

The Failure of Child Protection Today

In sending their children northward, parents mistakenly believe that because they pay extra money for their children’s passage into the United States, they will suffer less, but that is not the reality.

Child abuse is commonplace. Recent reports in the New York Times indicate that the number of complaints of alleged abuse of children at the hands of U.S. federal authorities is on the increase, but these complaints largely go without action. But, in fact, children report abuses at every stage in their journey, including their country of origin and in Mexico. xxix

The report of U.S.-Mexico Border Policy indicates that the U.S. immigration strategy which focuses solely on security through increased militarization has failed. This has cost the United States billions of dollars, has weakened the autonomy and rights of border communities and has resulted in a one-dimensional border which ultimately is a less-secure international boundary.

Total detentions on the lower border this year is 65 percent higher than last year. In spite of the constant increase, the immigration courts have heard fewer cases, and of those, they do hear 43 percent fewer deportations have been ordered. However, more and more immigrants are being deported through administrative removals before they have a chance to see an immigration judge. xxx

When children are detained on the border, it is often for an unreasonable amount of time resulting in needless suffering and overall degradation of the child’s emotional health and human rights. xxxi In a study conducted for the Los Angeles school district, the district’s mental health director found the 94 percent of immigrant children given a mental health screening reported at least three traumatic events, and 65 percent had clinical symptoms in the range of PTSD and depression. xxxii

The current system of immigrant removal places the burden of triggering protective services on the detained child who is incapable of seeking legal assistance themselves. The time it takes detained children to acquire legal representation is lengthy.

Necessary Procedure and Policy Changes

The badly needed policy change would guarantee unaccompanied children a procedure for access to legal counsel and allow child-welfare authorities the review of all immigrant court decisions seeking to remove unaccompanied children from the United States in a timely and equitable manner.

U.S. Immigration records indicate that unaccompanied minors from nearly every part of the world cross through South Texas only to find that they are stuck in a system which is not prepared to deal with them.

It is not clear exactly why there is a massive increase in children immigrating to the United States unaccompanied by an adult. However, a recent interview with more than 750 children at multiple detention locations indicates a variety of reasons. Many children are escaping violence or persecution in their home countries. Many Central American countries are in crisis with socio-economic characteristics, people are fleeing war-like conditions caused by criminal activity in the region and the government malfeasance. xxxiii Poverty is at the root of why most people migrate, and that is true in the current situation.” xxxiv Others travel to reunite with family already in the United States with the urgency of entering the United States before any immigration reform law is passed in Congress. xxxv Finally, in the last year, there has been a well-documented word of mouth campaign running from immigrant to family urging that children be sent to the United States. Rebecca Blackwell of the Associated Press reported that she attempted entry into the United States with her two-year-old daughter because of a rumor. Other women heard that mothers arriving on the border with children in their arms were being released pending an immigration court appearance. Another mother is reported to have said, “I decided to leave Central America with my daughter so that maybe, this way, they’ll give me a chance to help my children advance.” xxxvi

Ana Bulnes, the Honduran consul in South Texas, said, “It’s hard to discourage families from making the trip when U.S. authorities, in fact, are releasing them, the rumors are spreading by word of mouth, not through any mass media channels such as the radio that can be monitored.” xxxvii

Immigrant aid organizations monitoring the condition of children and their human rights report that “U.S. politicians and media characterize migration as a solely economic act and overlook the complex situations that drive people to leave their home countries. Poverty and unemployment have been constants, pushing high levels of migration since the 1990s, yet in recent years gang violence has compounded the crisis.” xxxviii Because they entered the U.S. illegally, they are treated like criminals, having in fact broken federal law.

Unaccompanied child immigrants are not responsible for their actions and need more assistance than either accompanied children or adults. Children are unable to fend for themselves and often suffer from severe emotional or mental health consequences as a result of lengthy detention and separation from loved ones. In June 2014, President Obama, “described the surge in unaccompanied immigrant children caught trying to cross the Mexican border as an urgent humanitarian situation.” xxxix

It is estimated that the cost to the U.S. government to house, feed and transport these children to shelters or to reunite them with relatives living in the United States will continue to increase each year if an appropriate approach to this issue is not found. xl

In many cases, children traveling with a friend or a family member are toddlers and are unable to speak or identify themselves by name or their country of origin.

Children caught crossing illegally are taken to a holding facility and then to a detention center where they commiserate with other children often becoming paralyzed with fear and anxiety. Children in detention shelters are processed through immigration court, but the process is slow. xli

For example, during the second week of May 2014, more than 1,000 children were detained at overflowing stations in the Rio Grande Valley.

