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Apr 9, 2016

Kids crossing borders – alone

Co-produced with PRX Logo

In a collaboration with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom and KQED in California, this episode of Reveal tells the stories of children crossing borders alone. You’ll hear about the wars they’re fleeing, where they’re trying to go and what happens to them when they get there.

We followed migrants who traveled from Afghanistan to Sweden to London, from El Salvador and Mexico to California, and we found that kids seeking safe harbor in Europe and the U.S. often confront years of uncertainty and insecurity when they arrive.

We begin in Sweden. In the past year, Sweden has been overwhelmed by the number of people streaming across its borders – in particular, children and teenagers. In this first segment, we hear from reporter Maeve McClenaghan of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism who traveled to the Swedish city of Malmo to learn more.

Next, we meet up with Maeve in London, who brings us the story of a young man she’s been following for two years. He’s determined not to go back to his home country of Afghanistan. But after eight years, he still doesn’t know if the British government will let him stay.

And finally, we head back to the states and hear from KQED reporters Tyche Hendricks and Ana Tintocalis about what happens to young migrants here in America.

This hour was produced by Reveal’s Laura Starecheski and edited by Taki Telonidis.

DIG DEEPER

  • Interactive: Europe’s refugee crisis – hear from the kids seeking asylum.
  • The Bureau reveals: In 2015, 95,000 unaccompanied children claimed asylum in Europe.
  • More from KQED: Hundreds of migrant teens are being held indefinitely in locked detention.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Track list:

  • Camerado-Lightning, “True Game (Reveal show theme)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Alice Coltrane, “Journey in Satchidananda” from “Journey in Satchidananda” (Impulse!)
  • Jim Briggs, “Where Are They Going? (breezy version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • ERAAS, “Initiation (Instrumental)” from “Initiation” (felte)
  • Jim Briggs, “Where Are They Going? (breaky version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ketsa, “Manifested” (Ketsa Music)
  • Jim Briggs, “Just Fourteen” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Only Way Out” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Just Fourteen (beatless)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Only Way Out (+mellotron version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Got this Call” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “The Only Way Out (minor/major version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Think Bigger” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Ketsa, “Long Walk” from “Changing Seasons” (Ketsa Music)
  • Mark McGuire, “Inside Where It's Warm” from “A Young Person's Guide” (Editions Mego)
  • Jim Briggs, “Migration on Hold (harps version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Migration in Stasis” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Migration Organ” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • Jim Briggs, “Migration on Hold (+organ version)” (Cut-Off Man Records)
  • David Szesztay, “Mindnight” from “Atmospheric Electric Guitar” (Needle Drop Record Co.)
  • David Szesztay, “Linger” from “Atmospheric Electric Guitar” (Needle Drop Record Co.)
  • David Szesztay, “Old Bernie Blues” from “Atmospheric Electric Guitar” (Needle Drop Record Co.)
  • David Szesztay, “Point Zero” from “Cinematic” (Needle Drop Record Co.)

TRANSCRIPT:

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Al:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

Right now, all around the world, kids are crossing borders alone. No parents, no relatives. Hundreds of thousands of them. They're part of a wave of millions of people fleeing wars in countries like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and gang violence and other dangers in Central America. Our show today is about these children and teenagers, how they find their way, where they're going, and how political debates about immigration and terrorism shape what happens to them when they arrive.

 

 

[00:01:00]

We begin in Sweden, a country that for years has been something of a holy grail for asylum seekers. Most war refugees could simply cross the border and get Swedish residency, healthcare, education, language lessons. It's been a point of pride for many Swedes that their country is so welcoming. In the past year, Sweden has been overwhelmed by the number of people streaming across its borders. In particular, children and teenagers, over 30,000 of them.

 

Reporter [Maeve McClenaghan 00:01:06] traveled to the Swedish city of Malmo. She's a part of a team from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, our partner for this story.

 

Maeve, tell us what we're hearing. What is this place?

Maeve:

Al, this is a transit center in Malmo, Sweden. It's a place where young, unaccompanied, asylum-seeking children will come when they first arrive. There were loads of kids there. This was a big group of them playing soccer. Malmo is connected to the rest of Europe by a bridge to Denmark. It's been an open door into Sweden. Last year, there were times when more than 400 kids a day were arriving into Malmo.

Al:

Did you get to meet any of these kids?

Maeve:
[00:02:00]

It was hard not to. I was actually taking a tour of the center with Tina Rossen, the woman who runs it, and we got interrupted by this kid called Hamid.

Hamid:

Hello!

Maeve:

Very loud. Hi. Right into the microphone.

Tina:

This is currently our youngest boy. He's 12, right?

Maeve:

Hamid was short and very thin. He was wearing a t-shirt that was torn at the shoulder. He's from Afghanistan.

Speaker 5:

He got separated at the border of Turkey and Iran, where they started shooting. When he heard gunshots, he started to running at the one direction, and last time he saw his parents was before the gunshots.

Maeve:

Hamid told me he doesn't know what happened to most of his family. His father died before they'd started the journey. He came to Sweden because he had heard his mum saying that's where they were going, and he thought that once he's arrived, he'd find her somehow.

[00:03:00]
Speaker 5:

 

His father is dead from before. His mother is along with four other children, just trying to make it another day.

Maeve:

The Red Cross is trying to find Hamid's mother, but they haven't had any luck yet.

Al:

Was he the youngest kid at the center? Most of these kids are teenagers, right?

