The Washington Post examines the plight of child immigrants, caught between conflicting government agencies that seek to reunite families while at the same time working to deport them.
Left behind more than a decade ago by his parents, illegal immigrants living in Northern Virginia, Iraheta made part of his trek to the United States hidden in the baggage compartment of a Mexican bus. But soon after surreptitiously crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, he was picked up by the Border Patrol and brought here to a converted nursing home run by the federal government where 136 children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are temporarily housed.
Iraheta is but one drop in a new and fast-growing stream of illegal immigration to the United States, those under 18 who are sneaking into the country without their parents. Authorities say the phenomenon is growing and includes girls traveling alone and even toddlers being carried by older siblings or entrusted to smugglers.
Many of those who are apprehended by the Border Patrol end up in a burgeoning network of shelters set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There they run up against Washington’s paradoxical approach to the problem of children who entered the country illegally without their parents. The government agency that runs the shelters tries to reunite the children with relatives living here, regardless of their legal status. Another federal agency works to deport them—as well as their parents. Iraheta’s mother and father are reluctant to come forward to claim their son, fearing that would lead to being sent back to El Salvador. So are his sisters, who are also in the country illegally. Even uncles who are legal U.S. residents living in Texas have stayed away.