Guatemalan Children Return From Mexico Shelters ‘in Very Bad Shape’

Researchers and social workers complain of overcrowding, poor food and vulnerability to abuse.

Fellows 2015

By Katya Cengel

October 07, 2015

Also published by Al Jazeera America

The reunion lasts only a few minutes — just long enough for Marta to bury her face in her grandfather’s chest and for her grandmother to shed several tears. Then Marta and her brother, Sergio, who are in government custody, are ushered away. No words are spoken. None are necessary. The children are back in Guatemala. They failed to reach their parents in the United States. They didn’t get past Mexico.

Marta, 14, and Sergio, 12, were far enough north that they were transported back from Mexico by plane instead of by bus. They are reunited with their grandparents in the Guatemalan capital, at one of two government shelters for children returning from migrations north.

Marta, age 14, sits in her bedroom in her grandparents' house in Aguacatán, Huehuetenango, in the western highlands of Guatemala. She and her younger brother Sergio were trying to get to Atlanta, where their parents and two younger siblings live, when Mexican federal police removed them from the bus they were riding. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

The Guatemala City shelter receives children returning from both the U.S. and Mexico; this summer the vast majority came from Mexico.

According to official numbers provided by Guatemala's National Institute of Statistics, 5,394 Guatemalan children were returned from Mexico during the first six months of 2015 compared with 78 Guatemalan children returned from the U.S. While the numbers vary depending on who is reporting them, the trend is consistent. According to Raquel Vielman de Alcazar, the head of Guatemala’s Secretariat of Social Welfare, 53 children have been returned from the U.S. this year, compared with 4,453 from Mexico. 

Guatemalan minors returned from the U.S. and Mexico between January and June 2015. Source: Instituto Nacional de Estadística Guatemala

Child migrants from Central America’s Northern Triangle — El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — made headlines in 2014 when more than 50,000 were apprehended in the U.S. After that summer’s surge, Mexico, at the United States’ urging, sent thousands of federal police to the border with Guatemala, increased border and highway checkpoints and cracked down on migrants riding the northbound freight train known as the Beast.

Now the children are being picked up everywhere in Mexico — “from hotels, from taxis, from buses” — said Yuseli Santiago, a psychologist at the Quetzaltenango shelter. Daniella, an administrator there, said, “The [Mexican federal police] are all over, even in the rivers.”

According to the latest U.S. Customs and Border Protection numbers, 26,685 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the United States’ southwestern border since Oct. 1, 2014, the beginning of fiscal year 2015. That is a drop of more than 50 percent from the same period the previous year. What happens when these children enter the U.S. is well documented. The fate of those who are apprehended in Mexico is less publicized.

Busloads of children now arrive at the second shelter, in Quetzaltenango in the western highlands, three days a week instead of two.

Zulma Garcia, the psychologist in charge of the Guatemala City shelter, said children who arrive from Mexico “usually come in very bad shape.” That, she said, is the big difference between those arriving from Mexico and those from the United States.

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Marta and Sergio were headed to Atlanta, where their parents and two younger siblings live. Marta keeps a picture of her mother, Petronila, on her cellphone. In the photo Petronila holds one of Marta’s younger brothers, a baby boy named Jonathan whom Marta has never met.

Petronila talks to her older children almost daily, but they have no memory of her presence. Their grandparents Gaspar Raymundo Mateo and Paulina Agustin Mendoza raised them after Petronila left to find work in the U.S. a decade ago. And their grandparents are the ones who retrieved them from the Guatemala City shelter.

Sitting in the makeshift courtyard of her adobe home in the department of Huehuetenango a week later, Mendoza said that in Guatemala, “people who have jobs are those who have studies, those who went to school.” Petronila never went to school; only the youngest two of Mendoza’s 12 children received an education. Mendoza, 58, also lacks schooling. She learned Spanish when she was sent to work as a housekeeper in a Spanish-speaking household at the age of 13. Her native language is Chalchiteko. Like the majority of the children who migrate, her grandchildren are Maya.

Many of the Guatemalan children trying to migrate to the U.S. come from the largely indigenous western highlands, where infrastructure and investment is lacking.

Indigenous Maya make up about 40 percent of Guatemala’s population but account for less than a quarter of the country’s total income and consumption. During the country’s 36-year civil war, 83 percent of those killed were Maya, according to a 1999 report by the U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification. The signing of peace accords in 1996 ensured that the rights of indigenous communities exist on paper, but infrastructure and investment in indigenous regions remains lacking. In the largely indigenous western highlands, where Mendoza and her family live, 76 percent of the population lives in poverty, and 67 percent of children under 5 are chronically malnourished. The Maya literacy rate is 60 percent, compared with 87 percent for the rest of the country.