Maeve:

 

 

 

[00:04:00]

He was the youngest one I visited, yeah. Most of them are older, but it can be really hard to tell someone's age just by looking at them. A lot of the people coming over here have no passports or birth certificates to prove their age, and age is important because the country is more generous to kids than to adult refugees. Some politicians believe young adults are lying about their age, pretending to be teenagers, to take advantage of the system. I talked to a politician called Lars Bertil Andersson from the Swedish Democrat Party. He thinks this is a real issue. He says he's worried about social services buckling under the weight of all these new arrivals.

Lars:

We are closing elderly centers and converting them into refugee centers. We're converting schools, we're converting campgrounds. Really everything in society right now is being effected by this mass immigration we've experienced.

Maeve:

It's not just services. People are also worried about security and terrorism, especially after the recent attacks in Paris and Brussels. In Sweden, there's been a strong anti-immigration backlash. Last October, the Swedish Democrat Party that Anderson belongs to posted the addresses of asylum centers, including some specifically for children, on the party's Facebook page. Within a week, ten centers had been firebombed, although not much is known about who was responsible. Now, those are extreme examples, but because of the widespread concerns in Sweden, the government came under enormous pressure to do something about the tide of immigrants.

[00:05:00]
Al:

 

We're in the middle of a similar debate here in the US. What did the Swedish government decide to do?

Maeve:

Well, they changed the rules back in November. Instead of getting permanent asylum in Sweden, children will now only be given a temporary one-year stay.

Al:

What does that mean for these kids?

Maeve:

Well, for starters, when kids cross that bridge from Denmark into Sweden, they'll now have to go through border control. It used to be unmanned. Once they make it into the country, there'll be a lot of uncertainty about their future, because their new home won't be permanent. Their stay will have to be renewed on an ongoing basis.

Al:

 

 

[00:06:00]

That's Maeve McClenaghan of the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism. When we return, Maeve will tell us the story of a teenager who fled Afghanistan, and has been living in the UK for eight years, and just like the refugees in Sweden, he's in limbo, not sure if he'll be allowed to stay, or if he'll be sent back to Afghanistan. That story is coming up next on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Speaker 7:

 

 

 

 

 

[00:07:00]

Hey, everyone. It's Amy Julia Harris. I'm a reporter with Reveal. A few weeks ago, I told you about serious problems at childcare centers that operate with little to no oversight thanks to religious exemption laws, but that wasn't the end of the story. This week on revealnews.org, we're publishing new investigations into how this freedom from regulation can come at a high price for children. We'll look at how hundreds of kids were seriously injured, and a few even died, in religious daycares around the country. We'll also show how religious facilities get a pass on extreme physical punishments, as long as it's justified by scripture, from whipping kids with belts to locking them in closets. You won't want to miss what's coming up. Subscribe to Reveal's newsletter today, and get my latest stories delivered to your inbox. Just go to revealnews.org/newsletter. That's revealnews.org/newsletter.

Al:

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Our show today is about kids and teenagers who cross borders alone, part of a wave of refugees fleeing war and violence. Over 90,000 unaccompanied minors arrived in Europe last year from countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan seeking asylum. Our partner on the story, Maeve McClenaghan, of the Bureau of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, bring us the story of a young man she's been following for two years. He's determined not to go back to his home country of Afghanistan, but after eight years, he still doesn't know if the British government will let him stay.

Maeve:

Just a few months ago, in the North London, I went to meek Abdul at a bike shop. That's not his real name. He asked us not to use it, because of the precarious situation he's in.

Abdul:

Today, I'm going to change one of my tire.

[00:08:00]
Maeve:

 

There's a puncture on your tire, is it?

Abdul:

It's not flat.

Maeve:

Abdul looks like a typical cool, 20-something Londoner. He has dark, jaw-length hair pulled into a man bun, denim shirt, Fitbit watch.

Abdul:

Yeah, the tire has been ... A proper scratch, and I can't cycle because it's not safe. Normally I cycle fast. It's not safe.

Maeve:

To see Abdul zooming around on his bike in London, he just looks so at home, but there are a lot of politicians in the UK who feel our country is besieged by immigrants.

Speaker 9:

I'm sorry. We simply can't accept countless millions when I have 30% youth unemployment in the north of England.

Speaker 10:

You've got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, but we need to protect our borders.

Speaker 11:

When ISIS say they want to flood our continent with half a million Islamic extremists, they mean it. Indeed, I fear we face a direct threat to our civilization.

[00:09:00]
Maeve:

 

Abdul doesn't see himself as a threat to British civilization. He actually sees himself as quite British. He just wants the right to stay in the UK, where he'll be safe. He's scared that if he were sent back to Afghanistan, his life would be in danger.

 

Hello, how are you doing?

 

Back at his tiny flat, he makes me a cup of coffee. We're surrounded by best-selling thrillers he's halfway through reading, a Chelsea Football Team mug, cuddly toys he's won at fun fairs.

Abdul:

This one I got in [inaudible 00:09:35] Tower, two years ago.

Maeve:

Abdul pulls up a letter that he wrote last year, the latest in a long line of letters asking for asylum.

Abdul:

Dear sir or madam,

 

I'm writing this letter to explain why I should stay in the UK. I believe I can make positive contribution to this country. In the seven years that I have been here, I have learned so much. I have just ...

Maeve:

When Abdul arrived here, he was an illiterate teenager coming from Baghlan Province in the North of Afghanistan, a country he no longer considers home.

