Originally published by The New Yorker
One morning in early August, Jorge, a thirty-seven-year-old construction worker from Guatemala who lives with his wife and two children in Virginia, received a phone call from an unknown number with a Texas area code. “I don’t like answering calls from people who aren’t listed in my phone,” he told me. “I always have in my head that this isn’t my country.” This time, however, he decided to answer. On the other end of the line, the speaker identified himself, in Spanish, as a U.S. government official. “Are you bringing or receiving anyone coming to the United States?” the official asked. Jorge said no, but then a thought occurred to him: earlier in the summer, his sister in Guatemala had mentioned that her seventeen-year-old son, Pedro, might travel north to live with his grandparents in the United States. “Could it be Pedro?” Jorge asked the official. “That’s him,” the official replied.
Pedro had just been apprehended in Texas while trying to enter the country alone, and he was being held at a shelter overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (O.R.R.), which places unaccompanied children with family members living in the U.S. In Guatemala, local gangsters had threatened to kill him; to keep word from getting out, Pedro didn’t tell anyone his exact plans to flee. Before leaving, though, he copied his uncle’s number from his mother’s cell phone and eventually gave it to American authorities at the border after his capture. Pedro’s grandparents, who are also Jorge’s parents and live near him in Virginia, knew nothing about their grandson’s trip. The call between Jorge and the government official lasted less than five minutes. “We’re going to be calling back in a few days,” he told Jorge. “Answer the phone when we do.”
Pedro is now being held in an emergency shelter in Tornillo, Texas, a tent citywhere the government has transferred hundreds of minors in recent weeks, often under the cover of night, in an effort to address an escalating crisis. Nationwide, there are currently 13,200 children in O.R.R. custody, more than ever before, and five times more than were being held in the spring of last year. Shelters have become overcrowded not because more children are fleeing north than in years past but mainly because the Trump Administration has made it more difficult to release them. In April, the O.R.R. signed an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to share information about the legal status of children’s sponsors. Those who come forward to claim family members can now be arrested and deported if they are here illegally. As a result, immigrant families have had to make a choice: sponsor children and risk deportation, or keep their distance while children languish in government custody. As families weigh the stakes, children have been spending longer periods of time in detention. Officially, the H.H.S. claims that the average time is fifty-nine days, but according to one of the department’s own officials, who agreed to speak with me on the condition of anonymity, detained children now spend an average of seventy-four days in federal custody, more than double what it was at the start of 2016.