Marta finished sixth grade. There is no seventh grade in their community, so she is no longer in school. Sergio is in school, along with one of Mendoza’s younger children, five of whom still live at home. The family survives on the corn, tomato, bean and other crops they grow and sell, all of which have been affected by a regional drought that is now in its second year.

“Because there’s no water, we can’t really work,” said Mateo, who is 62. “Sometimes we have to buy corn.”

Mateo is spry, which is good because getting to his house in Tierra Blanca Exchimal requires hiking into a valley and fording a small stream. It is the same community where he grew up and where he has worked as an evangelical preacher for 35 years. He is paid only what parishioners can afford, which isn’t much. In 2012 the gross national income per capita in Guatemala was $3,241.90, according to U.N. data. Petronila paid the 19,000 quetzal ($2,484) it cost for a coyote to smuggle her two children to the U.S.

Marta remembers a week of taking buses, one after another, maybe 10 in all. The man who smuggled her told her not to talk to her brother and not to sit with him. They had been on the same bus for more than a day when Mexican federal police stopped the driver and ordered the passengers off.

“They were only one night away” from the U.S., said Mendoza.

After spending 15 hours in immigration processing, the children were sent to a Mexican shelter where they were served badly cooked chicken, said Mendoza. Mateo said the children studied during the two weeks they were detained in Mexico. Marta said they played, watched television and ate unfamiliar food, like hamburgers. The hardest part of the journey, she said, “was when they caught us.”

***

Sergio, age 12, watches TV with his cousins in their grandparents' house in Aguacatán after an unsuccessful attempt at reaching the U.S. His parents, who live in Atlanta, are saving money for another attempt. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Santiago and Daniella Carlos, an administrator at the Quetzaltenango shelter, have heard that the Mexican shelters are so crowded, some children are forced to sleep sitting up. If they are lucky, they are given a mattress to sleep on, said Santiago.

“A lot of them come with stomach problems and with flu because they have been sleeping on the floor,” said Carlos.

“Everything is dirty,” said Santiago. The shelters smell like excrement, she added, the food is awful, and if the kids don’t eat a tortilla at night, they are given it for breakfast the next morning.

The children’s belongings, which they are required to hand over, aren’t always returned, Santiago continued, especially money and cellphones. She said some children spend as long as two to three months in the shelters. One boy said he was physically abused by Mexican authorities but did not want to follow up after his return to Guatemala. Others suffer abuse at the hands of coyotes and other migrants.

According to research done by the media network Fusion, 80 percent of Central American women and girls are raped on the journey. The communications director for Mexico’s National Migration Institute would not answer Al Jazeera's questions over the phone or by email, despite repeated requests.

Children interviewed for a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute echoed the Guatemalan staff members’ complaints of overcrowding, poor food and vulnerability to violence and abuse. The report also faulted Mexico for subjecting children to long and arbitrary periods of detention. More critical, it found that Mexican officials often fail to screen for international protection needs. This is backed by the accounts of parents, shelter workers in Guatemala and a report by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, which found that in Mexico, migrant children do not receive adequate screening to determine if they qualify for humanitarian relief. The report concludes that the Guatemalan consular offices in Mexico also do little in this regard because of limited resources.

“Neither Mexican migration authorities nor consular posts are thoroughly examining each case and providing adequate measure of protection for children and adolescents,” the Wilson Center report states.

A statue representing a young migrant stands alongside the road in Huehuetenango in the western highlands, home to many Guatemalan children fleeing extreme poverty. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

If they make it to the U.S. and secure legal representation from a private attorney, through an organization that provides legal assistance to unaccompanied children (sometimes with federal support), or in some cases with the help of local government, unaccompanied minors have about a 50 percent chance of being allowed to stay, according to a review done by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. About 90 percent of the unaccompanied minors from Central America held in a shelter in fiscal year 2015 were released to a sponsor while their cases were being decided, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Those who are not granted relief are not a high priority for immigration officials and anecdotally it is believed many stay. 

But for those who don’t make it as far north as the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. is not involved. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement adviser to Latin America said that any migration issues between two sovereign countries — Mexico and Guatemala in this case — are handled by those countries.

Since last year’s surge, efforts have been made to more humanely process children and families. The U.S. Agency for International Development has helped fund work done by the International Organization for Migration to upgrade reception centers in all three Northern Triangle countries.

Also, there is a new U.S. In-Country Refugee/Parole Processing for Minors in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala program. To qualify for it, children must have a parent lawfully present in the U.S.

