Published by National Catholic Reporter, June 19, 2014

The Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati first found out that children were crossing the U.S. border alone in the early 2000s, when their mission took three Central American girls into their El Paso home.

The girls crossed the border when Immigration and Naturalization Service handled “unaccompanied alien children,” as the government refers to them. INS separated out minors, but they were still put in handcuffs, foot shackles and a waist chain, Sr. Janet Gildea said. “They treated them just like criminals.”

Yessenia Vásquez, a Guatemalan teenager who stayed with the Sisters of Charity, was not unlike the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children crossing the Southwest border of the United States this year. She was escaping an abusive situation and feared for her life.

At 15, Vásquez simply started to walk. With no money, she begged for food, slept wherever she could, and rode on top of trains known as la bestia (“the beast”) through Mexico. She was deported twice back to Guatemala and once escaped from immigration officials who wanted to sleep with her in exchange for being let go, she said. It’s not uncommon for migrants to be raped, murdered, or mugged on the journey.

The decision to travel north isn’t taken lightly, but comes out of desperation, Gildea said. A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report found that 58 percent of unaccompanied youth may qualify for international protection because of the violence in their home countries.

With 47,000 unaccompanied children crossing into the United States in the past eight months, news of their plight has spread. Still, many continue to see the Central American youth as illegal immigrants rather than refugees. Minors may no longer be shackled when they arrive, but the debate of whether the children pose a humanitarian crisis or an immigration challenge shapes the U.S. response. …


This story was written in conjunction with Global Sisters Report, which published “Ministering to unaccompanied immigrant children” on the same day.