Border patrol agents search unaccompanied minors in the city of La Joya, Texas, neighboring Ciudad Juarez, through which most Ecuadorians seeking to reach the U.S. transit. Photo: Hector Guerrero
Between October 2020 and May 2021, the U.S. Border Patrol found 1,988 Ecuadorian children and adolescents at the border with Mexico. All of these minors were without their parents. Recent data released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) show the accelerated increase of minors from Ecuador transiting one of the most dangerous borders in the world.
The largest increase in migration occurred in the last five months. Last December, the Border Patrol found 188 Ecuadorian children. But in May this figure doubled to 395. This increase goes hand in hand with the stories. The international press has recorded Ecuadorian children being abandoned at the U.S. border fence.
One of the cases is that of Yareli and her sister Yasmina, 3 and 5 years old, who were thrown over the border fence on March 31. They were left alone in the middle of the desert until a Border Patrol arrived. The U.S. Spanish-language network Telemundo went to Jaboncillo, in Loja, Ecuador, to describe the girls' lives and their hardships. They lived with their uncle and grandparents in a humble house. Their relatives said that they missed their parents who are in New York.
Later, a journalist from the international agency AFP recorded a 7-year-old boy from Guayaquil imploring the woman who left him at the border not to leave. The video was published on May 29. The child was left alone and clinging to his teddy bear. He was finally reunited with his aunt in New York City on June 17. While the girls were transferred to a specialized shelter in the state of Illinois and were reunited with their family on April 17.
#VIDEO "¡Don't go away!". Without letting go of his teddy bear and waving his hand, a child shouts to the woman who has just left him abandoned at night on the U.S.-Mexico border. #AFP pic.twitter.com/jiKYgggYSQ— Agence France-Presse (@AFPespanol) May 29, 2021
In both cases, unidentified persons took them to the border and abandoned them overnight. Relatives of the minors pay coyoteros to take them to border areas. William Murillo, of the organization 1800 Migrante, says that there is coordination between the coyoteros and the family members. The parents know that they will be dropped off in a city and that the patrol will take them to a specific detention center. Then they will call Immigration and request reunification if the parents are legal in the United States. Otherwise, they must look for a person who is a resident or a U.S. citizen, who also has the economic conditions to assume the responsibility of that child or adolescent.
THE LARGEST INCREASE OCCURRED IN THE LAST FIVE MONTHS. LAST DECEMBER, THE BORDER PATROL FOUND 188 ECUADORIAN CHILDREN. BUT IN MAY THIS FIGURE DOUBLED TO 395.
*In this chart, data for the year 2021 includes statistics from October 2020 to May 2021.
This increase coincided with President Joe Biden's decision to eliminate the policy of returning unaccompanied children to Mexico. This was a change from the position of his predecessor, Donald Trump, who was harshly criticized for his immigration policy. Now the cases of these children are handled in U.S. courts. Murillo explains that this does not mean that there is an open door policy, as there is judicial discretion and it will depend on each case.
Between October 2020 and last May, there were 80,325 unaccompanied minors, coming from 20 countries. Of these, 2.5% were Ecuadorian. The highest peak occurred last March, when 19,000 minors (311 Ecuadorians) arrived in these conditions to the United States, in a single month, which was a record.
The migration of Ecuadorian children with or without accompaniment is not new and has revealed the risks and violence to which they are subjected along the way. In 2014, 12-year-old Noemí Álvarez committed suicide in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez, where she had been detained with her coyote. The indigenous girl, a native of El Tambo (Cañar), tried twice to cross the border between Mexico and the United States alone. On that journey she was raped.
Last June 21, Christian Alexander Barbecho Quezada, 15 years old, died in his father's arms while both were trying to cross the border through the desert in the state of Texas, United States, which reaches 122 degrees fahrenheit in summer. A person found them passed out near their ranch, but only the minor was confirmed dead at the hospital. Both left from Latacunga airport to Mexico, a route operated by Aeroregional, but which was suspended. According to 1800 Migrante, he is the youngest victim of Ecuadorian irregular migration so far in 2021. His mother, Martha Quezada, in statements to that organization, said: "I call on all parents who have their children in Ecuador or in their countries of origin and who are thinking of bringing them across the borders, not to do so, it is very dangerous, and they could lose their treasures as it has happened to me today, losing my beloved son".
Who takes care of migrant children?
Once found by the border patrol, the minors pass through a detention center and are then transferred to shelters under the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement's (ORR) Unaccompanied Children program. ORR, he says, takes into consideration the unique nature of the situation of each child and adolescent under the age of 18. They are not in charge of their immigration status, that is for a judge to determine.
As soon as the children enter ORR's care, they are put in contact with their parents, guardians or relatives, if known, and the process of finding a suitable 'sponsor' begins, according to that institution. The 'sponsor', for the most part, is a parent or close relative living in the United States.
