The Sunday Magazine

Children seeking asylum face extortion, rape and murder before they even arrive at the U.S. border

In 2015, Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli began volunteering as an interpreter for young Central American asylum-seekers facing deportation. She speaks with Gillian Findlay about the conditions children are fleeing, their dangerous journey across Mexico, and what happens once they enter the American justice system.
Children play in front of tents used for sleeping in a shelter for migrants on June 22, 2018 in Tijuana, Mexico. Migrants from Mexico and Central America, most of whom are seeking asylum in the U.S., are staying at the shelter located near the U.S.-Mexico border. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

The world's attention has been focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, where more than 2,300 children were separated from their families earlier this year. But young asylum-seekers have been arriving at the border for years, and will continue to make that perilous journey long after the media spotlight has moved on.

Between April 2014 and August 2015, over 100,000 unaccompanied children from Central America were detained at the border.

Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli volunteered as a interpreter in one of the priority court dockets created to handle their deportation hearings. She transcribed children's stories, using a 40-part questionnaire, so lawyers could determine whether they had a chance of remaining in the U.S. Her book about those conversations is called Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions. She spoke with The Sunday Edition's guest host Gillian Findlay.

This is a partial transcript that has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' at the top of the page.

Valeria Luiselli's book 'Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions,' was originally published in 2017. (Alfredo Pelcastre)

Gillian Findlay: Can you tell me about the children you met in court?

Valeria Luiselli: I interviewed many children, some of them as young as five and seven years old. [They travelled] with "coyotes" — a person who is paid by a family member to bring the child from their country of origin to the border. Then children turn themselves in to Border Patrol.

Most of them are teenagers, because teenagers are the most vulnerable to gang coercion. Gangs want to recruit children almost as child soldiers, and if they don't join the gangs, they are threatened, they are raped, they are tortured. Their family members are killed. A lot of the children that end up in the U.S. seeking asylum have seen gangs kill a family member or friends.

GF: They have to travel not only out of their country, but across [Mexico] simply to get to that border. What did they go through?

VL: Eight out of ten girls and young women are raped along the way. Young women take contraceptive precautions, because they know that in all likelihood, they will be raped.

If they don't join the gangs, they are threatened, they are raped, they are tortured.- Valeria Luiselli

VL: Younger boys, if they if they are caught by drug trafficking gangs, will often be forced to to remain in Mexico, working in slave conditions. Then there is the Mexican police, which is also brutal and often acts violently and with complete impunity. Trying to cross Mexico is perhaps worse than trying to cross the different circles of Dante's hell.

GF: You're Mexican. You're a parent. As you listened to these stories about some of the awful things that these children survive, how did you feel?

VL: I feel deeply ashamed of my country. It's always shameful for me to look into the eyes of a Honduran boy and tell him, "I'm Mexican. I'm Mexican but a promise I'm not one of the shitty ones."

As much as I am deeply angry at the U.S. and its treatment of migrants, at least I see that there is a huge civil society response. It has not happened in Mexico. What we have seen is our government being pressured by the U.S. government into being the chief deporter. 

Children take part in a protest against US immigration policies outside the US embassy in Mexico City on June 26, 2018. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

GF: You wrote about a 16 year old boy from Honduras, Manu. He was targeted by gangs — one of them MS-13. How did these gangs shape his life in Honduras?

VL: Well, they devastated his life. They forced him to to leave his home country, because after trying to recruit him and him not wanting to get recruited, they killed his best friend in front of him.

After that, he says he was desperate and reached out to an aunt who put together money and paid a coyote. He made it across. He got special juvenile status, a special visa for children in this situation.

GF: If you asked him, is his life better here now, what do you think he'd answer? Because he still struggles.

VL: He struggles a lot. He had to leave school because it turned out that there were so many gangs in the school. He couldn't deal with the violence.

They feel that they live in a nightmare from which they cannot wake up.- Valeria Luiselli

VL: It's devastating, because they've made this journey to flee from the gangs and they arrive in New York, in Long Island, and MS-13 is also there. Basically, they feel that they live in a nightmare from which they cannot wake up.

A Honduran child works in a colouring book while waiting with his family along the border bridge after being denied entry from Mexico into the U.S. on June 25, 2018 in Brownsville, Texas. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

GF: What responsibility do you think that the United States should bear for the conditions that these young people like Manu find themselves in and are so desperate to flee?

VL: Absolute responsibility. We share a hemispheric history, and these children are still a product of the civil wars in Central America which were all funded by successive administrations in the U.S. In El Salvador, it was the Reagan administration who funded and trained the military government that started massacring the population.

A fifth of the entire country had to flee. The U.S. decided to take in some of those refugees, after having messed up their country. A lot of them ended up in Los Angeles in the 1970s, [which was] full of gangs. A lot of these were young men who had already gone through a very brutal civil war [and] were affected psychologically. It was in that boiling pot that MS-13 forms.

A lot of gang members were deported in the 80s and the 90s, but the gang simply spread, like a cancer. Now they are still [in LA], but they are also in Mexico and Long Island. They returned to their home countries and started recruiting kids and growing.

GF: As you look around [in the United States], are you hopeful?

VL: I'm scared. But I'm also hopeful, because I think there is this huge body of people resisting. I feel that people more awake than they were in the Obama administration, where a lot of this was also happening. I was a little bit more worried [then in some ways], because I didn't feel that that anyone cared.

Now I am worried because this government has gone beyond all our expectations and its brutality and its inhumanity. While we're seeing these shock politics, like family separation, what is also happening is a more silent bureaucratic war against the same population that has to do with apparently small changes in policy.

A child reaches through from the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence on June 24, 2018 in Sunland Park, New Mexico. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

VL: Family separation has ended already. But then there's this information sharing between ICE and and the Office of Refugee Resettlement, who are the ones in charge of of children when they arrive alone in the US.

They used to have a confidentiality policy with information that children gave out. For example, [a child] had to say, "I have my mother in Long Island, and this is her telephone number and this is her address, and she can claim me." Now in this new policy change, that information is shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There's also something very serious, which is that according to a memo passed about a month ago, gang violence and domestic violence are no longer considered reasons to get asylum.

GF: The title of the book comes from a question you say that your own daughter kept asking as you were doing this work: "How does the story of those children end?" How would you answer her today?

VL: I would say the same thing that I said to her back then. I don't know how it ends. But it's up to us to make sure that the destinies of children like these are ones that they deserve.