Recent news reports about the U.S. government losing track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children in its care has prompted outrage and confusion. These are children who came here as unaccompanied minors and were placed with sponsors. Their sponsors are often parents or close relatives already living in the country.
Lili, now 18, was one such unaccompanied minor. She left Honduras in 2016 to search for her mother in Everett, Massachusetts. Her story really begins when she was just 16, though, traveling north with her baby son.
“There is a couple of reasons that I came here,” Lili said, “but the main reason is because there is a lot of violence in Honduras.”
We agreed to refer to Lili by her middle name because she fears for her family’s safety and because she’s a survivor of rape. Her son, she said, is a product of that sexual assault.
When Lili and her son left Honduras in 2016, the country had one of the highest rates of violent deaths among women in the world.
“I left in the morning one day, took my kid and a couple of money and took a bus to the Guatemala border,” she said.
From there, Lili made her way up to Mexico, where she worked for a few weeks. She then found a smuggler to help her cross the border into the U.S.
She walked through the desert for hours, carrying her baby and sharing a bottle of water among six people, she said. Eventually, she was picked up by immigration officials.
“They asked me if I had family or whatever, and I told them yeah, that my mom is here in Massachusetts, and they call her,” Lili said. “She finally answered the phone, and one of the officers told her that they had her daughter in the detention center.”
Lili hadn’t seen her mom in 11 years.
She spent a few days in that detention center before she was transferred to a shelter in California, where she received trauma counseling. In the meantime, a case worker was making visits to her mother in Everett. The visits were designed to make sure that Lili was going home to a safe place.
Nearly 2,000 unaccompanied minors were released to sponsors throughout New England from October 2016 to September of 2017.
Jeffrey Thielman is president and CEO of the Boston-based International Institute of New England, which is contracted out by the federal government to help facilitate the placement of unaccompanied youth with sponsors.
“Our program is designed to help the children who come to the border who are unaccompanied,” he said, “who are then put in a detention center for a period of time, paroled and often have family in this region of the country.”
But Thielman said the agency’s work is becoming more difficult for a few reasons.
For one, there’s the Trump administration’s decision to end a program that allowed young people in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala to apply for refugee status while still living in their home country. It was designed to stem the flood of unaccompanied minors at the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. The end of the program means young people looking to reunite with family may instead make the dangerous trek alone.
Finding sponsors — typically family members already here in the U.S. — presents another obstacle, Thielman said.
“I think a lot of sponsors don’t want to come forward because they may be undocumented themselves,” he said, “and they may fear talking to government authorities because they could be subject to deportation.
The reports that the federal government lost track of nearly 1,500 unaccompanied youth who’d been placed with sponsors sparked anger and inspired the social media hashtag “missing children.”
Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Eric Hargan said in a statement that these 1,500 or so children are not lost. Instead, he said, their sponsors simply did not or could not respond to follow-up calls made by his agency.
Lili has applied for asylum here in the U.S. for herself and her son. She’s in school and studying Italian. She and her son are still living with her mom, who is in the country without authorization.