LIMA, Peru – Talking with neighbors in a small town in Ecuador one morning, Susana Nicoladi recalled a friend who immigrated into Spain while her husband stayed home with their children. He had an affair, she said, “and lost the children’s respect.”
One of her neighbors was raising a rebellious nephew, the son of her sister who was working as a maid in Spain.
Some 3,000 miles away, in Connecticut, an Ecuadorean mother of 10 children reminisced about her family. Her youngest child was only 2 when she left for the United States, where she works as a housekeeper in a motel.
“She is 8 now, and she doesn’t know me,” the woman said sadly.
Amid the political debate over immigration, the children are forgotten too easily. But they are often the ones most affected as long separations tear families apart.
“We need to pay more attention to the kids who are left behind,” said Mary DeLorey, a strategic issues adviser for Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ international relief and development agency.
More and more children in Central America are being raised by people other than their parents, DeLorey told Catholic News Service. Those who are raised by extended families miss direct contact with their parents, she said, while those who are left with neighbors may end up on the street or in gangs.
Meanwhile, skills that were once passed from parents to children are getting lost. In Ecuador, some organizations have begun targeting emigrants’ children for technical training, partly to fill gaps in communities that have been left without skilled tradespeople, and partly to help youths learn an income-producing trade.
“It isn’t just that emigrants are leaving, but their skills and the skills that they (would have passed) to their children are going with them,” DeLorey said.
There was a time when some parents, especially those from countries relatively near the U.S. border, would go home periodically to visit their children. Crackdowns on undocumented immigrants have made that difficult, however, and more parents are sending for their children.
The result is a surge in the number of unaccompanied minors making the dangerous trek from Central or South America with smugglers, risking robbery, accidents and rape. Some run out of money along the way and are forced into prostitution. And, like adults, some simply vanish altogether.
Because the youngsters travel in groups with adults, although those people are unrelated to them, officials often ignore the fact that they are actually unaccompanied minors, DeLorey said.
“It’s a way of undermining protections (for children) that are legally binding or at least in principle understood to exist,” she said.
Parents sometimes send for very young children, DeLorey said, and “there have been some notorious cases of busloads of children being transported” to the U.S.-Mexican border. Sometimes the family must borrow money to pay the smugglers.
If the child is stopped by immigration officials, “the family incurs a massive debt,” and the child feels a double sense of failure – for not making it across the border and because the family is now worse off economically than it was before, she said.
Some unaccompanied minors are older youths who are running away or seeking employment, but many are young adolescents, around age 13 or 14, DeLorey said. Organizations working with migrants report extremely high rates of sexual violence against girls along migration routes.
Many children traveling alone are detained at the border or along the route. A delegation of U.S. bishops investigating the problems of migrant children in 2006 found that some facilities resembled foster care, while others were more like juvenile detention centers.
Boys who are detained generally are separated from adult men, but girls are often held with women. As a result, DeLorey said, “their special needs are not met” and statistics are unreliable.
If a child is detained in the United States and no relative comes forward, the child usually is deported on a flight home. Those caught before crossing the border, however, are sent home on a bus – a dangerous journey in reverse. The bus sometimes travels only to the Mexican-Guatemalan border, stranding the children there with no means of returning home, DeLorey said.
In their report on migrant and trafficked children in October 2006, the U.S. bishops wrote, “Regardless of their reasons for migrating, unaccompanied alien children are highly vulnerable and need specialized support and guidance.”
Immigration policy must take the needs of unaccompanied migrant children into account, DeLorey said. Better family reunification policies would also help protect children from the high risks of traveling with smugglers.
“Much U.S. migration policy has historically been based on family reunification, and there are massive backlogs,” she said. “Mexicans wait eight to 10 years to reunite when they have a legal right to reunite with their immediate family members.”
As a result, she said, “Children pass their entire childhood without their parents.”
The U.S. bishops and other advocates are pushing for bilateral agreements between countries on how to transport children who are being deported. The Regional Conference on Migration – which includes 10 countries between Panama and Canada, as well as the Dominican Republic – has developed a protocol on the return of migrant and trafficked children, “though it is not always implemented well,” DeLorey said.
But a comprehensive solution also must address the root problem in the migrants’ home countries, where adolescents have few options for education and employment.
“This is a time bomb,” DeLorey said. “Individuals are making survival decisions about a chance to have a future, and it is going to be the younger folks who take these risks.”