Abdul:

I have started from zero, no reading or writing at all, and now I made the most of my education and my dream is to work hard in the country to support myself.

Maeve:

Abdul is trying to navigate a quirk in the UK immigration system that threatens to send young people who've lived here for years back to the countries they fled in the first place.

 

Abdul was just just 14 when he set out on the hardest journey of his life. This was around 2008. He says he started noticing more and more Taliban activity around his rural village. He had been living with his mum and dad and younger siblings, and one day his dad disappeared.

[00:11:00]
Abdul:

 

The reason I left because my dad was member of the Taliban, and he was taken by the government.

Maeve:

As the oldest son, Abdul was next in line in the family to take his dad's place as a Taliban fighter.

Abdul:

They want me to join them to help the country. My mom didn't want me to do that, because my mom already lost someone in her life.

Maeve:

He says she didn't want him to die fighting for the Taliban. The only way out would be to escape. An uncle sold some land and paid a smuggler to get Abdul out of the country. His first stop was Iran, where Abdul says he was pushed around by smugglers, and squashed into the trunk of a car with four other people.

Abdul:

Bad people, gangsters, they had guns. They just push us and beat us by the feet to get in so we can fit in.

[00:12:00]
Maeve:

 

Then he crossed into Turkey. He was wearing just worn out sneakers and carrying a small backpack.

Abdul:

We walked to the mountains. At that time it was cold. It was snowing. The snow was like really deep.

Maeve:

When he reached the Turkish coast, he says the smugglers pushed him into a small rubber boat with about eight other people, all adults, and launched it from the shore towards Greece. The boat sank. Abdul had just a car tire inner tube around his neck to keep him afloat.

Abdul:

In the middle of the sea, and it's dark. You can't see nothing. Only you can see the lights of the one country and other country. There were people crying and saying things I could hear, "What will happen to my kids?" I was scared. I was reciting verses from the Quran and things like that. You ask forgiveness from God when you know you're going to die.

[00:13:00]
Maeve:

 

They were rescued by a bigger boat and brought to Greece. Abdul carried on across land until he got to the UK. The journey had taken three months. There he immediately put in his asylum claim to the home office. That's the department responsible for immigration. Getting asylum isn't as simple as turning up and saying you're scared. You have to show proof that you will be persecuted, and you have to meet certain standards laid out in a refugee convention.

Abdul:

I didn't have any paper or documents because I was a village boy. Seriously.

Maeve:

He says he told them the whole story in his interview with the home office. Pretty soon after, he got a letter back.

Abdul:

They didn't believe anything about it. They know how my country is. Everybody knows how dangerous is my country. They know the reality, but they still just don't believe you.

[00:14:00]
Maeve:

 

6,000 Afghan children have applied for asylum in the UK in the past decade, but only about 350 have been ...

Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 - 00:14:05]

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Narrator:

... in the past decade, but only about 350 have been granted it, according to Home Office records. Rather than be deported, most kids are given something called temporary leave to remain, which means they can stay, but only until they turn 18. That's what happened to [Abdul 00:14:18]. He was given a bundle of papers he couldn't read and an ID card, and he thought he was set.

Abdul:

I didn't know anything about immigration or asylum or refuge, anything. I was like, "I'm here forever."

Narrator:

As he was so young, Abdul was given a place to stay in a house with a live-in social worker and other asylum-seeking kids. There wasn't time to think about what would happen in 2 or 3 years. He was too busy just trying to get his bearings.

Abdul:

Things were so different for me because I was educated back home. I didn't even know how to write my own name, so it was difficult for me.

[00:15:00]
Narrator:

 

He started English classes. He learned to read and write, then eventually, made it to community college. There, his teacher was a woman called Laura Armstrong, and she still remembers the first day he walked into her classroom.

Laura:

He came about 4 weeks late, and I just remember him being quite confident.

Narrator:

Abdul was friendly and a fast learner. His English improved. He bought a bike and became obsessed with zooming around the streets, got into cinema, joined a cricket team, and made good friends.

Abdul:

Now, I'm going to show you my old photo if I can find ... Oh yeah, here is it, when I was very-

Narrator:

That's not you.

Abdul:

That's me, when I was short.

Narrator:

Is that you?

Abdul:

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:15:48]

Narrator:

It's a photo from 2010. Abdul is standing in a grassy playing field at his school.

Abdul:
[00:16:00]

I didn't had no beard at all. No [inaudible 00:15:54], not a single hair on my face. I was very skinny. I was happy. I was very happier.

Narrator:

Then, when he was about to turn 18, a letter arrived explaining his leave would soon run out.

Abdul:

You know, when you turn 18 in this country, especially your life change a lot because of the government. Yeah, I was scared a bit when I turned 18 because I knew there would be some bad news.

Narrator:

The bad news was that because he was legally an adult, he no longer had permission to stay, and had to reapply for asylum, which he did. As the clock struck midnight on his 18th birthday, everything changed, and while he waited to hear the outcome of his case, he was told he must go and sign in every 2 weeks with immigration control. It was stressful. Every time he went, he was scared he'd be detained, so he stopped going.

 

[00:17:00]

A year went by, and Abdul turned 19. One day, he was hanging around waiting for his girlfriend in a dangerous part of town. A police officer spotted Abdul, ran his ID, and found he had skipped some sign-in sessions. The officers bundled Abdul into a police car, and it was then that Laura, his English teacher, got this call out of the blue.

