Los Angeles

Immigrant Children Flee Violence, Fear Abuse in US

After all the thousands of miles crossed to reach the US-Mexico border, some of the children still face additional haunting hurdles

As some immigrant children who fled their home country for a better life in the US are connecting with relatives, they're also sharing their stories of their journey and their arrival.

The US Department of Health and Human Services says nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have illegally entered the country since October 2013. New York City, Los Angeles and Houston lead the country in destination cities once the children are reunited with family or guardians.

"Un montón de inmigrantes," a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador said, a "mountain" of immigrants. That's how he described the conditions in McAllen, Texas where he stayed for 20 days after Border Patrol agents found him at a gas station just after crossing the border this month.

He described seeing girls, boys and some pregnant teens.

One young pregnant girl in particular, he said, got pushed to the ground by a shelter worker and forced to sleep on the concrete.

The boy said he left El Salvador for a better life, one where he said he wouldn't be forced to initiate into gangs. But that's a part of the conversation he had trouble discussing, still fearful that gang connections in his homeland may lead to connections in Los Angeles.

The Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project has a contract with the federal government to help the kids who come to the LA area reunite with family and prepare their legal cases for immigration court.

"Many of the children report that they received death threats or family members have been killed," said Erika Pinheiro, who works with Esperanza and the 300 kids they take in every month.

She said each child is interviewed, the first question being this: "Why did you leave your country?" If the answer is violence, their immigration cases could lead them to legal asylum in the US, she said.

"We were like slaves," another immigrant said of her life in Guatemala. The 9-year-old made the trek with her 12-year-old sister. "And if we didn't do something, they'd feed us oil with chili powder or put us in the sun for eight hours."

The young girl said their mother left them with family friends five years ago for work in the United States. But their mom said that help turned into neglect and she felt she needed to send for her daughters.

"Sufrieron," or "they suffered," she said, adding that she believes the psychological effect of all that will likely haunt them for years.

The journey to leave their home country itself is often so dangerous some children die doing it.

The 12-year-old recounted what she had heard just prior to leaving Guatemala.

"Girls have been raped or killed on the journey," she said. But she still made the trip.

After all the thousands of miles crossed to reach the US-Mexico border, some of the children still face additional haunting hurdles.

"We've heard an alarmingly high number of stories of abuse, physical abuse, some stories of sexual abuse," Pinheiro said.

A complaint filed with the federal government laid out examples of abuse reported by children at the various detention centers. The additional centers, like the one at Naval Base Ventura County, however, give volunteers more hope with better facilities.

The influx of immigrant children crossing the border does not appear to be slowing down, with Washington expecting some 90,000 kids to have crossed alone by the end of this fiscal year in September.

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