International humanitarian and refugee organizations are turning their attention to a rising number of children who have been deported back to Guatemala after having attempted to migrate to the U.S.
In the past two years, more than 350 children have been deported from the U.S. to Guatemala and over 10,100 have been deported from Mexico, many of them stopped on their way north to the U.S., according to data from the Guatemalan Institute of Migration.
But when the children are sent back to Guatemala, they are often dropped off in cities hours away from the remote villages where their families live and have no financial means to get home.
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, or LIRS, a nongovernmental organization that helps resettle refugees in the U.S., opened a new office in Guatemala City last month to help those children.
“If the family does not have any means to return [the child] back home, if they can’t buy a bus ticket, they will stay in shelters around the area until they can find the funds to do so,” said Libby Sittley, the deputy director for foster care at LIRS, who spoke to NBC News from Guatemala on Wednesday.
Most of the children who are sent from the U.S. back to Guatemala arrive in Guatemala City, the nation’s capital and biggest city. But according to data from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration, in the past year the top two places of origin for Guatemalan migrant children in the U.S. were Huehuetenango and Quiché, rugged, rural departments to the north and west. Getting there from the capital can take up to seven hours over roads that are often arduous or dangerous or washed out.
LIRS now works with families who cannot afford transportation home for their deported children, trying to offset the costs and get the returned children out of shelters and back to their families. The group’s new office also offers work training and education opportunities to try to lift the children and their families out of poverty. One of the group’s recent clients is a 16-year-old boy who was deported from Mexico and must now learn how to provide for his entire family in rural Guatemala, including five siblings, after his father suffered a traumatic brain injury.
While countries like Venezuela and Mexico account for the highest numbers of undocumented new arrivals in the U.S., more than half of unaccompanied migrant children entering the U.S. are from Guatemala, according to LIRS. Children from Guatemala make up the overwhelming majority of migrant minors found working jobs in the U.S. that are illegal for anyone under 18, which often means meat processing. Last month, federal agents raided a poultry plant in Ohio and found dozens of children, mainly from Guatemala, working inside.
Anthony Fontes, an assistant professor in the School of International Service at American University, said children in Guatemala have the sense that “there is no viable future in their country of origin.”
“As a kid, you grow up laboring. … Most people don’t make it into high school,” Fontes said.
“There is an awareness among youth about what they are missing,” he said, pointing to the rise in social media, which has given Guatemalan children vivid glimpses of how American young people live. “It’s not just the need, but the aspiration for a better life.”
Children who arrive in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors without parents or legal guardians are given special protections under U.S. law. First, they are taken into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and then placed with sponsors, possibly relatives or family friends. They undergo special screenings for asylum by case managers. But to win asylum and the legal right to stay in the U.S., they still must appear in immigration court before judges, and they do face the possibility of deportation.
A bipartisan bill introduced in the House and the Senate this week aims to create kids-only court sessions where children defending themselves from deportation would appear before specially trained immigration judges.
Though their chances to remain in the U.S. are far better than those for adults or children who migrate with their parents, some still face final deportation orders and are put on planes back to Guatemala.
“It’s challenging. The administration is trying to strike this balance where there is enough deterrence in their minds that they are not encouraging additional travel, but I do think that when we are talking about some of the most vulnerable children … the idea of applying the same types of deportation practices that we’ve seen with adults to kids is a cruelty that doesn’t recognize the unique nature of being a child,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, the president and CEO of LIRS.
The Guatemalan Embassy in Washington, D.C., is also working with the Biden administration to improve the safety of children in Guatemala and the issues that drive them to the U.S.
“We recognize that migration is a complicated issue, especially when it comes to unaccompanied minors and youth,” the embassy told NBC News in a statement, adding that the two primary drivers for migration by unaccompanied youths are work opportunities and the desire to reunite with family members already in the U.S.