"I CALL ON ALL PARENTS WHO HAVE THEIR CHILDREN IN ECUADOR OR IN THEIR COUNTRIES OF ORIGIN AND WHO ARE THINKING OF BRINGING THEM ACROSS THE BORDERS, NOT TO DO SO, IT IS VERY DANGEROUS, AND THEY COULD LOSE THEIR TREASURES AS IT HAS HAPPENED TO ME TODAY, LOSING MY BELOVED SON", MARTHA QUEZADA.
In 2018, however, these centers-mostly services subcontracted by the Department of Health and Human Services, to which ORR belongs-were denounced for mistreatment. In that year, the Trump administration ordered the separation of minors from their parents. Media and organizations published images of children crying and calling their parents in those centers. This raised a wave of protests and indignation on a global scale. While they were left alone, the children faced cold cells, bad water and guards that frightened them with the threat of being sent for adoption.
Last March, the scandal over juvenile detention centers returned. Images from one such facility in Texas showed children sleeping on thin mattresses placed on the floor in cramped spaces with aluminum blankets. Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, who released the images, said that eight plastic capsules had been installed there. The lack of distance between them and the lack of toiletries, due to the pandemic, generated concern. The BBC reported that Biden accepted that some of these centers were "unacceptable". Recently, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mexican children are being repatriated without being sent to ORR.
There are voices in the United States that have called for change regarding these shelters. The Florida Immigrant Coalition has called for "alternatives" to ORR centers for children migrating alone to the U.S. such as churches, NGOs and community leaders. In that state, political leaders and activists rejected the reopening of a Florida detention center for migrant children, which had closed in 2019 amid allegations of mistreatment.
In 2020, ORR served 15,381 children and adolescents. Seventy-two percent were over the age of 14 and 68% were masculine. Their main countries of origin were Guatemala (46%), El Salvador (14%) and Honduras (25%). On its website, there is no data on Ecuadorian children.
As of May 2, 2021, this program had served 22,264 unaccompanied minors and on average they stay in these centers for about 35 days. During that time, U.S. authorities check the background of the 'sponsors', including sexual violence, to ensure the safety of minors, according to its official site. In the case of the Ecuadorian girls and boy abandoned at the border, they stayed about 15 days in shelters.
IN THE CASE OF THE ECUADORIAN CHILDREN ABANDONED AT THE BORDER, THEY REMAINED IN SHELTERS FOR ABOUT 15 DAYS.
The Foreign Ministry said that in both cases it was vigilant of the conditions of Ecuadorian minors in these centers. After the abandonment of the children, she rejected the "disregard for human life on the part of those who commit crimes by illegally trafficking migrants" and urged families and parents to avoid exposing themselves or their children to the dangers of irregular migration.
Murillo also claims to know of several cases of minors in shelters in Mexico. He says that a 13-year-old boy has been in one of these places for three months and his organization has received information of two minors who disappeared on that border, ten and six years ago, both from Azuay. He asks families not to risk or send their sons or daughters to strangers because they can be left alone at any border point. Murillo assures that there is no coordination between Mexican and Ecuadorian authorities to solve the situation of these children, nor a global policy for the irregular migration of Ecuadorians.
Deportations and unstoppable migration
Between October 2020 and last May, 41,699 Ecuadorians - mostly single adults - were encountered or detained by the U.S. Border Patrol. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) highlighted on his Twitter account the dramatic increase in Ecuadorian migration. Based on CBP data, he published the list of countries with the highest number of citizens who have had "encounters" with the Border Patrol last May. Ecuador ranked fourth after Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Most Ecuadorians have attempted to cross through Texas, specifically through the city of El Paso, which is located across from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico, and through the Rio Grande Valley.
Countries whose citizens Border Patrol "encountered" more than 1,000 times in May at the U.S.-Mexico border:— Adam Isacson (@adam_wola) June 19, 2021
El Salvador 10,011
Of the 41,699 Ecuadorians detained, 28,488 were deported because they were considered a possible risk to public health in that country due to the pandemic. Soraya Vasquez, director of the organization Al Otro Lado in Tijuana, explains that the Trump administration, in the pandemic, established a policy to expel people crossing through irregular passages, according to Title 42 of Section 265 of the United States Code. This was a public health regulation that aimed to prevent the introduction of Covid from Mexico. It then removes them immediately without going through an immigration judge. "And when they send them back, they send them back to nothing, because Mexico doesn't have a program to help them, we are the civil society that does that work." That doesn't happen with the children.
Vasquez says that Mexico receives an average of 100 expelled people every day and Mexican cities do not have the capacity or infrastructure to care for them. Migrants are exposed to violence and organized crime that knows they have relatives in the U.S. and kidnap them to demand money.
Official U.S. figures also show an increase in families traveling together. In the same period, 9,582 Ecuadorian families were found, according to CBP.While between October 2019 and September 2020, there were 1,974 migrant families found.
Translated by Manuel Novik