As of August 2015 there were 59 Guatemalan applicants, according to a Migration Policy Report.

Marta keeps photos of her parents in the United States. She speaks to her mother regularly, but has no memory of being with her in person. Photo: Daniele Volpe for Al Jazeera America

Miguel Angel Oxlaj holds his baseball cap in his hands. It is Monday afternoon in July, and he is at the Quetzaltenango shelter waiting to pick up his 16-year-old son, Miguel Antonio. The fourth of seven children in a Quiche Maya family, Miguel Antonio finished high school last year and left two weeks ago to try to find work in the U.S.

“God knows what he’s going to do now, because he wants a stable job and there’s nothing [here],” said Oxlaj, who lives in the department of Quiche.

Mari Josefina Rodriguez Chilel is also waiting for her son, Wilson, 17. He was traveling with a fake Mexican birth certificate and was gone only a week. He was headed to the U.S. to look for work to help his family, whose San Marcos home was damaged in a landslide four years ago.

“He’s a scared guy. I don’t know how he’s going to react now,” said Chilel, who lost her oldest child in a car accident. “He’s never gone anywhere.”

Santos Gomez Felipe took his wife and brother-in-law with him to pick up his daughter Angelica because he does not know how to read or write. They are Mam Maya, from a small community near San Marcos whose name means “place of armadillos and snakes.”

Angelica is 15. She left for the U.S. a week ago because she didn’t want to work in the fields and heard there was factory work in the U.S. Felipe has already lost two children (boys who died in infancy) and worried about her, since as a girl she was more vulnerable to abuse. The other parents were also concerned about their children.

“They’re our children,” said Chilel. “We worry for them regardless of the sex.”

The children arrive on a Pullman bus a little after 5 p.m. A government representative lectures Chilel and the other parents about the risks of migration, advising them to wait for an appropriate time to travel to the U.S. It is raining, and the children are eating a dinner of chicken, rice and cooked carrots in a separate area.

The children are given psychological evaluations and then are interviewed with their parents by a representative from Guatemala’s attorney general (procuraduría general de la nación, or PGN). The shelter is run by the Secretariat of Social Welfare, but the PGN is legally responsible for the children. Santiago admits that because of the volume of children — the shelter receives about 180 a week — the psychological interviews last only three to seven minutes. PGN interviews last five to eight minutes. Just two or three children are removed from their homes each year because of abuse, said Algedy Morales, the PGN delegate for Quetzaltenango.

The Quetzaltenango shelter is being remodeled, and the temporary shelter is barely large enough for the chaos that ensues when a busload of 40 children arrive. Backpacks are stacked up in the entry hall, family members crammed into a front room, interviews conducted wherever there is space. In the kitchen a girl in jean shorts and sandals sits across from a PGN representative. Her father sits next to her. The girl, who is 16, does not have a birth certificate. The woman from the PGN briefly scolds the girl’s father for denying his daughter the right to her birth certificate. Then she reads from a form, asking where they live, where the girl’s mother is and what grade the girl reached.

When the PGN representative learns the answer to the last question — the girl has never been to school — the representative admonishes the father once again for denying his daughter another right, the right to an education. Then she asks the girl if there was a specific reason she left home, a problem that she was trying to escape. The girl shakes her head no. The father signs a form, the girl gives a thumbprint. The woman tells the girl, “You know your rights now. You better go to school.” Then she hands her a green exit ticket and tells her she is free to leave.

By 8 p.m., most of the families have cycled through the process and left. The shelter was able to notify only 15 families in advance. The rest arrived because their children called them. Others will meet them in the morning. At least one child will remain, a friendly boy from the department of Petén whose parents aren’t picking him up. He has been at the shelter for several days and in a few days will be taken to a government home near Guatemala City. He will be 18 soon, at which point, Carlos said, “they are going to give him his documents and release him.” It is the boy’s second stay at the shelter.

Santiago said 30 to 40 percent of the children who arrive at the shelter have been there before. One child has been there four times, others two or three. Some coyotes let the children try until they get through, she said. Others offer three tries for a single price. The Secretariat of Social Welfare attempted to study the children who return, but when it tried to follow up with them, it found many were already in the U.S., said Carlos.

“They don’t stay,” Santiago said.

Marta and Sergio’s parents are eager to see their children and are saving money for another attempt. The children, Mateo said, “are going to go again.”

Katya Cengel reported this story with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project. This is the last of a three-part series on Guatemalan migrant children who are returned to their country after unsuccessfully trying to reach the United States. Part one focuses on the guilt and shame migrant children carry with them, and part two on the disproportionate impact of migration on Guatemala's indigenous communities.