The United States deported a group of Honduran children — some as young as 18 months old — on Monday. They were the first to be sent home since President Barack Obama pledged to speed up the process of sending back illegal immigrant minors from Central America.
Fleeing violence and poverty, tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have crossed into the U.S. over the past year, testing U.S. border facilities and sparking intense debate about how to solve the problem.
On Monday a charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the highest murder rate in the world, returned 17 Honduran women as well as 12 girls and nine boys, from 18 months to 15 years old, the Honduran government said.
Looking happy, the deported children exited the airport on an overcast and sweltering afternoon. One by one, they filed into a bus, playing with balloons they had been given.
Nubia, a 6-year-old girl among the deportees, said she left Honduras a month ago for a journey that ended when she and her mother were caught in Texas near the border with Mexico two weeks later.
"Horrible, cold and tiring" was how Nubia remembered the trip, which was meant to unite the pair with her three uncles already living in the U.S. Her mother, Dalia, had paid $7,000 in vain to a coyote, or guide, to smuggle the two of them across the border.
Once caught, U.S. officials treated them like "animals," holding them in rooms with as many as 50 people, where some women had to sleep standing up holding children, Dalia said.
During eight months ending June 15, some 52,000 children were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border, most of them from Central America. That is twice the previous year's tally, and tens of thousands more are believed to have slipped through.
So chaotic are the deportation circumstances that some children are not correctly reunited with their parents, said Valdette Willeman, director of the Center for Attention for Returned Migrants in Honduras.
"Many of the mothers are sometimes not even the real mothers of the children," she said.
Monday's flight departed as Obama faces increasing pressure to address the surge of unaccompanied minors. Immigrant advocates urge him to address the humanitarian needs of the migrants, while Republicans in Congress have blamed the crisis on his immigration policies and have called on him to secure the border.
The White House has stressed that Central American children who cross the border illegally will be sent home and last week said it would speed up the deportation process.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have suffered from gang violence and incursions from Mexican drug cartels using the region as a staging post for their trafficking operations.
Honduran President Juan Hernández, in an interview published Monday, blamed U.S. drug policy for sparking violence and ramping up migration to the U.S. His wife urged the United States to do more to help.
"The countries consuming drugs need to support [us] and take joint responsibility because if there wasn't demand, there wouldn't be production and we wouldn't be living like we are," Ana Garcia de Hernández said as she awaited the children.
The Obama administration has projected that without government action, more than 150,000 unaccompanied minors could flee those three Central American nations next year.
The proposed actions will test Obama's ability to negotiate effectively with Republican lawmakers, who have blocked much of his agenda ahead of elections in November, when they hope to regain control of the Senate from the Democratic Party.
The Associated Press
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