Laura:

Actually, it was a phone message. The message went something like, "Miss Laura, I'm in trouble. Can you help me? My phone number is" ... Then it just went dead.

Narrator:

She figured out that Abdul was being held in an immigration detention center, a place he describes as being like prison.

Laura:

I didn't really know anything about detention, so I just searched online to try and find out what it is or why he might have gone there.

Narrator:

Meanwhile, inside the center, Abdul says he'd wake up every day, not sure what would happen next.

Abdul:

It makes you crazy because you keep thinking like, "What's going to happen? What I'm going to do?" You don't know what's going to happen to you.

[00:18:00]
Narrator:

 

Laura came to visit, and she was determined to help.

Abdul:

She start helping me with every single thing, every single thing I needed.

Narrator:

While he was in detention, he was handed a plane ticket 7 times and told to get ready, he'd be deported soon. Laura helped him find a lawyer and stop every deportation attempt. By the time he got out, after 3 months, they were like family.

Abdul:

I can say she's like my mom, like my sister, my date, and everything because she cares about me so much like a parent.

Narrator:

 

 

[00:19:00]

After that, Abdul felt different, like being returned to Afghanistan was a real possibility. In fact, after a long battle getting data out of the government, I found that in the last 9 years, more than 2,000 people like Abdul have been sent back to Afghanistan. 2,000 people who'd arrived in the UK as children, been given temporary permission to stay, studied, learned English, and then were deported after they turned 18. We wanted to put this to the Home Office, the officials in charge of immigration and asylum, but they refused an interview. Instead, they sent a written statement.

Speaker 4:

The UK government takes it's responsibility in asylum cases involving children seriously, and we have a long and proud history of offering sanctuary to those who genuinely need it. It's important that we do all we can to discourage unaccompanied child asylum seekers from making dangerous journeys to reach the UK. Where people establish a genuine need for protection or a well-founded fear of persecution, refuge will be granted.

Narrator:

 

[00:20:00]

The Home Office insists that it's safe to return these people, but they don't collect any evidence or information about what happens to them back in Afghanistan. We did our own research and started talking to experts and people who've been returned and found out the reality was quite different. We heard of people being kidnapped, extorted, recruited by extremists, or left homeless. We were able to have a brief conversation with a guy named [Khalid 00:20:04] in Jalalabad.

Speaker 6:

Hello. Hi, [Hamid 00:20:08]. Can you hear me?

Khalid:

Yes, I can hear you.

Narrator:

Khalid lived in the UK for 4 years after arriving at 15. Then he was deported after his 18th birthday.

Khalid:

That day when I return, it was worst day in my life.

Narrator:

The worst day of his life. That was 3 years ago.

Khalid:

I wanted to have good life here, and I was just thinking about future, but they destroy my future.

Narrator:

At first, he tried going back to his home village, but he says people were eyeing him with suspicion, and he didn't feel safe. He moved to Jalalabad and for a long time, couldn't find work. He now drives a rickshaw.

Khalid:

Still, I have some problem. My life is not safe.

Narrator:
[00:21:00]

Actually, the Afghan Minister for refugees, Sayed Hussein Balkhi, doesn't think it's safe for people like Khalid to come back to Afghanistan either.

Sayed:

[Foreign language 00:21:00]

translator:

To deport those that are not familiar with the conditions and hardship of life here, who don't have job opportunities, and are not familiar with the area, I think does not comply with human rights.

Narrator:

Back in London, I ask Abdul about Afghanistan. He knows guys who have been sent back. They didn't last long before fleeing again, and Abdul's not sure how he would survive if he were deported.

Abdul:

I'm scared of the Taliban, and nowadays there's a lot of kidnapping in my country, especially when they find out that you came from Europe country or somewhere. They think that you have a lot of money.

Narrator:

Plus, he's got no family to go back to. The Red Cross has never been able to locate his mother or 4 siblings.

Abdul:

[00:22:00]

I don't think of them seriously, no. I only think of my mom but no one else because I don't put them in my mind. If you put them in your mind, it makes you older and hurts you, so, no.

Narrator:

Abdul wants to build a life here in London. He's been offered places at 5 different universities, even offered a scholarship to one. He wants to study computing, but he isn't allowed to work, and he can't get the loans he needs to start university because his asylum status still isn't resolved. Here's Abdul's teacher, Laura, again.

Laura:

He's been through a education system with us saying to him, "Choose what you want to do in the future. You can be anything. Do this, do that. Plan for this, plan for that." We're just saying it's not fair to send him back after all of that.

Narrator:

Last year, a lawyer tried to make that case on behalf of people like Abdul. [Toufeeq 00:22:39] Hussein has been working with refugees from Afghanistan for years, stopping deportations at the last minute.

Toufeeq:

Our clients are all detained, they're all in immigration removal centers around the UK. They contact us. They say, "Look, I'm about to be put on a plane tomorrow, tonight. Can you help me?"

[00:23:00]
Narrator:

 

Often, a client is taken late at night to the cargo terminal of an airport and put on a charter flight.

Toufeeq:

I remember we were talking to clients who were actually getting on the plane. They still had their mobiles. I remember one case where our client, who was on the plane and the doors were being locked - he was crying, he was panicked, and we were telling our client, "Look, we're still on the phone to a judge."

