Illegal immigration: Amid flood of kids, 11-year-old's death adds human face

Eleven-year-old Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez appeared to be on his way to contact a brother in Chicago. He was one of tens of thousands of children crossing the border.

Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office/AP
Police have identified the body of an 11-year-old boy found in South Texas as Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez of Guatemala. The boy was wearing jeans, a pair of black boots (shown here), and a white rosary. Authorities believe he died of heat stroke after sneaking illegally into the United States.

The discovery of the body of an 11-year-old Guatemalan boy lying in the brush a mile from the Mexican border underscores the dangers that the tens of thousands of children face when attempting to sneak across the American border.

Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended illegally crossing the border into the United States, overwhelming immigration facilities and prompting President Obama to declare an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

“Do not send your children to the borders,” the president implored parents that during a June 26 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos. “We don’t even know how many of these kids don’t make it, and may have been waylaid into sex trafficking or killed because they fell off of a train.”

How exactly Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez wound up in the Texas brush a mile from the nearest US home remains unclear. Authorities suspect that he succumbed to heat stroke, because he was wearing no shirt, just a white rosary.

Heat is just one of the many dangers facing children who embark on the more than 3,000-mile trek from Central America to the US border, says Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations for Amnesty International says. Many hitchhike on the tops of trains, try to get a lift from strangers, or enlist the help of for-profit smugglers known as coyotes.

The fact that families are willing to send their children on such a dangerous trip “is a reminder of just how bad things are in Central America, not only for children but also for refugees and migrants who are even lower down the totem pole in terms of protections,” Mr. Akwei says.

Investigators were able to contact the boy’s parents in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, after calling the phone number for his brother in Chicago scrawled inside the boy’s belt buckle. The family said they last heard from the boy several weeks ago when he told them he was waiting in Reynosa, Mexico, to cross the border with a coyote.

Last year, 445 immigrants died along the US-Mexico border, according to US Customs and Border Protections.

While this was the first body of a child that Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra has found since he became sheriff in April, he told the Associated Press that his officers encounter decomposed bodies “quite often.”

The number of migrant children attempting to cross illegally into the United States has been rising for the past three years, but the flood of children soared to new heights in the past nine months.

The majority of these unaccompanied children are said to be fleeing gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and many appear to be under the impression that children traveling alone and parents with young kids would be allowed to enter the country unmolested by border authorities.

The Obama administration has tried to dispel that myth during several recent interviews, speeches, and statements. Last month, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson penned an open letter to the parents of children crossing the Southwest border.

“The long journey is not only dangerous; there are no ‘permisos,’ ‘permits,’ or free passes at the end,” Secretary Johnson wrote. “That means that if your child is caught crossing the border illegally, he or she will be charged with violating United States immigration laws, and placed in deportation proceedings – a situation no one wants.”

Currently, the sheer number of children awaiting processing has deluged existing detention centers and immigration courts. Mr. Obama asked Congress Monday for an additional $2 billion in funding to hire more immigration judges and to expand detention facilities in an effort to expedite the deportation process.

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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