When Luis Miguel Diaz Calel and Anabelia Maribel Diaz Hernandez were picked up April 14 by immigration police at the U.S. border, they were taken to a detention center they called the “icebox.”
Calel and Hernandez, who are both 16, told their story Thursday to U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal after a press conference about the surge unaccompanied Central American children arriving at the border.
Once they got across the border, they were picked up by police and taken to the “icebox,” which Rosario Caicedo, of Unidad Latina en Accion, described as a workhouse. Calel and Hernandez said they slept on the ground and many of the children got sick from the extreme air conditioning.
“They were not treated in the nicest way and then everything they were carrying was taken away from them,” Caicedo said.
Murphy asked about the conditions Calel was escaping in his home country of Guatemala.
“It’s very difficult,” Caicedo translated. “There’s an enormous amount of violence. There’s an enormous amount of poverty. He couldn’t go to school because he had to help his family and work in the fields.”
Caicedo said there’s a lot of gangs and they are afraid to leave the house, but home was not a safe place either. Calel and Hernandez both experienced domestic violence.
Selvin Omar Martinez Lopez, 9, who is also from Guatemala said the process of crossing the border was arduous. They would have to take many trains and he saw people fall from the train and get crushed.
Calel and Hernandez are now living with their older brother in New Haven. They arrived in Connecticut on June 6. Lopez crossed the border with his mother in December and is also living in New Haven.
Caicedo said there are so many of these unaccompanied children it’s hard to say exactly how many may be here in Connecticut.
However, her organization has been vocal about President Barack Obama’s plan to change a 2008 law and speed up deportations of these children.
“We demand that Obama continue to treat migrant children as refugees in keeping with international human rights conventions instead of requesting $20,000 dollars per child from Congress to incarcerate and deport them,” Unidad Latina en Accion said in a statement.
Some children believed they would be given leniency from the U.S. because Obama granted temporary legal status to undocumented children who were brought to the U.S. by their parents. But in order to qualify for that status, a child would have had to have been living in the United States continuously since 2007.
Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Guatemala last month to set the record straight and warn against the perils of a trip north. The U.S. government recently launched a $1 million media campaign in Central American countries to reinforce the message that the trip is dangerous and immigrants who make it won’t be able to stay.
According to the Associated Press, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been detained since last October after entering the U.S. illegally, mostly in South Texas.
Murphy and Blumenthal described the situation as a “humanitarian crisis.”
“They are almost universally fleeing horrible violence in their home countries of Central America,” Murphy said.
He said the U.S. needs to treat these children as refugees and not as illegal immigrants it plans to deport.
“There are a large number of these children who cannot be sent back to their home country because of threats of violence and the inability to reunify with families,” Murphy said.
Blumenthal said there has to be a process set up where each of these children is afforded due process.
President Barack Obama has called upon Congress to authorize $2 billion to assist with this crisis.
Murphy and Blumenthal were adamant that deporting these children is not the answer. In the short-term, there’s going to have to be a process set up where the government decides which children are united with their families already living in the U.S.
In the long-term, Congress needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the two Senators said.
“We think that this crisis should prompt Congress to action,” Murphy said. “We hope that compassionate members of the House of Representatives will take a second look at a comprehensive immigration reform bill that has a lot of tools within that will help with this crisis.”
Murphy agreed with Blumenthal that immigration reform is not dead, “but it is certainly on life-support given the complete unwillingness of the Tea Party in the House of Representatives to take this up.”
Murphy said he hopes this crisis of unaccompanied children changes the political dynamics.
He said Congress was able to come together and pass a $1 billion aid package for the crisis in Ukraine. He said he hoped they could unite over this issue, too.