Staring at the Rio Grande, Karina hesitated.
The 11-year-old girl didn’t know how to swim, and she’d only just met the adults who were bringing her from Honduras to the U.S. — the ones then handing her an inner tube. She didn’t want to scare her 8-year-old brother who was traveling with her, she recalled.
Karina waded into the water, becoming one of tens of thousands of children in recent years who have crossed the U.S. border illegally and alone.
Nearly 60,000 children came across the border without their parents during the fiscal year ending in September, according to the Administration for Children and Families. Thousands landed in Illinois, where 2,300 kids last year were placed by the agency in juvenile detention centers, called shelters, as they awaited a decision on whether they’d be released to relatives in the U.S., remain in detention or be deported.
The number of children who crossed the border alone last year surpassed a peak in 2014 of more than 57,000.
So far, 2017 shows no ebbing — in the first three fiscal months ending in December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection picked up more than 21,000 children at the border.
Some crossed rivers with addresses of relatives tucked into plastic bags. Others spent weeks or months traveling on foot through jungles, or packed like sardines on trains and in trucks, often fleeing violence in their home countries.
Just how many more will come, and how many will be allowed to stay, is unclear under the new president’s administration.
President Donald Trump has promised to increase deportations and reduce border crossings. While his January executive order directed the Department of Homeland Security to ensure unaccompanied children are properly processed and cared for in custody — guidelines reiterated last week in a memo issued by DHS Secretary John Kelly — their futures remain uncertain.
The memo estimated that 60 percent of minors who cross the border alone are placed with a parent living in the U.S. illegally, and instructed federal agencies to explore whether those children are still eligible for special protections.
“We’re worried about how this is going to impact our kids,” said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, a program based at the University of Chicago Law School that provides advocates to children in local detention centers. The 60 volunteers and law students handle the most vulnerable cases — babies, trafficking victims, children who’ve experienced trauma.
When the Young Center was started in 2004, 70 unaccompanied children were in one Chicago shelter. Nearly every child under 13 was assigned an advocate. Now, there are about 500 children in local shelters, and as more cross the border, fewer can be helped.
The DHS memo also seeks to enforce laws against people who smuggle or traffic children into the U.S. Advocates said parents who hired a smuggler might fear deportation if they claim their children and instead might choose to leave them in custody.
“I think it actually could increase the vulnerability of the children,” said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Heartland program that provides legal assistance to immigrants. In a statement earlier this month, the center’s executive director, Mary Meg McCarthy, called the Trump administration’s immigration proposals “draconian” and an “affront to American values.”
Unlike other young immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally at least a decade ago, most unaccompanied minors like Karina who have arrived in the recent surge do not qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama administration program that has granted deportation reprieves and two-year work permits to 750,000 immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. To qualify, immigrants must have lived in the U.S. continuously since 2007.
Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Washington-based conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, said unless unaccompanied children can make a legal case to stay, they should be deported to discourage others from sending kids alone.
“Those who are here who have a parent illegally in the country, they should be reunited with that parent, but they both should be sent back,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to discourage folks from doing this, because a lot of the routes they take are extremely dangerous.”
‘They are just children’
After children are apprehended, usually near the border, and found to be under 18 and alone, they are transferred to the Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services. Its Office of Refugee Resettlement places a child in a network of 100 shelters in 11 states.
Nationwide, the average stay in a shelter is 35 days. But some stay months, or years — and the emotional effects can be devastating.
“At the three-month mark, they typically fall apart,” said Woltjen, of the Young Center, whose advocates make recommendations to immigration judges or attorneys about a child’s care or custody.
A $3 million federal grant helped expand the Young Center program to seven cities including New York and Phoenix. But in 2015, the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated just 1 percent of children’s cases included an advocate.
When children arrive at the shelters, staff explain to them why they are there and what to expect. Then, they begin “detective work,” trying to find out who they are and where they should go, said Susan Trudeau, who runs the Heartland Alliance shelters. Children often arrive with only a name of a relative, an address, a memorized phone number. Although many are Central American, last year kids from 50 countries stayed in Chicago shelters, whose 450 employees speak 40 languages.
This year, Heartland received about $30 million in federal funding to support its work with unaccompanied minors. Sam Tuttle, Heartland’s policy director, said the organization is monitoring both Trump’s policies and Illinois’ budget crisis, as the group also receives state funding.
“The same time that those (state) resources are in peril, we are also cognizant that the movement in Washington is to also pull back on programs and services that serve people who experience poverty or violence,” Tuttle said.
Heartland’s nine shelters have 512 beds available for young children, older teens and pregnant girls. One is a two-story building with a black gate on a residential street. Another is a four-story brick building on a corner abutting a parking lot.