Narrator:

 

 

[00:24:00]

Toufeeq did manage to get that client off the plane, but last year, he decided to think bigger, beyond trying to save one person at a time. He and his firm filed a case against the Home Office on behalf of 30 people from Afghanistan. They argued that since attacks there were way up and 2015 was the most violent year on record for civilian casualties, it was now too dangerous to return anyone to Afghanistan. While the case was pending, there was a reprieve for Abdul, a temporary ban on those removal charter flights. Abdul kept a close eye on the case, aware that if Toufeeq won, it could mean a safe future for him. Then a few weeks ago, we got a ruling on the case.

Toufeeq:

The decision, judgment, by the Court of Appeal is to be handed down tomorrow.

Narrator:

Tomorrow? Okay, so by tomorrow morning, we'll know if removals to Afghanistan is happening or not.

Toufeeq:

Yes.

Narrator:

I went to the court the next day. The ruling took about 30 seconds to hand down. I went to find Abdul and tell him what had happened.

 

I've been in the Court of Appeal this morning and the [Rural 00:24:40] Courts of Justice in the center of London, and we just found out in the appeal today that the appeal was dismissed, which means that deportations can happen again. I wanted to get your reaction to that.

[00:25:00]
Abdul:

 

Fair enough for me. Yeah, fair enough because I'm tired of these things now. It just keep happening, and I knew it was going to happen this. Yeah, for me, I don't think so is something big.

Narrator:

He might be laughing, but Abdul's eyes betrayed real fear. He's been living in the UK for 8 years, but now he's vulnerable again to being deported.

 

Just one week after the court decision, I go with Abdul to his appointment to check in with immigration. Today could be the day he's detained and then deported, so he's come prepared. He's brought a cell phone with no camera, the only kind that would be allowed in a detention center, as well as his medical records. Laura came too, and she waits outside as he disappears into the building. She knows there's some chance that she might never see him again.

Laura:

Yeah, as the time ticks on, every time I look up, look at the face to see if it's him coming out.

Narrator:

Abdul's been inside for a while now and Laura's timing it carefully on her watch..

[00:26:00]
Laura:

 

At the back of my mind, I always know that quite possibly at some point, one of these days, one of these times, it will be the time when he gets detained.

Narrator:

Laura strains her eyes towards the door while she stands guard over Abdul's school bag and a new wheel he's just bought for his bike. Finally, the doors open. It's Abdul.

Laura:

High five.

Abdul:

Great. Thank you for waiting.

Laura:

How do you feel now, you're out?

Abdul:

Feel happy for 2 months now.

Laura:

Yeah, you can relax [crosstalk 00:26:31].

Abdul:

[Angry 00:26:32], yeah. Yeah, my life is only depending for 2 months. Yeah, I have only 2 months hope and then it's like restart, new update.

Narrator:

[00:27:00]

He's happy now, but he can't assume that he'll be allowed to start a life here, still after 8 years. He has another 2 months before he has to check in with immigration again. Abdul has started making plans about what happens if his asylum claim is refused. Maybe he'll make his way to Italy. He has friends who have done it, smuggled yet again in the back of [lories 00:27:09]. All Abdul knows is he can't go back to Afghanistan, and for now, there's nothing more he can do but wait for someone else to decide his fate.

Speaker 10:

 

 

[00:28:00]

That was [Maeve McClenaghan 00:27:30] with The Bureau for Investigative Journalism in London. The wave of kids entering Europe this year has shown no signs of slowing down. Most EU countries now grant unaccompanied minors temporary status instead of permanent residency. A question that Europe has yet to face is what will happen to all of those kids when they grow up? There will be thousands of them. The US is also dealing with a huge tide of child migrants. In some cases, once those kids cross the border, they're locked up with no idea how long they'll be held. That's ...

Section 2 of 3          [00:14:00 - 00:28:05]

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:52:28] (NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

Speaker 1:

... With no idea how long they'll be held. That story next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

Shoshana:

Hey this is Shoshana Walter from Reveal. If you're listening to this Podcast on your iPhone or in iTunes do us a huge favor. Take two seconds right now to give us a rating on the Podcast app and tell us what you think of the show, however many starts you think we deserve. It's an incredibly quick way to help us out. If you're in the Podcast app, you'll need to navigate over to our main page by searching Reveal and clicking on reviews to add your rating. Each one counts so get all of your friends and family to give us a rating too, we won't mind. Thanks as always for your help and support.

Al:
[00:29:00]

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. Now we turn to the United States where we have our own teen migration crisis. Close to twenty thousand unaccompanied migrant kids have been detained at the border with Mexico over the past four and a half years and they're still coming. Often, they're fleeing criminal gangs in Central America and a lot of them may qualify for asylum or some other kind of protection. Adults who are picked up at the border are processed by The Department of Homeland Security but children are turned over to a different agency, The Office of Refugee Resettlement. Everybody calls it ORR.

 

 

 

[00:30:00]

Most kids spend about a month in an ORR and then they're placed with a relative or other sponsor while they wait for their day in immigration court. The agency has been in hot water recently over a handful of cases where they didn't screen sponsors properly and children were actually turned over to labor traffickers. Something else has been going on, ORR is locking up a small number of kids in juvenile detention centers. Places that look and feel like jails. Kids are held for two to three months on average but some are detained for two years without charges.

 

Tyche Hendricks of public radio station, KQED in San Francisco has been following the case of one boy from El Salvador. Sixteen year old Pablo Aguilar who's been locked up for twenty one months.

