Join a Gang or Die: Deported Central American Teens Face Harrowing Choice; North Carolina Teen Wildin Acosta Is Threatened with Deportation after Fleeing Honduras under Threat of Death for His Religious Commitment

By Fisher, Steve | Newsweek, September 9, 2016 | Go to article overview

Join a Gang or Die: Deported Central American Teens Face Harrowing Choice; North Carolina Teen Wildin Acosta Is Threatened with Deportation after Fleeing Honduras under Threat of Death for His Religious Commitment


Fisher, Steve, Newsweek


Byline: Steve Fisher

It was 6:30 on a cold morning this past January, and Wildin Acosta, 19, was running late for school. As he rushed out the door of his red brick home in Durham, North Carolina, three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents handcuffed him and whisked him away in an unmarked vehicle. His father watched from the kitchen window, stunned and helpless.

It was a tragic twist for the Honduran teen, who had made a dangerous journey to reunite with his parents, migrant workers in the United States. ICE agents identified Acosta as a target because he was no longer a minor and a judge had ordered him deported.

Two years ago, he was one of the nearly 70,000 Central American kids who said goodbye to their relatives and made the trip north, overwhelming the U.S. Border Patrol. Detention centers, built mainly for adults, turned into crowded, makeshift camps overflowing with children. Some were as young as 5.

Today, as wars between rival gangs continue to wreak havoc on Central America, more child migrants are heading to the U.S. without their parents. According to a study released in 2014 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, 58 percent of Central American child migrants who arrived after October 2011 fled because of violence.

With more kids on the way, the Obama administration is making the deportation of young adults like Acosta, who arrived in the past two years, a top priority. But once American authorities send them home, many face a terrible choice: join a gang or die.

Because of the Obama administration's crackdown, the journey from Central America is becoming increasingly dangerous. And human rights activists say U.S. efforts to recruit Mexico to help stanch the flow of minors have put kids in greater peril. With the borders now reinforced, migrants are taking riskier routes through southern Mexico. Drug cartels snag many of them for ransom, sex trafficking or transporting drugs. Others are murdered for the little cash they carry. Experts say the Mexican police don't treat the migrants much better than the cartels do. A recent survey by the nonprofit Jesuit Migrant Service in Mexico showed police-related robberies, beatings and arbitrary detention of migrants have increased by 86 percent since 2014.

Despite the dangers, "no one's stopped leaving Central America," says Maureen Meyer, the senior associate for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The people who are able to get here have just figured out how to get around Mexico's enforcements."

More than 40,000 child migrants arrived in the U.S. from last October through June of this year, according to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). The agency insists smugglers tricked many of the young migrants by giving them false promises of a safe journey and legal residence in the United States. CBP spokesman Jaime Ruiz says many more would come were it not for its international media campaign warning kids not to make the trek. In the past two years, the agency has funded radio ads, television spots--even a music album--in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to convey the message that the trip is life-threatening. "We're just putting information out there," Ruiz says. "Those parents, they have the last choice." The kids who do travel north still risk deportation if they make it across the border.

The U.S. legal system is already brimming with immigration cases, and the influx of child migrants has only made things worse, says Dana Marks, the president of the California-based National Association of Immigration Judges. "Prioritizing these cases has just caused havoc in the system," she says. "It has been detrimental to cases that have been pending for long periods of time." Last year, ICE sent more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors back to Central America. Of those, over 400 were deported to Honduras. Asked why it focuses on deporting young people who arrived since 2014, an ICE spokesperson says in a statement that this group falls within the administration's broader push to remove recent border crossers. …

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