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The trip to the U.S. Southern border is hard, let alone for kids traveling alone

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This past year has seen the largest wave of migrant children coming to the U.S. in modern history. In the last 12 months, nearly 145,000 kids have made it to the U.S. Southern border, many traveling alone. Most are fleeing danger in Central America, and they come to live here with relatives and await their asylum hearings. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A white van pulls up in an apartment complex in Austin. Nerly Garcia peers into the tinted windows to get a glimpse of her five daughters, who've been away from her for 20 months. Finally, the door slides open. Her youngest, 3-year-old Mia, climbs out and leaps into her mommy's arms.

NERLY GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: The other four sisters, lugging colorful suitcases, climb the stairs to their new life. They were discharged from government custody and reunited with the help of an immigrant justice project called VECINA.

(CROSSTALK)

BURNETT: This is the end of a two-year odyssey. It began when their mother spirited them away from their abusive father in La Paz, Honduras. They made their way to the Texas-Mexico border together, but when Nerly was turned away from a U.S. immigration court, she made an agonizing decision. She sent her five daughters alone across the border to surrender to federal agents. Eventually, she was permitted to cross the border, and she came here to Austin.

Three weeks after the reunion, I went back to check in on the Garcia family.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING, CHILD GIGGLING)

BURNETT: Mia had a cuddly new puppy and the girls' bedrooms were filled with toiletries, stuffed animals and heart pillows - gifts from a charity. The plan is they'll go to school, Nerly will work cleaning houses and they'll all pursue their asylum cases, which will likely take years.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: She says the ordeal has been especially hard for the girls because they were alone. At the tender ages of 1 year old to 10 years old, they waded across a river into a strange land without their mother. They spent time in Border Patrol custody, then in a migrant shelter and finally in a foster home in San Antonio.

GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Thank God we're finally together again," says Nerly.

We don't know how the Garcia girls will fare in Austin. They just got here. But we can look at the progress of other unaccompanied migrant children in similar circumstances. For this, I head to Houston, a city that receives lots of asylum-seekers.

Sarah Howell is a clinical social worker who sees mostly Central American children enrolled in public schools. She says they typically go through an initial honeymoon period.

SARAH HOWELL: Where it feels like the streets are paved with gold and they're in this new country and everything's just perfect, perfect, perfect. They're reunited with mom. They say, oh, everything's great. And then six weeks in, it all falls apart.

BURNETT: The trauma of their chaotic journey then emerges. It can lead to anxiety and depression. And there are other emotions - homesickness and disappointment. They may not get along with relatives. They have no money in a pricey city and they live in a place where the streets are not paved with gold, says Howell.

HOWELL: Kids start to let down their guard, but unfortunately, families have settled in communities that are high-poverty, that often unfortunately also have high rates of community violence.

BURNETT: In their new reality, oftentimes the happiest place for migrant children is school.

(SOUNDBITE OF SCHOOL BELL)

BURNETT: At the dismissal bill, a United Nations of students - 88 different languages in all - pours into the hallways. This is the Alief Independent School District on Houston's immigrant-rich southeast side.

DULCE SEGOVIA: This is their safe place. This is their place where they know that they can get food or that they can get clothing or that they can ask a question. And because what happens outside these doors is, for me, in my opinion - it's so difficult for these kids.

BURNETT: Dulce Segovia is director of English instruction at LINC, the Language Institute for Newcomers, at Alief. Segovia understands her students. She was a girl when her family fled El Salvador in the '90s and came to Houston with nothing to start a new life. She knows the immigrant experience can be traumatic, but she says these kids are tough.

SEGOVIA: Immigrants are very resilient. I think that they've learned to live kind of day by day just because the situation of a refugee or an immigrant is just so difficult, even in their home country.

BURNETT: There is a conservative critique of asylum-seekers in the U.S. that they're a burden on society. The argument goes like this, and it's based on U.S. Census data. Central Americans are more likely to hold a job than the U.S. native population, but they're also more likely to trail the native-born in socioeconomic status.

Steven Camarota is research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for fewer immigrants.

STEVEN CAMAROTA: So a lot of these kids that are coming as unaccompanied minors are joining low-income families, and those families are going to live in poverty. And in many cases, then the family has to turn to the American taxpayer for various forms of assistance, whether it be food assistance, health care.

BURNETT: Unauthorized migrants, like the Garcia family, are not eligible for any federal benefits. If they become legal, they would be entitled to food stamps and Medicaid, like any other needy family. But Jodi Berger Cardoso points out that when migrant children finish high school, there are societal gains. She's an associate professor in the Graduate College of Social Work at the University of Houston, where she works with migrant families.

JODI BERGER CARDOSO: These are people who go and enter into the labor force - right? - who often enter into low-wage jobs, jobs that we need filled. They're the construction workers. They're the service workers. They're the restaurant workers.

BURNETT: It's important to measure not just the experiences of newly arrived migrants, but the progress of their children as well, says Luis Zayas. He's dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas at Austin, and he's researched recent immigrant flows.

LUIS ZAYAS: That happens with every immigrant group in that first generation. They don't bring the skills, they don't have the - necessarily the language skills to make it. But they do succeed, and they succeed in propelling their children forward. We have seen it in literally every immigrant group in America.

BURNETT: We're back in the Garcia's crowded apartment in Austin. The oldest, Kimberly, 12 years old and painfully shy, sits on her mom's bed and reflects on her new life here.

KIMBERLY GARCIA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: Si.

KIMBERLY: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We didn't have much opportunity there in Honduras," she says. "But here, we do." Kimberly says she wants to learn English, join the basketball team and study to become a marine biologist. If she wins asylum, she's got a shot at it.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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