Tyche:

Pablo's mom, Evelyn, steps out of her minivan and into the parking lot of the Yolo County juvenile hall in rural northern California. She, her mother and a friend from church left Los Angeles at two in the morning and took turns driving eight hours to get here.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:30:38].

Tyche:

Evelyn's thirty-eight years old. She's in a sweatshirt and a ponytail. A little bleary. I ask her about the journey.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:30:46].

Tyche:

[00:31:00]

She says they don't sleep because of all the anticipation about seeing Pablo. Evelyn's undocumented so we've agreed not to use her last name. In spite of her lack of immigration status, she walks right into this jail every three weeks to visit her child. She tells me she left El Salvador a decade ago and came to California to earn money to support her two sons. She cleans houses for a living. She left the boys in the care of her sister and all was well until something happened to William that changed everything.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:31:21].

Translator 1:

William was sixteen when I lost him, the same age Pablo is now. One weekend my sister called and said she had something bad to tell me. She said, "Look, something happened to William. The gang took him." He was always trying to steer clear of them but they forced him. They disappeared him. As a mother, I have hope that one day someone will tell me if he's alive or not.

Tyche:
[00:32:00]

Two years later Pablo set off from El Salvador to avoid his brother's fate. He had just turned fifteen when he crossed the Rio Grande and ended up in the hands of the border patrol. That was in June of 2014, he's been locked up ever since. This morning Evelyn is bring a batch of family photos for Pablo. She flips through them with me and laughs at a shot someone took of her when she was on the phone with them.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:32:20].

Tyche:

Evelyn gathers up the things she can take inside the jail. The photographs, her ID and her bible. They always start the visit with a prayer.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:32:36].

Speaker 7:

[Spanish 00:32:40].

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:32:41].

Tyche:

 

[00:33:00]

When a guard appears at the door I ask permission to go in but the answer is no. I watch through the plate glass as Evelyn and her mother disappear inside the jail. Pablo's one of tens of thousands of migrant children entrusted to the care of The Office of Refugee Resettlement. In any given year about five to seven hundred of those kids are held in confinement. Advocates say they become almost invisible.

Holly:

Have all of your students set up already?

Tyche:

Just down the road from the Yolo county juvenile hall is The University of California at Davis.

Holly:

[crosstalk 00:33:16].

Tyche:

At the law school, professor Holly Cooper has taken on Pablo's case and a few others. We walk through the immigration law clinic while students are reviewing massive files for each child.

 

Those two big, folders over there, what are those?

Holly:

These?

Tyche:

Yes. How many inches of paper?

Holly:

I would say it's like two feet of paper work.

Tyche:

[00:34:00]

Holly has focused much of her career on minors in immigration custody. She says these kids don't have the legal protection they should. Half of them don't even have a lawyer and Pablo's been transferred around the country so many times that no one has had a chance to build a case for his release til now.

Holly:

He's been in Mccallen, Texas, he's been in Miami, Florida, he's been in Virginia and he's been in Portland, Oregon. Now he's out here in California.

Tyche:

The government did appoint a non profit advocate to speak up for Pablo's best interest. Three times last year the advocate sent letters arguing that Pablo be released to his mom but ORR hasn't acted and Pablo is still locked up.

Holly:

Without any kind of judicial or third party oversight, ORR is both the jailer and the person who decides whether the kid is getting out. That's a really dangerous power dynamic that is developing.

Tyche:

Holly says that's the crux of the problem. ORR makes decisions about where a child is placed and whether they're released at internal meetings. The meetings don't include the child, their parent or their lawyer if they have one. Carlos Holguin of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law says that means there's no way to know why ORR is holding a kid. He monitors the government's treatment of minors in immigration custody as part of a legal settlement.

Carlos:

There's no opportunity for the juvenile or the purposed custodian to review the evidence that the federal government is relying on to maintain the juvenile in custody. That is something that no child welfare agency in any other part of the country would tolerate. It's always an open and fair procedure where everybody understands what the evidence is and has an ability to contest it.

Tyche:

 

[00:36:00]

The Office of Refugee Resettlement doesn't recognize courts as a place where children can challenge their detention. Officials say the law permits them to confine kids if they behave dangerously or if they're suspected of criminal activity. The upshot is that kids who have not been charged with a crime can be confined in locked group homes or juvenile jails like the one where Pablo is held. I'm not allowed to see Pablo but I get an idea of what life is like by taking a tour of the facility with Brent Cardall. He's the Yolo County probation chief.

Brent:

[crosstalk 00:36:11].

Tyche:

He takes me in through the sally port, the double set of steel doors locked and unlocked remotely that prevent escape. He shows me the family room, that's where Evelyn visited with her son and windowless classrooms full of books where Pablo goes to school. Then we step into an empty cell, the kind assigned to Pablo.

Brent:

There's a stainless steel toilet and sink. A small mirror, a very small window that they can see out of but it's a lot of concrete, your normal cell looking type of room.

Tyche:
[00:37:00]

After three months of requesting an interview I finally get to speak with the person who oversees ORR's unaccompanied children's program, Bobby Greg.

Bobby:

I am the deputy director for children services in The Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Tyche:

She says the safety of children is her first priority and all children are assessed when they first arrive and every thirty days they're in custody. Because those are internal hearings, we have no idea why kids like Pablo are being locked up.

 

I'm following the case of a teenage who's been detained by ORR for more than twenty months at this point and has been moved around the country to various facilities. How would it happen that a kid is detained for that long and bounced around like that?

