Will Ginger Get to Stay?

Author:Smith, Patricia
Position::Cover story
 
FREE EXCERPT

After fleeing the violent gang that kidnapped her in Honduras, she crossed illegally into the U.S. in search of a better life. Now the 17-year-old is hoping she won't be sent back.

In November 2017, as Ginger walked home from school in the overcrowded neighborhood in Honduras where she grew up, something happened that changed her life.

A woman approached her asking for help. While Ginger was distracted talking to the woman, some men grabbed Ginger and kidnapped her. The men, who were likely part of a criminal gang or drug cartel, held her for several days in an abandoned house, along with some other young people. Just 15 years old at the time, she was terrified. After a few days, when no one was looking, Ginger escaped through a window.

"I ran," she recalls, speaking through a translator. "I got out without knowing where I was going."

With the help of a stranger who gave her money for a bus, she made her way back to her home in Tegucigalpa (tuh-goo-see-GAHL-puh), Honduras's capital, where she lived with her grandfather. He took her to the police station to report what had happened. But it wasn't long before Ginger realized that the police weren't on her side. In Honduras, police are often in cahoots with the drug cartels.

"I was afraid because I thought they were going to take me back to the kidnappers again," she says. And she thought that might mean being raped or even killed.

"They said they were going to help, but they didn't help," Ginger says of the police. "There is no justice in my country."

Ginger and her grandfather left the police station, and a week later, her grandfather decided that for her own safety, Ginger must leave Honduras. So Ginger said goodbye in January 2018, just after she turned 16, and started on a journey that ultimately took her 3,000 miles away from the home she'd always known to the United States.

260,000 Children

Ginger (whose last name is being withheld to safeguard her privacy) is one of about 38,000 children from Central America who arrived in the U.S. without a parent or adult in 2018. Like Ginger, many try to sneak across the border illegally; others present themselves to the border patrol and ask for help. Since 2014, more than 260,000 Central American children have come to the U.S. by themselves.

"The families understand that there are serious risks involved in making the journey," says Mark Greenberg of the Migration Policy Institute (M.P.I.), an immigration policy research center in Washington, D.C. "But they're seeking to flee from terrible circumstances in their home countries."

Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador--where most of these kids come from--all suffer from severe poverty and intense violence from gangs and drug cartels. The authorities are famously corrupt and often work with the criminals, so they're of little help in protecting people.

"We're definitely seeing a change in who's coming to the southern border," says Jessica Bolter of M.P.I. "It used to be dominated by mainly Mexican single migrants looking for jobs in the U.S. Now it's more families and people who're seeking humanitarian protection."

Many of those arriving in the U.S. say their lives are at risk in their home countries, and they're asking to be allowed to stay on those grounds. It's a process called claiming asylum (see "Know the Difference," right, and "Who's Asking for Asylum?" below), and the number of migrants arriving in the U.S. who are using it has soared by almost 2,000 percent in the past decade.

President Trump and many of his supporters say this is evidence that the asylum system is being abused.

"There is widespread abuse," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative group that favors immigration restrictions. "People know that if they say the right things and get into the asylum system that they'll be able to stay in the U.S. for years as they wait for their case to even come up."

Immigration experts on both sides of the aisle agree that the U.S. asylum system is out of date and needs revamping. This issue has been thrust into the spotlight by the arrival in the past few months of several caravans of migrants from Central America, each with thousands of people seeking refuge here. Trump has said these migrants won't be allowed into the country. He's also sent U.S. troops to the border--and said they can shoot to kill if necessary--to keep the migrants out.

Too Scared to Sleep

Ginger's journey from her home in Honduras to the U.S.-Mexican border took 22 days. She traveled on buses, in cars, and on foot with a man--a coyote, or smuggler--who her grandfather hired to guide her to the U.S. She had just one small bag with three pairs of pants and three shirts, and the sneakers on her feet. She wasn't able to carry food or even a bottle of water with her. She remembers the long...

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