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More Kids Are Making The Dangerous Trip Across Texas-Mexico Border


In a refugee camp just across the Texas-Mexico border, more and more parents are making an agonizing choice. They're sending their children across the international bridge alone, away from squalid, dangerous conditions in Mexico. The children surrender to U.S. immigration agents not knowing if they'll ever see their parents again. NPR's John Burnett followed up with a father and son after the boy made it to the U.S.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Marvin Joel Zelaya is enjoying his first frappuccino, which he declares delicious. We're driving around a faceless suburb between Dallas and Fort Worth which has become his home for now.

MARVIN JOEL ZELAYA: (Through interpreter) There's order. There's security. And it's pretty.

BURNETT: This is the promised land compared to the destitute gang-infested colonia that he and his father fled in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, last spring. Marvin is 17, tall, gangly and handsome. He's been here for two weeks, since he was discharged from a government-run child shelter. He's living with his sponsor, a great uncle, while he attends high school and waits for his day in court. His odyssey has produced a whirlpool of emotions.

MARVIN JOEL ZELAYA: (Through interpreter) I'm happy because I left the child shelter. I'm sad because I can't see my family. And I'm anxious because I don't know what the judge is going to say the day I go to court.

BURNETT: We're sitting in the austere living room in the house where he lives with his uncle and a bunch of other immigrants. They all work at a nearby sushi restaurant. Marvin Jr. says, back home, a gang approached him one day last April and gave him three choices.

MARVIN JOEL ZELAYA: (Through interpreter) They said I could work for them or get out of there or they would kill me. If I worked for them, I would be a lookout or sell drugs in my school or kill people for them. So my father and I decided to leave.

BURNETT: They made their way to the Texas border, where, to their surprise, the rules had changed. No longer was the U.S. government releasing parent and child asylum-seekers into the United States to wait for their hearings. Under a Trump administration policy, they would have to remain in Mexico while their cases are pending. Marvin Sr. and Marvin Jr. were stuck in a crude displaced persons camp in Matamoros, just across from Brownsville, Texas.

MARVIN JOEL ZELAYA: (Through interpreter) It was bad. There were times when we didn't have a tent, and it rained. We would sleep on the ground. When it started raining, we'd stand up until it stopped.

BURNETT: It was dangerous, too. Marvin Jr. says hoodlums menaced him anytime he left the camp. Worse, extortion gangs were sweeping up migrants and holding them for ransom. Once again, father and son had a difficult choice to make - stay together or split up. U.S. policy says that minors who are unaccompanied must be allowed in. So Marvin Sr. hugged his son, told him to trust in God, and sent him across the Gateway International Bridge.

In the past six months, hundreds of parents have repeated this tearful farewell, some sending children as young as 5 years old across the bridge in hopes of a better, safer life in America. When U.S. immigration agents took Martin Jr. into custody, he says they mocked him.

MARVIN JOEL ZELAYA: (Through interpreter) They asked me lots of questions and laughed at me. They said I had the same story as everybody else and that it was pure lies.

BURNETT: Marvin Jr. is part of an exodus of young people fleeing Central America's epidemic of crime, but the odds are long on getting protection in the U.S. At present, about 1 in 5 applicants receives asylum. Immigration judges typically want to see proof of persecution, yet many migrants, like the Zelaya family, never report gang threats to the police. They believe the cops are colluding with the thugs.

AMY COHEN: He certainly has a very frightening story which is entirely credible.

BURNETT: Dr. Amy Cohen is a child psychiatrist who specializes in immigrant trauma.

COHEN: Nonetheless, he doesn't have scars or wounds or a police report to back up his story.

BURNETT: Kate Lincoln Goldfinch is an immigration attorney with experience in these asylum cases.

KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: These sort of generalized gang violence cases are tricky. They're hard to win.

BURNETT: Marvin Jr. still has a chance. His father, Marvin Zelaya Sr. (ph), a husky 43-year-old former security guard, sat despondently in the Matamoros camp in early February while a beverage vendor pedaled past. That morning, he put on the best set of donated clothes he had - white sneakers, jeans and a gray hoodie - and went to immigration court to plead for asylum one last time.

MARVIN ZELAYA JR: (Through interpreter) The judge denied me everything. He said my proof was not overwhelming. He said it's my son who's in danger, not me.

BURNETT: Marvin Sr. now has no good choices left. He can appeal, but he's certain the answer will be the same. He can try to sneak across the Rio Grande and enter the U.S. illegally, but the Border Patrol is everywhere. Or he can go back to Tegucigalpa to his wife and daughter, but he owes money that he doesn't have to the coyote who guided them north. The one bright spot for him is Marvin Jr.

MARVIN ZELAYA JR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "I miss not having him close," his father says, "but I know that he's safe." To date, some 60,000 asylum-seekers like Marvin Sr. are staying in dangerous Mexican border cities while their cases play out. A federal appeals court in California has blocked the program, but only for part of the border, not in Texas. The case is expected to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

John Burnett, NPR News, Matamoros. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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