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ARLINGTON, Va. – If Josseline had stayed in El Salvador, she might not be alive today.
“If you come from some place because someone wanted to kill you, if you go back, they are going to kill you,” she said.
At 16, a group of armed men kidnapped her, Josseline said, while she was walking near her home. She said she was blindfolded, drugged, and assaulted, before being dumped at a remote location from where she struggled to find her way home.
Someone with a grudge against her stepfather, it seemed, had hired a group of kidnappers to send him a message. The teenager was caught in the middle.
The girl – now 19, no taller than 5 feet 2 inches, with curly black hair, a plump build and a shy smile – had been living in the city of Sonsonate, El Salvador, with her grandmother when she was attacked. The traumatic experience would compel her to make a dangerous trek north – in search of a brighter future and to reunite with her father, who had been living in the United States for more than a decade.
A rising tide
Josseline is among the tens of thousands of children who have crossed into the United States, illegally and without a guardian, in unprecedented numbers.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors who enter the United States, there were 13,625 children in their care in fiscal year 2012. They project that number could grow in this fiscal year to 90,000 kids, a 560 percent increase.
Between October and June, U.S. law enforcement officials apprehended more than 57,000 unaccompanied youth, most of whom came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
“Over half of these kids are coming because of violence, crime, gang threats,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Ph.D. candidate at San Diego State University and a Fulbright scholar, who's been studying the steady rise in unaccompanied entering the United States for the past three years. “[It’s] an untenable situation for children and adolescents in these countries.”
At 90.4 per 100,000 people, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. El Salvador and Guatemala also have some of the world’s highest rates.
You are more likely to die in these nations than you are in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in [the Democratic Republic of the Congo].
Fulbright scholar studying unaccompanied migrants
“You are more likely to die in these nations than you are in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in [the Democratic Republic of the Congo],” said Kennedy, who has spent the past eight months in El Salvador interviewing children who have been deported from Mexico.
She says 70 of 322 children that she interviewed have quit school because they’re afraid to walk past gangs on their way to classes.
A hard journey
It was nearly a year after the attack when Josseline decided to travel more than 2,000 miles to the Texas border.
Her uncle paid about $6,000 to a “coyote,” a man who would help transport her through Guatemala, Mexico and into the United States.
“I think the worst part for me in particular was when you have to travel alone, because not all the time you are with a group,” said Josseline, with the help of a translator.
For much of the journey, however, she was with a group.
“It’s a place which is unfamiliar to you. You don’t know [if] you’re going to get lost or what’s going to happen,” she said.
Josseline said she took a bus, rode on a motorcycle and crossed the Rio Grande into Texas by boat.
“Crossing the border is the hardest part because you know once you cross over you are an illegal and you’re not sure … if you’re going to be able to stay in the U.S.,” she said.
When she arrived on land, she ran for 30 minutes, and then found someone waiting to pick her up and transport her to an abandoned house.
“Once in there, they plan the strategy, you know, how they are going to deliver you to your family,” she said.
“They tell you, before crossing into the desert, that the worst is yet to come, to be aware of that.”
For four nights, she walked through the Texas desert with few supplies and barely any food.
“You end up drinking water from the water holes where the cows drink,” she said.
Then Border Patrol caught up with her. “I thought that everything was over,” Josseline said.
A complex legal process
Under federal law, children who arrive, unaccompanied, from countries other than Mexico and Canada are permitted to stay while deportation proceedings begin.
“The United States has adopted many policies that have been written in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the primary in that is the interest called the best interest principle,” said Kennedy. “These are children. These are not adults, and if there’s any chance that we could be returning them to harm, we don’t want to do that.”
The 2008 law requires that children must be screened within two days of entering the United States to determine whether they may qualify to stay in the U.S. on humanitarian grounds.
Customs and Border Protection officials must determine whether the child may have been a victim of trafficking or could qualify for asylum. The child must then be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Refugee Resettlement so he or she can be placed in a shelter within 72 hours.