Bobby:

Obviously I can't speak to any particular child but as I mentioned for each child we're making determinations based on the least restrictive setting for that child, taking into consideration that particular child's safety, the safety to the community as well as the risk of flight.

[00:38:00]
Tyche:

 

Holly Cooper says one of the most difficult things for kids in ORR detention is not knowing when they'll be released.

Holly:

It's an indefinite custody and when you start telling kids that ... Recommended release, your parent can come get you, next week you'll be out, next week you'll be out, tomorrow you'll be out and it doesn't happen. We've seen that that can be very psychologically harmful to the kids.

Tyche:

Holly says lots of kids have been given false hope. Kids like Rafael Armenta. She says for months The Office of Refugee Resettlement kept suggesting Rafael would be released to await his deportation hearing, then they backtracked over the holidays.

Holly:

Friday was New Year's and they called me. I was on a run actually of my New Year's resolution to go running and I got a call and I said you just need to tell me one way or another. We need to know, he needs to know. He's calling me eight times a day. They said we're denying it.

[00:39:00]
Tyche:

 

Then there's another reversal. In February Rafael is released. I race back to the Yolo County detention facility where he hugs his mom for the first time in seven months and they walk out into the parking lot. His cousins greet him with slaps on the back. Rafael tells me he thought he'd never see this day.

Rafael:

I thought this day would never ever come but it came.

Tyche:

When they told you you were going to get out but you didn't?

Rafael:

I have a bad reaction to that.

Tyche:

Tell me about that.

Rafael:

I go in the room and just ... Some inappropriate things like hit the wall and stuff like that.

Tyche:

 

[00:40:00]

Juvenile justice experts say ORR's secure detention may not be intended as a form of punishment but it is punishing by nature. Holly says being locked up with no clear end date can lead some kids to harm themselves or even attempt suicide. I asked Bobby Greg at ORR if she was concerned about the psychological toll of prolonged detention.

Bobby:

We're very mindful that this is a special population with special needs. Having said that, we're also very mindful of our responsibility as their custodian while they're in care to make sure that if we are going to place them with a sponsor that we feel confident with our background check that this is an appropriate placement.

Tyche:

The afternoon is almost gone when Evelyn comes out of the juvenile hall. After her visit she tells me that Pablo was glad to see her and happy to get the photos. Their faith in God keeps them going she says but it's not easy.

Evelynn:

[Spanish 00:40:41].

Translator 1:

[00:41:00]

I'll be honest, I walk out and part of me is still inside. I want to take him with me, I want so badly to take him with me. I go and half of me leaves but half of me stays here.

Tyche:

Evelyn will return in three weeks time. She and her mom and her friend from church will drive through the night. Four hundred miles up the length of California and she'll keep coming back until the day when she gets to take her one remaining son home with her.

Al:

 

 

 

[00:42:00]

That's Tyche Hendricks with KQED public radio. She's the author of a book [inaudible 00:41:27] called 'The Wind Doesn't need a Passport: Stories from the US/Mexico Borderlands'. The vast majority of kids are not detained at the border like Pablo. They're usually housed in a shelter for a few weeks until they can be placed with sponsors while they await their day in immigration court to make a case for asylum. Ana Tintocalis from KQED has been following a young girl who came to the US from El Salvador about two years ago. She's now finding out that crossing the border is just the first step in a long journey.

Ana:

I first met Jenny Cruz back in 2014 when she was seventeen years old. She just made the dangerous journey to the US all by herself with the help of a smuggler. She was lucky, Jenny got her safely. She also had an older sister in California, Ysenia. Federal immigration officials said Jenny could say with Ysenia even though she's undocumented. While Jenny's case worked it's way through immigration court, the sisters hadn't seen each other in over a decade.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:42:30].

Translator 2:

That's when I felt a huge relief, that's when I started crying, when I saw her. I just hugged her, I said, "Thank God you're here now." To me, she looked the same as when she was a little girl. Her eyes were the same and I said, "She hasn't changed at all."

Ana:
[00:43:00]

Jenny is now trying to fit in to her new family in the US. She has a four year old nephew, Walter, but Jenny tells me she feels more like his sister.

Ysenia:

[Spanish 00:42:59].

Ana:

I tag along as they head to the store to buy some bread. Jenny's pulled her long hair back in a pony tail. Walter hops on his Spiderman scooter. Jenny tells me she's still getting used to feeling safe outside her home. Back in El Salvador, violent gangs had taken control of her neighborhood. Jenny became their sexual target.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:43:21].

Translator 2:

They wanted me by force. They wanted to have sex with me. They told me they weren't going to leave me alone until I joined them or lived with them. If you live with gangsters you're not just with one of them, you're with all of them.

Ana:

Then one day the gang members lashed out. Jenny was walking home from school when some of the gang members began following. She ran and one man pulled out a gun and started shooting. Jenny's sister Ysenia says that was the breaking point. She took out all her savings, roughly six thousand dollars, wired the money to Jenny and she used the cash to pay the smuggler. Ysenia tells me Jenny has nightmares because of all that trauma.

Ysenia:

[Spanish 00:44:09].

Translator 2:

She would suddenly wake up and say, "He killed me." I tell her, "No, no, no, nothing has happened to you. You're alive." She doesn't like to sleep with the light off.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:44:27].

