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Some children with claims of abuse overlooked at border

Sex-trafficking victims often fear retaliation

Andrea, 18, who grew up with cartel members in Honduras and Mexico, feared telling US border agents her plight.Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times/NYT

HARLINGEN, Texas — The first time her aunt in Mexico took her out at night, the young teenager was told they were headed to a party.

It was no party.

“It was trafficking people, drug dealers,” she recalled. “I just saw a lot of guys. They had guns. I was in shock. I was shaking. The more I was saying no, the more they treated me badly.”

It was the start of a dark ordeal for Andrea H., a Honduran then living in a Mexican border city. Her own relatives, associates of Mexican drug cartel bosses, forced her into prostitution. She was 13.


After two years she ran away, seeking safety in the United States. She tried twice, crossing the Rio Grande, scrambling over fences and hiding in cactus brush in black swarms of mosquitoes. Twice she was caught by the Border Patrol.

But when agents questioned her, Andrea did not tell them why she had fled. Thinking back to those encounters in an interview last week, Andrea recalled the chill she had felt facing uniformed agents in bleak holding cells at a Border Patrol station within earshot of other migrants she did not know — perhaps with ties to the cartels.

“I was just trying to protect myself, and I was not saying anything to no one,” she said.

Twice she agreed to leave voluntarily and was returned to Mexico.

In an unprecedented surge, more than 57,000 young migrants coming without their parents, most from Central America, have been apprehended at the southwest border since October. Administration officials and lawmakers in Congress want to stem the influx by speeding up reviews to determine whether they should be deported.

“We have to show that if you do not qualify for some form of humanitarian relief under our laws, you must be sent home,” Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, said at a Senate hearing this month.


But interviews during the past week with many young migrants like Andrea who made the journey to the border suggest the risks of accelerating initial screenings.

Minors questioned shortly after being caught in locations, like Border Patrol stations, where they may feel unsafe often do not disclose dangers at home or abuses suffered during their journey, lawyers who are counseling them say.

“Many children would be sent back to harm,” said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of Raices, a legal-services organization in San Antonio that has conducted indepth screenings of more than 1,000 unaccompanied minors in an emergency shelter at Lackland Air Force Base. “We would have their names here, and the morgue in Tegucigalpa will have the bodies down there,” he said, referring to the capital of Honduras.

Ryan and other advocates who have conducted deeper screenings of more than 3,000 Central American juveniles this year in shelters in Texas found that at least half could present viable claims for visas.

In the case of Andrea H., the full story of her abuse emerged long after her brief screenings by the Border Patrol. The agents who questioned her not only failed to discover that she was a victim of sex trafficking but also returned her to Mexico, missing the key fact that she is Honduran.

“I was just afraid of everything, after all those things those guys had been doing to my body,” she said, speaking by phone to the offices in this border city of the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, whose lawyers represented her in immigration court.


On a third attempt, she succeeded in crossing illegally into Texas, eventually confiding in those lawyers and antitrafficking investigators. Now 18 and living in Texas, Andrea asked that her full name not be published because she still fears some relatives. This year, she won a special immigration status for juveniles.

Debate in Washington has centered on a 2008 antitrafficking law. Obama administration officials and some lawmakers from both parties are seeking to extend the fast-track screenings the law allows for unaccompanied youths from Mexico, using them for Central Americans as well.

US policymakers proposing to change the law say they want to strike a fair balance, creating tougher deterrents to reduce the illegal surge while preserving the nation’s traditions of protecting people fleeing violence, especially children.

Bills were offered last week by two Texans, Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, and Representative Henry Cuellar, a Democrat; by two House Republicans, Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Jason Chaffetz of Utah; and by the senators from Arizona, John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans.

Under the current statute, minors from Mexico must be interviewed by border agents within 48 hours after they are apprehended. If a Mexican minor does not express fear of returning home, agents can obtain his or her consent to leave voluntarily.

Since October, more than 12,600 unaccompanied Mexicans were apprehended along the southwest border, and most were swiftly returned. Last year, more than 11,000 Mexican minors were sent back, immigration officials said.


For minors from countries that do not share a border with the United States, the law requires their transfer within 72 hours to detention shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services. Refugee officials work to find parents or other adults in this country who can care for them while they go through deportation proceedings.

They receive basic guidance on their legal rights, and in some shelters, volunteer lawyers interview them to assess their legal prospects. They can be eligible for a special juvenile status if they have been abused or abandoned by family; for asylum if they face life-threatening persecution; and for visas as victims or witnesses of serious crimes or human trafficking.

Homeland Security officials said 87 percent of those cases opened in the past five years are unresolved.

Last year, about 1,800 unaccompanied Central American minors were deported, the officials said.