TIJUANA, Mexico — Adaulban, a lanky 17-year-old from Michoacán, Mexico, sits on a worn couch at Casa YMCA in Tijuana. He was deported two days earlier. Now, he's at the only shelter for unaccompanied minors in the city, trying to decide what to do next.
The soft-spoken teen was nervous and asked us not to use his last name. During his brief stint on United States soil, he says, he spent three days waiting by the freeway, waiting for a pre-arranged ride that never showed up. Adaulban had no food, nor water. He was ultimately apprehended by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. After two more days in detention, he was delivered back to Mexico — and Casa YMCA.
Since 1980, the internationally funded nonprofit says it has served more than 40,000 deported minors. It serves youth of both genders between the ages of 13 and 18. Like Adaulban, most youth at Casa YMCA are caught trying to enter the United States.
Under the Obama administration, more than 400,000 people were deported from the United States in 2012. The majority were adults, many with criminal records, but minors are sometimes caught up in this enforcement dragnet.
A 2009 report by the Congressional Research Service noted that approximately 80,000 juveniles are apprehended each year by immigration authorities. Some are taken to court, but others — like Adaulban — are returned to Mexico without setting foot in a courtroom. Typically, they remain there until a family member is located.
For those who do end up in U.S. court, a group like San Diego's Casa Cornelia Law Center can help. Casa Cornelia provides free legal representation to all detained minors facing deportation in San Diego. In 2013, they expect to provide pro-bono services to 300 minors.
Casa Cornelia clients range from immigrant youth caught crossing the border to undocumented kids who grew up in the U.S. They're from various countries: Guatemala, Peru, China, Somalia. They can be as old as 17—or as young as 4.
Elizabeth Camarena, Casa Cornelia’s Associate Director of Legal Program, says that 80 percent of the children they represent are recent arrivals. The remaining 20 percent are young people already living in the United States, often with their parents and families.
Camarena says the experiences of these two groups vary.
“We find that the child who has been detected and detained who has been living in the United States is a completely different kind of client," she said. "They have a lot of difficulty even just processing the fact that they are in danger of being removed from their home…. A lot of them just can’t believe that this is real, or that this is really happening.”
Youth living in the U.S. without legal status often don't realize they’re not Americans until they're detained by immigration authorities, she explains. Frequently, they're identified during routine traffic stops as passengers in a car.
Hundreds more minors are identified by County Juvenile Probation Departments. A shoplifting incident that might result in a slap on the wrist for an American teen can result in detention and deportation for a non-citizen minor, even if the delinquency charges turn out to be unfounded.
From 2009 through the first half of 2012, Orange County reported 546 minors to Immigration and Custom Enforcement, resulting in 424 arrests. During that same period in San Diego County, ICE arrested 218 youth reported by Probation.
Uriel González Pérez, the director of Casa YMCA, says many of the kids who arrive here are familiar faces. Many also have familiar stories: petty crimes, a joyride in a car of unknown origins, an arrest for marijuana. Teenagers often don't understand the gravity of their situation. Under the current version of immigration law, last amended substantially in 1996, most minors deported with criminal records are banned for life from re-entering the United States.
González says even troublemakers tend to calm down once they arrive at Casa YMCA.
"They change their behavior [once they're here,]" he said in Spanish.
Young people with strong ties to the United States can be deported if ICE determines they do not have permission to continue living in the country. Yet deportation alone doesn't stop many kids from trying to cross again—and again.
“When they arrive here with us, they have already tried crossing and returning to try to cross and returning again, three, four and five times," González said. "This is what we call their normal process, the vicious cycle of these young people. Coming, going, coming, going.”
As for the motivation behind the repeated attempts to travel north? Various sources agree: It's the hope to reunite with family in the U.S.
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