Ana:

 

 

[00:45:00]

It's a few months later and Jenny is now going to an American high school. I sit in on one of her classes, an English crash course for immigrant students. She's seated at the front of the class and it's clear Jenny really likes being here. She won't be able to graduate by the time she's eighteen. There's no way she can satisfy all the requirements. That's not on her mind right now, she's just happy she's making new friends.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:45:03].

Translator 2:

We all sit in this stairs and eat together, all of my friends. It's our little group and if one doesn't show up to school we'll call them on their cell phones and see what's going on.

Ana:

Jenny doesn't tell her friends about El Salvador. She says it's just something she doesn't want to share with other people right now. Not too long ago she got some more bad news. Her mom is taking refuge in a church in El Salvador because of all the violence in their neighborhood. Friends are getting killed, police can do little to help. All of that weighs heavy on Jenny's mind. Later that night she gets an unexpected phone call. Her mom managed to borrow a smart phone and for the first time they have a live video connection.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:45:49].

Speaker 17:

[Spanish 00:45:52].

Ana:
[00:46:00]

Jenny bounces up and down on her bed with excitement. I've never seen her with such a big smile. Then she passes the phone to Ysenia who hasn't seen her mom in ten years. She begins to cry.

Ysenia:

[Spanish 00:46:07].

Ana:

The past year has been tough on Ysenia too. She and her husband are struggling to support themselves, their own four year old and now Jenny. Ysenia cleans houses for a living, her husband is also undocumented. He's a day laborer. Then there's Jenny's court case.

Jenny:

[spanish 00:46:40].

Ana:

Today is one of the most important days in Jenny's young life and she and her sister are holding hands and praying in the middle of their living room. After months of waiting and worrying they will appear in front of an immigration court judge to find out whether or not Jenny can stay in the US legally.

Ysenia:

[Spanish 00:47:00].

Translator 2:

Yes, I'm really nervous because God willing, they won't send her away from me. Can you imagine if she goes back again? I'll lose her completely.

Ana:

Building Jenny's legal case has forced her to deal with a painful secret about her father. It turns out the man who she thought was her dad was not her father at all. This huge revelation came after her lawyer interviewed Ysenia about their family history. She asked if Jenny's dad was still in her life and the truth is he took off before Jenny was even born. She had no idea.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:47:40]

Translator 2:

She told me the truth but she never talked to me about this before. That my father wasn't my father. That it was some man I've never even met.

Ana:
[00:48:00]

The irony is Jenny now stands a better chance of staying in this country. Because her father is no longer in the picture she qualifies for what's called special juvenile immigrant status. Young migrants can get the relief if one or both parents abandon them. Now she has to prove that to the judge.

 

At the court house we head to the second floor. Jenny's wearing a black blazer and slacks. She's clutching onto a folder with her documents. The sisters sit down on a long wooden bench and wrap their arms around each other. They're trembling and at this point I'm told to turn off my recorder.

 

A half hour later the sisters emerge and tears start flowing.

 

[00:49:00]

All right so now we have a ... [Spanish 00:48:54]. Jenny and Ysenia are locked in a tight embrace. Jenny is speechless. Finally a smile. The judge finds Jenny's father did in fact abandon her, clearing the way for her to stay in this country legally.

 

It's been two years since I first started following Jenny. She's almost nineteen now and she looks a lot more grown up. She's wearing make up, pink lipstick today and her once long black hair is now shorter and reddish brown. One of her biggest things in her life right now, she's driving.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:49:40].

Ana:

Are you a good driver or a bad driver?

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:49:46]. Good driver.

Ana:
[00:50:00]

Jenny beams with pride. She never thought she'd learn to drive a car and said she's now she feels like a real American teenager. Despite this new sense of freedom Jenny has been dealing with some unexpected set backs. Her sister had a new baby then suffered a minor stroke. She's been in the hospital for weeks. Jenny's had to step in as mom, taking care of the new baby. Feeding him and changing diapers. Jenny has put school on hold for now and found a job cleaning hotel rooms to pay the bills. Her plan is to go back some day. She dreams of becoming a nurse. Jenny realizes she's extremely lucky to be in this country legally and says in the end all she wants is to have a simple life. A life free from all the trauma of the past.

Jenny:

[Spanish 00:50:40].

Translator 2:

[00:51:00]

It was traumatic but I can't be thinking about that all the time. I have to leave the bad stuff behind and take the good things with me. The past is the past, I have to live in the present to enjoy my future.

Al:

That story was from Ana Tintocalis from KQED, she's based in Sacramento. All of these children we've met, they're all collateral damage of the decisions that adults makes. They have to navigate battlefields, smugglers and bureaucracies just to get away from war and violence. We can have political debates about immigration and terrorism all day but it doesn't change the fact that many of the people we're debating about are the most vulnerable. They're kids and all they want is a safe place to call home.

 

 

 

[00:52:00]

Laura Starecheski was lead producer on today's show. Taki Telonidis was the show's editor. A special thanks to our partners at KQED and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. We got editorial help from Rachel Oldroyd and our sound design team is the Wonder twins, my man J-breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire [C-note 00:51:51] Mullen. Our editor-in-chief is Amy Pyle, Christa Scharfenberg is our head of studio. Susanne Reber is Reveal's executive editor. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by [Camerado 00:52:01], Lightning.

 

Support for Reveal's provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, The Ford Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal's a co-production for The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson and remember there is always more to the story.

Section 3 of 3          [00:28:00 - 00:52:28]