When Cesar Tomás, 22, was 16 years old, he left his mother in Guatemala City to join his brothers in the United States and escape the crushing poverty he had endured his entire life.
"Sometimes we ate. Sometimes we didn't. We didn't have money for clothes, shoes, food - nothing," he told Truthout in his native Spanish. When he was 2 years old, Tomás also lost his father, a loss, he said, that significantly contributed to his family's hardships.
Tomás said that he and his family also experienced constant discrimination because they were indigenous and spoke a Quiché dialect. If they needed medical assistance, for instance, hospitals would frequently refuse to treat them.
Because of so many painful conditions, Tomás decided to risk the arduous journey from Guatemala City to the US-Mexico border. He said the journey cost him $5,500, a sum he had to borrow from money lenders in his community.
Tomás faced many dangers on his trek across Mexico; he often lacked food and had to sleep in the mountains. He hitched rides, walked and took buses, trains and even boats to reach the border.
When he tried to cross the border into Arizona, Tomás was apprehended by immigration and was imprisoned in Arizona, then transferred to a detention center in California where he had the unusual good fortune to receive medical help and legal assistance.
Tomás' story is not at all unusual. Unaccompanied, undocumented minors have filled Border Patrol stations and detention facilities, particularly in Texas, in the last few months. According to a government report, from October 2011 to October 2012, the Border Patrol apprehended about 31,000 juveniles. US Customs and Border Protection found that between October 1, 2013 and May 31, 2014, 47,017 unaccompanied children under 18, traveling without a parent or guardian, were taken into custody. During the first weekend of June, about 1,000 unaccompanied children who crossed illegally into Texas were taken to an emergency shelter in Arizona. Many of these children have been put in detention centers that also house adults.
Unaccompanied immigrant children are frequently subjected to widespread abuse in the hands of US border officials. Recently, human rights organizations filed a complaint on behalf of 100 children who reported experiencing abuse and mistreatment while in the custody of US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This includes verbal, sexual and physical abuse, as well as unnecessarily long detentions in filthy conditions with an alarming lack of necessities such as beds, food and water.
Though most immigrants come from Mexico, three of every four unaccompanied children apprehended this year have come from Central America.
Ashley Huebner, managing attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said those who are looking for a simple explanation to this surge are not going to find one. According to her, a combination of factors has contributed to the dramatic increase - Guatemala's recently devastated coffee crop, the 2009 military coup in Honduras and the rise of transnational criminal organizations.
David Walding, executive director at the Bernardo Kohler Center, an organization that provides legal services to immigrants in Texas, said that many children who emigrate from Central America are often fleeing gang violence, and many minors in Mexico are now trying to escape the violence inflicted by the drug cartels. He said he's been seeing the same basic causes for unaccompanied minor immigration for about 15 years now.
Huebner said these children face incredible hardships when they travel by themselves - many lose limbs or are killed on their journeys. They are also vulnerable to cartels and traffickers, who often kidnap immigrants for ransom. Girls are particularly in danger of rape and sexual assault.
"It's impossible to make it without passing through the hands of one of the cartels," Walding said. By using minors, he added, the cartels can avoid prosecution, so they frequently raid bus stops and shelters to recruit children.
Though the Obama administration recently announced that it was starting a program to provide lawyers for the influx of children facing deportations, some advocates believe this isn't nearly enough to help all the unaccompanied minors expected to appear in court in the next few months.
"We're thrilled with this program. Forcing kids to appear alone in court isn't good for anyone," Huebner said. "But we're disappointed in the restrictions because it's only for kids under the age of 16 - while the vast majority are 17 and 18."
Walding believes "the devil is in the details." He pointed out that the administration is hiring a scant 100 people, only some of who are attorneys. The positions, he added, are partially funded only. "It's only a drop in the bucket," he said.
Although these children are traumatized by their home country conditions and then their journeys, and are in critical need of mental health assistance, Walding believes the most important resources are legal services. "Social workers can't address trauma or mental illness until their legal status is settled," he said.
Because of this urgent need, last month, Walding sent a letter to Victor M. Lawrence, principal assistant director of the Office of Immigration Litigation, in which he requested the opportunity to provide free legal services to youth detained at the Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland facility. Though Walding has made numerous attempts to provide free legal services since July 2012, he has not been allowed access to the minors at these facilities.
Not only can it be difficult to access these children, Walding also said it's very challenging for them to receive asylum. The biggest problem, he said, is that asylum is only granted on the basis of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group and political opinion. As a result, gang-related claims are not considered in most federal court circuits. "Criminal and random societal violence is not going to necessarily qualify," he said.
"They should be eligible, but unfortunately, courts look at asylum from Central America with a policy lens. The refugee crisis is no different from kids in Africa," Huebner said. She also pointed out that the process is very long. Most cases take several years.
Once minors are granted asylum or obtain residency, they continue to face a host of other challenges, such as assimilation and language barriers, Walding said. Many of them are tremendously behind in school and have to adjust to the new education system. Some children must also adapt to living in foster care or with people with whom they haven't lived in a very long time.
Tomás now lives in Brooklyn, New York with his brother. He was granted residency in 2012, but he is currently struggling to find a job because he doesn't speak any English. As a member of Atlas: DIY, an organization that provides resources to undocumented youth, he receives support for ESL classes and leads painting workshops with other members. What he wants most is to learn the language, and go to school to become an art teacher. "I just want to have a better future," he said."