According to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by America Tonight, the government contracts with nearly 100 child-only shelters located in 14 states across the country. Most are run by charities.
“Her mother basically understood that she really couldn’t provide a safe home for Josseline,” said Jeanne Cohn-Connor, a member of her legal team and a partner at the law firm Kirkland & Ellis.
It has taken Josseline two years of legal proceedings to achieve her current status. Today's she's one step away from becoming a legal permanent resident, Cohn-Connor said.
According to data compiled by Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office, 3,278 people have applied for special immigrant juvenile status so far in FY 2014.
Sometimes it can take years before a child’s application is approved or denied. So far this fiscal year, at least 2,909 special immigrant juvenile status petitions – including ones filed in previous years – have been approved while 141 individuals’ cases were denied.
More than 600 applications each were filed in New York and Texas while California had more than 400.
During last fiscal year, 3,994 new cases were filed and 3,433 petitions – including ones previous years – were approved. The cases of 191 individuals were denied.
Many migrant children who are going through deportation proceedings are not present in court when an immigration judge makes a final ruling in their cases, according to new information released to America Tonight by the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.
U.S. immigration judges ruled on 5,266 cases involving children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras last year. Of those, 2,383 rulings, or 45 percent, were made “in absentia,” which indicates the child was not present for the proceeding.
So far this fiscal year, judges have ruled in 5,328 cases involving children from these same three countries. Of those, 2,634, or 49 percent, weren't present in court.
The decisions are not all removal orders, according to Kate Sheehey, deputy counsel for the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at EOIR.
"The data set includes all immigration judge decisions with a juvenile identification code during this time period. Decisions include, but are not limited to, orders of removal, grants of asylum, and grants of voluntary departure among others," she said.
The Executive Office for Immigration Review would not speculate on the events that would prohibit someone from appearing in immigration court. The office does not track how many juveniles in court proceedings entered the United States as unaccompanied minors.
Children from the same three Central American countries represent 87 percent of immigration judges’ decisions so far this fiscal year – up from 81 percent of such rulings last year.
With so many migran children absent for their rulings, some are worried they're slipping through the cracks.
Tackling the problem?
In July, President Obama declared the influx of unaccompanied minors a “humanitarian crisis” and has since asked Congress for an additional $3.7 billion to address the issue. Meanwhile, there's been a passionate debate in Congress and across the country about what to do with children who enter the country illegally.
House Speaker John Boehner and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, for example, have argued that the president needs to better secure the border. In a June letter to the president, Boehner wrote:
The safety of these migrant children is a matter of paramount importance. It is our duty and obligation to enforce the laws of our country while protecting the most vulnerable and ensuring they are healthy and well protected. In that vein, your administration should immediately deploy the National Guard to our southern border.
The Obama administration said its plan focuses on “expediting removal” and clearing the backlog in immigration courts.
On July 14, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement flight returned approximately 40 families to Honduras. Although there are regular ICE flights that deport adults to Central America, this was the first time families with children filled such a flight.
So far, no child-only flights have been sent to Central America, though El Salvador’s ambassador told America Tonight last month that the U.S. has proposed them.
Kennedy believes sending kids back home won’t solve the root problem.
“The reality is that violence and insecurity are increasing in these three nations. So the influx is going to continue,” she explained.
She also cautioned that this current crisis will erode some advances in child rights that advocates have made over the years.
“They are the American Dream. They have big goals. They want to work hard, that’s why they came here,” she said of children like Josseline who trekked from Central America to the U.S.
Josseline, who now attends high school in Virginia, practices her English by reading a story about another young woman’s journey: “The Wizard of Oz.”
“I love Dorothy,” she said.
As she learns to navigate living far from her home in El Salvador, Josseline is making plans for her future here.
“Now I am safe,” she said. “I have a good life. A big, big opportunity,” she said in English.