Shelters provide schooling and recreation. Trudeau said children have intramural soccer leagues and take field trips.
“You might see us at a museum someday and not even know where the kids are from,” she said. “The message that I just like to remind people is: They are just children. Oftentimes, it wasn’t even their decision to come.”
If someone, usually a family member, can be identified and approved as a sponsor, a child can be released to his or her care while the child’s case continues through the courts.
Although Heartland staff members work to create a homey atmosphere, it is still detention. Children wear shelter-issued clothes. The doors are locked.
“It feels very suffocating,” said Jajah Wu, a supervising attorney at the Young Center. “Sometimes the kids are immediately like, ‘When do I get out of here?'”
After Karina and her brother crossed the border in 2013, they spent about a month in a Heartland shelter. Karina, who asked to be identified by her middle name, remembers learning English and watching “Titanic.”
The siblings’ journey from Honduras included an enclosed truck through Guatemala and days waiting in a house in Mexico, recalled Karina, now 15. Adults they’d just met brought them to the Rio Grande and told them its water killed people.
“I was very scared, actually, because I didn’t know how to swim,” said Karina, whose account was corroborated by Maria Blumenfeld, her immigration attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center.
For Karina, fear wasn’t new. Even at 11, she understood what would happen if they stayed in their home country. For her brother, recruitment by gangs. For her, their gaze when she hit puberty.
“They try to flirt with you first,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone most kids use to describe homework. “If they want you, they get you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like them. If you said no, they will kill you or they will rape you.”
After Karina and her brother crossed the border, U.S. officials apprehended them, eventually sending them to Chicago. After their stay in the shelter, they were released to their mother. “I did not recognize her,” Karina said.
The siblings were granted asylum last summer, Blumenfeld said, and this year can apply to be permanent residents.
In a home on a street with American flags, Karina now focuses on high school and soccer and her job at McDonald’s. When she graduates, she plans to join the Air Force.
“I really like what they do,” she said. “They fight for the country.”
Karina’s journey is not unusual.
“Most of the kids we’re seeing are fleeing horrific violence,” said Gianna Borroto, a supervising attorney with the National Immigrant Justice Center, whose staff attorneys give a legal consultation to every child in Heartland’s shelters and accompany each one pro bono in court.
Children climb into trains, and some fall off. They tell of evading cartels or fending off sexual assaults. Beatings are not uncommon.
“I think it speaks to how dangerous the situation in the home country is,” Borroto said.
Every other week, detained children appear in front of Judge Jennie Giambastiani in immigration court in Chicago.
Unlike in juvenile criminal court, kids in immigration court are not guaranteed a lawyer. In 2014, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, one-third of unaccompanied children had attorneys. Within those cases, 73 percent were allowed to stay.
Many cases are complex. Some children leave home too quickly to scribble an address. Journeys can take so long a phone number no longer works. Young children rarely can offer details; a child who can’t count doesn’t know how many days she traveled.
“The fact that a child can’t explain their case very well doesn’t mean they don’t have a case,” said Daniel Thomann, a Chicago attorney who co-created Volunteer Immigrant Defense Advocates, a nonprofit that connects attorneys with unaccompanied immigrant children.
So many children have crossed the border that courts modified procedures to accommodate them. Judges can appear without robes, and kids can bring booster seats. Chicago has juvenile-only dockets, something the Young Center recommended.
On one January day in Giambastiani’s courtroom, children waited for hearings in bulky sweaters over polo shirts.
One 9-year-old girl with a red sweatshirt and messy ponytail sat on a courtroom chair, feet swinging. She and her brother are detained in Chicago, her lawyer explained to Giambastiani, and they hoped to reunite with their mother on the East Coast.
In another case, a 17-year-old boy in a green polo told the judge in a soft voice that he came from Guatemala. He, too, hoped to move out of the shelter. Foster care is an option, but spots are hard to come by.
In the same courtroom on a February afternoon, a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl with side-swept bangs sat in front of Giambastiani. Her advocate from the Young Center stood behind her as the girl’s lawyer told the judge her mother is awaiting approval as a sponsor.
The girl had been in a Heartland shelter for more than a year. All hoped she would soon leave.
“Things are looking promising for you,” Giambastiani told the girl, whose future was still uncertain.
Before joining the group returning to the shelter, the girl hugged her advocate. If all goes well, they won’t see each other in this courtroom again. But wherever she is, her case to secure legal status will continue. Perhaps they’ll Skype, her advocate suggested.
Grinning, the girl pulled on her coat and walked toward the exit.