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Last week it was reported that nearly 1,500 unaccompanied migrant children are unaccounted for by Health and Human Services. There was some confusion about whether these children had gone missing. What appears to be happening is a lack of updates of the whereabouts of these children from the legal guardians assigned to them once they reach the States.
I sat down with my classmate Carlos, who traveled to the U.S. alone in 2014 from El Salvador when he was just 14 years old. He’s from Central America, where alarmingly high gang violence rates have led to a growing number of minors fleeing towards safety in the U.S.
According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, immigration is low overall; however, rates for unaccompanied minors crossing the border has gone up over the last 5 years. The year that Carlos arrived, the number of underage immigrants increased from the previous year by nearly 80,000.
Carlos was stopped at the border and held in a detention center before he was released into the care of his sister. Now 18, Carlos walks us through some of the challenges he faced while crossing the border and what his plans are for the future.
Editor’s note: This interview has been translated from Spanish as well as edited for clarity. His last name is being withheld for privacy.
Andrea Jimenez: How was it growing up in El Salvador?
Carlos: There were a few times that it would feel normal. Kids could go out and play and have fun. But the majority of the time it was pretty dangerous. There were a lot of gangs in my neighborhood. Gang members would threaten kids and go around intimidating families to the point where people would be afraid of leaving their homes.
AJ: Why did you decide to come to the United States?
Carlos: My aunt from New York was in town and gifted me a pair of shoes, Nike Cortez, which happened to be very popular amongst gang members during that time. I remember wearing them and being approached by a group of men threatening me to take them off or there would be consequences. I refused to take them off because I really liked my shoes. Next thing I know, I was jumped and beat up pretty bad. I thought I was going to die. That’s when my sister decided that I should leave and go to the United States.
AJ: How did your friends react to you leaving?
Carlos: Well, no one knew. We didn’t want people to find out. If rumor got out that I was leaving, my family feared that I could get kidnapped and held up for ransom. Where I’m from, people believe that if you live in the United States your family has money and is wealthy, but it’s so not true. My family was sad that I was leaving but knew my life was at risk if I stayed.
AJ: How did you cross the border?
Carlos: At first, my aunt in New York tried the legal way, by submitting a visa application, but was denied because I don’t have a legal guardian. My mom passed away when I was nine years old, and my dad has never been in my life. That’s when my sister hired a coyote [a person who smuggles people over the Mexican border for a fee].
AJ: How was it like crossing the border at such a young age?
Carlos: It was tough. There were about 100 of us crossing. The coyote didn’t care about us. Despite having other people helping him out, they would leave us unattended. Depending on where we were, the coyote would drop us off at people’s homes, hotels or dropped us off with people they knew. There were times when we were left in a warehouse alone with no food and no water. I felt alone all the time. I was 14–I needed someone to lean on for support, and I didn’t have that. The older folks that were crossing with me would tease me and pick on me because of my age.
AJ: What was the most shocking thing you saw while crossing the border?
Carlos: While staying in one of the warehouses, I saw a girl almost get raped by a group of men. The sounds of her moving and screaming woke people up. One man tried covering her mouth to keep her from screaming. Then another man, who was part of the group I was traveling with, jumped in and stopped them.
AJ: Was there a time when you wish you could go back home to El Salvador?
Carlos: Yes, when [U.S.] Immigration detained me. I suffered a lot while I was detained. They put you in a room and feed you the same food every day. The room was extremely cold all the time. It’s lonely in there. I broke down and cried because I missed family. People laughed at me when I cried, but I couldn’t help it.
AJ: What’s your plan now?
Carlos: My goal is to graduate high school and become an auto mechanic. Since I’ve been in the country I’ve been seeing a lawyer. She’s helped me apply for a visa. All of the paperwork has gone through and been approved. Soon I’ll be here legally.