by Jess Krueger
Ricardo Gambetta, a tall Latino with a mustache resting on his upper lip and wearing a crisp, collared dress shirt, takes a seat behind his meticulously arranged desk in the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants headquarters in Washington. Pens and pencils are respectively divided between mugs labeled with South and Central American countries. The low rumbling of a nearby train alludes to the story featured in the “Which Way Home” video lying on his desk. It is a tale of the harrowing journey unaccompanied child migrants make on a freight train across Mexico to the United States. The documentary highlights a growing crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border; the very crisis Gambetta and others are working diligently to end.
“What is missing is many of these people working on immigration reform must focus more on children because it’s a very important segment of any immigrant population,” said Gambetta, the Director of Immigrant Services at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. “We try to promote children’s issues and we want to ensure any petition in legislation coming from the White House and Congress will include some language in regards to protection of children’s rights. That is our most important agenda right now when we talk about immigration reform.”
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is a non-profit organization that has been serving persons in forced or voluntary migration around the world since 1911. In 2005, the organization launched the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, broadening its mission to aid the growing number of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The center works with over 2,500 pro bono attorneys who assist unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children navigate the U.S. Immigration Courts. In order to aid these children, the center receives referrals of immigrant children who are alone in the U.S. They then work to match these children with attorneys who have volunteered and received pro bono training from the center.
“We try to work with different governments in the regions in Central America and Mexico to educate public opinion and try to educate the parents of these kids,” said Gambetta. “So at least they are aware how dangerous the whole journey from their country to the United Sates is. So many of our efforts have been focused on that.”
To reach the U.S.-Mexico border, as many as 1,500 immigrants travel on board “La Bestia,” or “the beast,” a freight train that travels from southern Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border, every day. The train claims the lives of thousands and consumes the limbs of those who fall under its wheels, but for many migrants desperate to achieve the American dream it is a free means of travel to northern Mexico.
“This is how immigrants travel all over Central America,” said Gambetta. “Along with these adults there are hundreds and hundreds of children and youth, and not just male but also female.”
Unaccompanied children riding on the freight trains are especially vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and crime. In a recent case brought to the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children, a young girl attempted to make it across the border dressed as a boy said Gambetta. When smugglers forced the group she was traveling with the to take off their clothes, her gender was exposed and she was raped by a number of men.
“They are exposed to all different kinds of bad situations,” said Gambetta. “They have to face crime, many of them are raped and killed along the way.”
“Which Way Home,” a documentary produced by HBO, features several children who leave their homes in Mexico and board the freight train to make their way across the U.S.-Mexico border. Two of the children, Rosario Hernandez-Francisco, 16, and Eloy, 13, were cousins who did not survive the harsh conditions of the desert and died of exposure. It was only by DNA testing, that the Bureau of Migrant Affairs was able to confirm Rosario’s body given the state in which it was found in the desert.
“They try to flee from poverty,” said Gambetta. “They try to flee from violence and Latino gangs, especially in Central America. They are looking for better life opportunities and education in the United States.”
Marcel Reiz is one such immigrant who left behind her life in Mexico at a young age to create a better one in the U.S.. Unlike the parents who leave behind their children to make it across the border first, Reiz made the treacherous journey with her three-year-old daughter alone.
Desperate, she was forced to rely on two smugglers to get across the border. They guided Reiz to the Rio Grande and gave her nothing but an old truck tire to keep her and her daughter afloat as they swam across the rive into the U.S. She remains in the country without documents and is one of many who come to the U.S. for a better life.
“In Mexico we say everything happens for a reason,” says Reiz. “In Mexico I had nothing; here I don’t have a big house but I have a little place, and I have my car, and my daughter’s in school, and I have a good job. I wouldn’t change anything to go back to Mexico.”
Over 7,000 unaccompanied children arrive in the U.S. each year. A majority of these children come from Central America, while some travel from as far as China, Iraq, Russia, and Nigeria. Many hope to be reunited with their parents in the U.S., while others arrive seeking protection from threatening circumstances in their home country.
“Going back to when the U.S. was founded it hasn’t been an issue, but then there was a cap put on per country basis,” said a junior researcher at a think tank. “Because the legal tap is shut off, it’s easier to come here illegally. For instance overstay a visa, or cross the border. Because there’s little incentive not to if you pretty much believe you’re never going to be able to get citizenship coming another way.”
In December 2008, Congress passed the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008. The act requires the Department of Homeland Security to interview every unaccompanied minor in order to determine if the child is a potential victim of trafficking, has no possible claim to asylum, and voluntarily agrees to go back home. In a 2011 report issued by Appleseed, an immigration rights focused non-profit, promises outlined in the TVPRA remain unfulfilled. U.S. Customs and Border Protections apprehend approximately 15,000 unaccompanied minors from Mexico annually. The National System for Integral Family Development, a Mexican public institution where Mexican unaccompanied minors pass through after the U.S. repatriates them, however, released figures in 2010 that indicate a majority of unaccompanied minors who were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol are immediately repatriated.
“We share with Mexico one of the largest borders in the world. There is almost 2,000 miles we share with Mexico,” said Gambetta. “We share also not just the border, but also the responsibility dealing with migration from both sides.”
Immigration is emerging today as a key issue in both the White House and Congress. Earlier this month, President Barack Obama mentioned the importance of immigration reform in his State of the Union address.
“And right now, leaders from the business, labor, law enforcement, and faith communities all agree that the time has come to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” said Obama. “As we speak, bipartisan groups in both chambers are working diligently to draft a bill, and I applaud their efforts.”
In the immigration reform discussion today, children who are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied and without documents have been left out of the discussion. Last month the bi-partisan group made up of eight senators focused on developing workable immigration reform, also known as the “gang of eight,” released their framework for comprehensive immigration reform, which mentions these children briefly.
“Our legislation also recognizes that the circumstances and the conduct of people without lawful status are not the same, and cannot be addressed identically,” the Outline of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization said. “For instance, individuals who entered the United States as minor children did not knowingly choose to violate any immigration laws. Consequently, under our proposal these individuals will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship.”
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants is able to help approximately 10 percent of the unaccompanied minors who are detained by U.S. Department of Homeland Security. It’s a percentage the organization hopes to see increase this coming year.
“I think this is missing from the picture, the fact that no one is talking about children’s rights,” says Gambetta. “But we believe we can make a difference in the children’s lives.”
Gambetta sits upright with his hands folded together in front of him. His structured posture is broken momentarily as he leans forward and unclasps his hands.
“What is important is how you make a difference and I think everyone can make a difference,” says Gambetta.