A spokesperson for the office of Refugee and Resettlement said the agency first saw an increase in unaccompanied alien children in 2011 when 4,059 unaccompanied were apprehended on the border. By 2013, the number had increased to 21,000, and the Border Patrol expected to apprehend more than 60,000 unaccompanied children on the border in 2014.

One theory for this dramatic increase is that parents anticipate the passage of an immigration reform law before the end of the Obama administration and seek to have their children enter the country at any cost before that time. The hope is that their children already in the United States will be grandfathered in the law.

The children’s odds are good. Homeland Security data indicate that approximately 80 percent of child visa petitions were approved between 1992 and 2014. Parents are very aware of this success rate and feel a sense the urgency to send their children to the United States. xlii

Minors can petition for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Visa but agencies’ policies and procedures exhibit regional variations and lack of coordination.

Additionally, the pent-up number of detainees in the Valley has overwhelmed the system so that large numbers of immigrants are now being exported from the U.S. to their country of origin through El Paso, Texas. xliii

Very distant from the known trafficking infrastructure in the Valley, children deported to Cd. Juarez is thrown into dangerous unknown further questioning human rights violations. xliv

The Americas Program, A new world of action and communication for social change and the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies (CGRS) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “both debunk the false belief often perpetuated in the U.S. media, that youth migrate because they think they will get amnesty under immigration reform. In the Catholic Bishop’s research trip to Southern Mexico and Central America, none of the children they spoke with cited this as a pull factor.” xlv

Some media report that Mexican immigration authorities are servile to the United States interests, enforcing U.S. national security priorities in disregard of the human rights issues they produce. Mexico’s National Immigration Institute (IMN) estimates that among Central American migrants, 50-55 percent are detained in Mexico, 25-30 percent on the U.S.-Mexico border by Border Enforcement, and a meager 15-20 percent reach their destination in the United States. xlvi

Currently, there are no formal regulations that assure children are safety returned child transportation is unsafe and insecure. Additionally, repatriation services vary in availability and efficacy. A policy for the consistent assessment and planning for the return of unaccompanied children, under a new safe repatriation paradigm, is badly needed for the border. xlvii

In June 2014, a facility for 1,000 children was opened at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio, Texas, approximately 250 miles north of the border. xlviii This location will only temporarily address the need for facilities and policies.

To date, two generations of undocumented children have grown up along the border that entered with great hopes but have never been able to leave the illegal immigrant colony. Since they have no papers they are forced to live out their lives in quasi-suspended animation along this strip of land; not at home yet not in the “free” United States. xlix

Most recently, June of 2014, President Obama extended the so-called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Since 2012, DACA has been awarded to more than 560,000 child applicants who permit them to remain in the country for an additional two years. Acceptance by DACA is difficult and only open to immigrant children who entered the United States before they were 16 years old, was younger than 31 years old on June 15, 2012, and had been in the United States since at least June 15, 2007. No criminal history is allowed, and they must either be in school or have graduated from high school or earned a GED. l

Summary and Conclusions

In summary, the lower U.S.-Mexico border region is arguably the most underdeveloped region in the United States, ranking at the top of all indicators of poverty, and with the highest percentage of undocumented aliens, especially children. li

While President Obama continues to talk about immigration reform, more and more immigrants are being rejected without due process. lii

Failure to act on the increasing immigration in this country indicates that we do not see immigration as a human rights issue but rather a political one. liii There is no single explanation for the massive increase of unaccompanied children on the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014; however, one of the most plausible reasons may be linked to speculation on upcoming immigration reform. While in desperate need of immigration policy review, the White House announced that a Homeland Security-led review of deportation policies would be put on hold until the end of summer 2014. liv

Furthermore, the vast militarization of the lower border in the last four years has added a sense of the warlike conditions of occupation to the culture of poverty already existing. The Latino population native to the area lives in a colony of irredentism and desperation. The influx of illegal immigrants only worsens their situation in competition for limited resources. Given the conditions of children on the border today, very few countries in the world would be able to successfully protect children from the conditions they face in south Texas. lv It is the responsibility of a civilized society to protect children and prepare them for a productive place in the next generation. Today, this is not happening on the border. lvi

i Dr. Antonio Zavaleta is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Texas Center for Border and Transnational Studies at The University of Texas at Brownsville

iii Average Poverty Rate is Twice as High for U.S. Counties Bordering Mexico as for the Rest of the US.

