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Unaccompanied children from Central America head 'north' as a matter of survival, local advocates say

Published: Saturday, July 19 2014 2:54 p.m. MDT

In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014 photo, Edwin Lemus, 10, from El Salvador, sits in the men's section of a shelter providing temporary refuge to Central American migrants on their way north, in Arriaga, Chiapas State, Mexico. Edwin's father Nathanael Lemus, said that after taking his wife and children safely north, he would wait in Mexico for a chance to cross on his own and hopefully not get caught. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

Rebecca Blackwell, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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SALT LAKE CITY — There are eight children in Catholic Community Services of Utah's foster care program who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border unaccompanied.

They are teenagers who fled Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to escape impoverished, gang-infested countries with corrupt governments. Some of the children also left to escape abusive and neglectful parents.

These youths entered the United States more than a year ago when the influx of children from Central America was a trickle compared with the 52,000 unaccompanied minors now at the border. Each of the children in Catholic Community Services' care had their day in court, and a judge determined it was unsafe for them to be returned home.

Julianna Potter, refugee foster care program manager for Catholic Community Services, said she has deep concerns about legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that would place all unaccompanied minors in "expedited removal proceedings."

"The point of having the court hearing is so we can prevent children from having to go back to dangerous places and dangerous homes," Potter said. "Taking away that opportunity for them when they've already been through so much in their home countries and also so much in getting across the border with whatever means they had, it’s a pretty cruel fate for these kids, I think."

The goal of the legislation is to return unaccompanied children to their home countries "almost immediately" unless they have a legitimate credible fear of persecution, according to a news release from Chaffetz and co-sponsor Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Potter, who previously worked in Texas' child welfare system, said each child deserves careful review of his or her circumstances.

"They just want to be safe and have shelter and not have to worry that their family is going to be murdered. That’s all they want when they come here," she said.

Zach Bale, who spent two years in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago, said the dangers that Honduran children face are unfathomable to most Americans.

"Parents are sending their kids north so they don't die, so they don't get raped or pulled into gangs," Bale said. "I don't think we have any frame of reference to even fathom why. The kids alone should be evidence of what's going on down there."

When Bale was in Honduras from 2001 to 2003, the Peace Corps did not allow volunteers to enter certain cities such as San Pedro Sula.

"When I was there, it was bad. A couple of my friends have been back since and it's 50 times worse," he said, explaining that the Peace Corps no longer sends volunteers there.

Bale, too, has grave concerns about Chaffetz's Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act.

"Any bill that seeks to send them back is sending them back to be pulled into gangs and to be killed," he said. "Maybe it's easier to talk about adults when they have entered the county illegally, but these are kids."

Chaffetz says the bill would make long overdue changes to the asylum process.

"Too many are finding ways to game the system. By strengthening standards for those who claim ‘credible fear,’ we can expedite the removal process. We must deal with this crisis in both a humane and realistic manner. This legislation does both,” he said in a news release.

The issues surrounding the influx of unaccompanied children and families from Central America are complex, Potter said.

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