Irene Granados celebrated her 16th birthday while walking through the desert two years ago trying to reach the United States — and safety.
Brothers Javier and Denis Girón, 13 and 17, floated on a raft across the Rio Grande last year — also in a bid to reach safety.
Granados and the Girón brothers were fleeing their native Central American countries where gang violence is spreading. The three are part of a surge in unaccompanied children and teenagers flowing across the Mexican border to the United States.
A report issued in November by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) showed the sharp increase. Every fiscal year between 2004 and 2011, the report said, the number of children detained by immigration authorities averaged about 6,800. But apprehensions jumped to more than 13,000 children in fiscal year 2012 and to more than 24,000 in fiscal year 2013.
Up to 120 unaccompanied youths are arriving each day, and some estimates suggest that the annual number could soon reach 60,000, according to a Feb. 21 story in the Los Angeles Times.
Immigrant-rights activists say more and more unaccompanied minors are arriving for various reasons. Many are fleeing gang violence, like Granados and the Girón brothers. But children are also being sent by families who believe they could qualify for immigration reform — if Congress ever acts on it — or for President Barack Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program known as DACA.
These children arriving now would not qualify for DACA because it’s only available for young immigrants who arrived before they turned 16 and who have lived in the United states since June 15, 2007. DACA is mainly geared for young immigrants, known as DREAMERs, whose parents brought them to the United States illegally when they were children.
But some of the children arriving now can qualify for a green card if it can be demonstrated in juvenile court that the child has been abandoned, abused, or neglected. By demonstrating any of those three elements, the court can issue a dependency order. When children are adjudicated as dependent, the court assumes jurisdiction over them and that qualifies them to be considered for green-card status.
Granados, now 18, and the Girón brothers are in the process of applying for green cards after courts in West Palm Beach and Miami issued dependency orders.
The cases involving Granados from El Salvador and the Girón brothers from Honduras are among the first of recent arrivals to surface in South Florida. The three youths were recently interviewed at the DuaneMorris law office in downtown Miami.
Attorneys Danielle Rundlett Burns, Gregory M. Lefkowitz, and Felice Schonfeld are assisting the youths. Burns and Lefkowitz represent Granados while Schonfeld represents the Girón brothers.
The attorneys belong to a pro-bono project at DuaneMorris. The special immigrant juvenile project of the American Immigration Lawyers Association Pro Bono Committee contacted DuaneMorris to assist the youths.
Granados and the Girón brothers described their journeys. Granados arrived first.
Her odyssey began in her hometown of La Unión, near El Salvador’s Pacific coast.
“I had a problem,” Granados recalled. “Someone wanted to harm me.”
When pressed for details, Granados said gang members were threatening to steal her belongings as pressure for her to join.
She said her mother and other relatives told her the best thing to do was to flee to the United States where she had an aunt living in Lake Worth in Palm Beach County.
“So I began my journey,” Granados recalled.
Though Granados traveled without her parents or any other relative, she was not alone.
She was part of a group a “coyote,” or paid guide, was lading to the United States. It often happens that Central American migrants who want to reach family members in the United States pool their resources to pay smugglers to guide them along the way.
Granados and her group traveled by bus from El Salvador to Guatemala and then all the way to northern Mexico where they began walking through the Sonora desert into Arizona.
Granados, who was 15 when she started the voyage, turned 16 while walking in the desert. It was Dec. 23, 2011.
Then immigration agents caught the group.
Granados was first held in a detention center for minors in Arizona where her aunt from Florida found her.
The aunt convinced immigration authorities to let her take Granados home.
Then Burns and Lefkowitz got the case.
As part of their strategy, they began working to get Granados a visa. To do so, they went to juvenile court and got a judge in West Palm Beach to issue a dependency order placing Granados under the jurisdiction of the court. Her father abandoned the family when she was still a child. The mother left later, but she was located by the attorneys and she granted her consent to dependency proceedings to get her daughter a U.S. visa so she could stay here.
Now, Granados can build her life in the United States.
“I want to be a doctor,” she said.
Schonfeld followed a similar strategy for the Girón brothers, who began their journey out of their native San Pedro Sula in Honduras on Feb. 7, 2013.
They traveled in a car with a guide and five other teens ranging in age from 13 to 16.
First they went to Guatemala and then on to Mexico, traveling for a total of 11 days until they reached the U.S. border one evening in mid-February last year.
On the Mexican side at Reynosa, a city in the violence-torn state of Tamaulipas, the Girón breothers and the other teens boarded an inflatable raft while the guide paddled to the U.S. side near McAllen, Texas.
Once on the U.S. side, the guide left the teens by themselves after telling them to keep walking until the Border Patrol showed up.
They walked for seven hours through a field.
Finally, they saw a Border Patrol vehicle. The officers detained the teens and took them to a detention center near the border.
The Girón brothers were held there for two months until an older brother, who lives in South Florida, picked them up.
“We miss our family in Honduras, but we finally feel safe here,” said Javier Girón.