iv Cultural, Demographic, Educational, and Economic Characteristics, Nourishing the Future of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Lower Rio Grande Valley Nutrition Intervention Research Institute, The University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas, Chapter 3, Edited by R. Sue Day

v Free Trade Brings Both Greater Profit and Poverty to Mexico, Science Daily, October 19, 2012

vi California and the Fight Against Transnational Organized Crime, March 2014

viii More Youths Crossing U.S.-Mexico Border Alone, February 21, 2014,

ix Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2014

xi Collective Violence and Poverty on the Mexican-U.S. Border Affects Child Mental Health, October 19, 2014,


xiii Report: Child Poverty Increases in Texas, The Texas Tribune, December 3, 2013,

xvU.S. Census Small Area Report.

xviii U.S. Border Patrol: New chief takes charge of Rio Grande Valley Sector, The Brownsville Herald, April 7, 2014,


xx Faced with influx of unauthorized immigrants local Border Patrol adds 100 agents, Ildefonso Ortiz The Monitor, Aril 5, 2014, _

xxii Border Patrol continues to add human resources to the area, The Monitor, April 29,2014,

xxiii Faced with an influx of unauthorized immigrants, local Border Patrol adds 100 agents, The Brownsville Herald April 5, 2014,

xxiv Customs and Border Protection looking to add officers, The Brownsville Herald May 1, 2014,

xxv Human Rights violations on the US-Mexico Border, ACLU, October 25, 2012,

xxvi As Honduras Unravels, US Struggles to Cope with refugees, The Texas Observer, May 6, 2014,

xxviii Data Highlights Trends with CPB accusations, The Brownsville Herald, May 6, 2014,

xxix Complaints of Abuse by Border Patrol Agents Often Ignored, Records Show, The New York Times, May 5, 2014,

xxx The Brownsville Herald, Act Now Stop Using Immigration Simply as a Political Tool, June 1, 2014

xxxi Human Rights group cites violations on US-Mexico Border, CNNUS, March 28, 2012,

xxxiv High Country News, 46_10/border out of control/

xxxvi Rebecca Blackwell, The Associated Press, June 6, 2014.

xxxvii Ana Bulnes, Honduran consul, South Texas. Associated Press, June 6, 2014.

xl Ibid

xli General context of the migration flows between Central America, Mexico, and the US, United States-Mexico Walls, Abuses, and Deaths at the Border, March 2008 FIDH,


xliv Our Border Our Future,

xlv Ibid p3 of 6

xlvi Ibid p.3 of 6

xlvii Using Jailed Migrants as a Pool of Cheap Labor, new york times, May 25, 2014,

xlix Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection, 2014 UNHCR

l DHS: Shield Against Deportation can be extended, Alicia Caldwell the Associated Press, June 5, 2014,

li Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States, November 2013, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

lii The Brownsville Herald, June 1, 2014

liii Ibid, June 1, 2014

liv Ibid, DHS: Shield Against Deportation can be extended, Alicia Caldwell the Associated Press, June 5, 2014,

lv Bishop Flores’ Letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, May 14, 2014

lvi A 12 Year Old’s trek of despair ends in a noose at the border, the new york times, may 4/2014,

Dr. Tony Zavaleta grew up in Brownsville and is a member of one of the 13 founding families of northern Mexico. He is the nephew of Dr. Joe Zavaleta and Prax Orive, each of whom served on the TSC Board.

Dr. Zavaleta graduated from Saint Joseph Academy in 1964 and entered Texas Southmost College, graduating and transferring to The University of Texas at Austin in 1966, where he completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology in 1976. Moving back to Brownsville in 1976, Dr. Zavaleta began teaching sociology and anthropology at Texas Southmost College and at Pan American University at Brownsville. Dr. Zavaleta became the first Dean of the College of Liberal Arts for UTB/TSC, and also served as the Dean of the College of Mathematics and Science and Technology. He next served as Vice President for Partnership Affairs, where he coordinated all of the work between the TSC Board and UTB, and then became the Vice President for External Affairs, which included governmental relations and all external programs such as Workforce Training and Continuing Education. Dr. Zavaleta served as Interim Provost, the chief operating officer of UTB/TSC, and then as the Associate Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs. In 2011 he retired from the administration to return to full-time teaching. Dr. Zavaleta retired in May 2016 after 40 years of service.

Dr. Zavaleta is regarded as one of the top experts on the US-Mexico Border, and frequently speaks throughout Mexico and the U.S. Dr. Zavaleta was appointed to two Federal commissions by Presidents Reagan and Obama, and he served two terms on the Brownsville City Commission, followed by a term on the City of Brownsville Civil Service Commission.

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