Putting A Face On Immigration Surge: Unaccompanied Minors Have Difficulty Navigating The System

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Nineteen year-old Cindy Monge is seeing a therapist to deal with her feelings of abandonment.

As a very young child, Monge’s parents left her with relatives in Guatemala while they made their way into the United States without documentation.

In 2006, when she was only 11, Monge made the same journey that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children undertake today – she traveled alone from Guatemala to the U.S.-Mexico border, she told Fox News Latino in Spanish, with several human smugglers who split the $10,000 fee paid by her parents, so she could rejoin them.

Now, her parents, tired of not making ends meet and unable to change their illegal status, decided to move back to Guatemala with Monge’s U.S.-born younger brother, and leaving her behind for a second time.

“This is like losing a family all over… They left me there when I was a baby to work in the U.S., now they leave me here again,” Monge explained in an interview at Casa Maryland.

“At age 11, I only spoke Spanish, I couldn´t understand what was happening to me, nor the huge effect that my trip would have on my life, nor that I was breaking the law. All I wanted was to be with my family, but it was my decision to travel alone,” she said.

“Today I can remember there were children from China, Nicaragua and Honduras [at the detention center she was held]… But I can´t remember who my lawyer was, and it was only three or four years ago that I fully understood what an order of deportation was. And that I couldn´t become a U.S. citizen”.

Eight years later, Monge is a high school graduate in Silver Springs, Md., here under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

She believes that children like her make the journey for the same two reasons that she did: to reunite with their families and to run away from life-or-death situations.

“Kids have been suffering for the lack of immigration reform for years,” Sheena Wadhawan, Legal Program Manager at Casa de Maryland told FNL. “It is the civil rights problem of our day. People will look back on what we have done with two million deportations under Obama and hang their heads in shame,” she added.

As the recent influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border soars—some 90,000 will reach the U.S. in fiscal year 2014 alone—how to deal with them has become a central problem for the Obama administration.

Even with a record number of deportations (370,000 people in 2013), the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) has focused on the removal of adults with criminal records.

Children and their legal rights simply have not been part of the immigration equation up till now.

Marc Rosenblum, deputy director of the U.S. Immigration Policy Program, a Washington, D.C., based think tank, admits that the issue of children crossing the border was never the primary focus of the immigration reform debate.

“This [surge] is a relatively new, relatively acute crisis,” he told Fox News Latino. “I wouldn’t say the [children] are invisible…. But, honestly, I don´t know if it will be a turning point for the broader immigration debate.”

Stressing that most of the migrant kids won’t qualify for humanitarian relief, White House spokesman, Josh Earnest, said on Monday that, “They will not have the legal basis for remaining in this country and will be returned.”

According to many humanitarian and immigrant assistance groups, however, the question isn’t nearly that cut-and-dried.

“Potentially [these children] have legal options,” said Michelle Brane, Director of Migrant Rights and Justice Programs at the Women´s Refugee Commission. "Unless they expect legal procedures [to be applied] in a way not to give people access to that protection, and that´s why we are concerned [about] the way that they are framing this.”

Leslie E. Vélez, a senior officer at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told reporters on Wednesday, “What it is very clear to the U.N. refugee agency is that we have a humanitarian situation on the ground in three particular countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, causing forced displacement.”

“And now it has crossed international borders,” she added.

In front of the White House, Shanon Self, a 25-year-old social worker from Michigan who was visiting Washington, D.C., with her family told FNL, “I’m against the children staying because no one can take care of them, they’ll end up in child welfare.”

Self added, “I don’t think the resources are necessarily there for 90,000 children.”

Neither are there resources to clear out all their cases.

“There is still not enough money in the [$3.7 billion] governmental request to make sure the judges can meet the needs of all the children coming in and the very high number of cases that are already coming through,” said  Greg Chen, Director of Advocacy of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“More delays will result,” he predicted.

The problem with the legal rights of unaccompanied migrant children is so huge that recently the Department of Justice and the Corporation for National and Community Service announced a partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and the National Immigration Forum just to provide legal assistance to the migrant children.

“While in cases of criminal investigations people are informed of their rights, immigration detainees – even if they are children - can wait days or even months without even securing legal counselors,” Casa Maryland's Sheena Wadhawan said.

“They are robbed, raped and abused along the journey and are usually just lucky to have survived,” Wadhawan pointed out. “It is extremely difficult, nearly impossible, for children in this state to successfully navigate the legal system and secure legal assistance.”

Juan Carlos Díaz, a Honduran teenager who traveled here with his sister and cousin recently, told FNL that the goal of his trip was to stop feeling abandoned and to reunite with his parents after a separation of 9 years.

“I seek refuge and a place to prosper,” he said. “To become someone in life. I’m not sure if you call that refugee. Where I come from there’s no law, but I hope people here help us.”

He added, “I simply seek a better life.”