Thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed the border into the United States so far this year, and according to a recent report, 179 of these children are in Mississippi.
Eight-year-old Jamir and 11-year-old Santos are brothers. They made the journey together, from Honduras to the United States, in June.
Through an interpreter, Santos describes their hometown in Honduras: “It’s very dangerous. The gang members come to hurt people, especially kids, and if we don't do what they say, they try to extort our families.”
Jamir and Santos left Honduras about two months ago, along with a group of about 30 people, both adults and children.
“It took us four days," he says. "We came in a bus, slept one night in a hotel and then kept going in a bus, and we were very cold.”
Once they reached the U.S. border, Santos says they walked for several hours, then took a raft across the river. After being picked up by immigration officials in the U-S, they stayed in a facility for nine days, where Santos says they were treated well. They were then sent to Mississippi, where their mother and uncle live.
They would like to stay here, but, like most of the children who have crossed into the U.S. by themselves, Santos and Jamir are waiting for a deportation hearing. El Pueblo, a Biloxi nonprofit that works with immigrants, has applied to change their court hearing to New Orleans but a date hasn’t been set yet.
Norma Forrest, a volunteer with El Pueblo, says the boys mother would like to apply for asylum for them.
"The main thing for these kids is the attorney's fees that they will need," she says. "The mom would like to [apply for] asylum but the fees are going to be high."
Jennie Searcy, the director of El Pueblo, says that though many of the children who have come to the U-S are trying to escape violence back home, making the legal case for asylum isn’t easy.
"In order to be eligible for asylum, one must prove fear of persecution based on membership with a specific group," she says. "And the issue with a lot of these children is that the group that they're in is children who don't want to be members of gangs, and that's not something that will necessarily make them eligible for asylum."
Governor Phil Bryant has been vocal in his opposition to letting the unaccompanied children into Mississippi, writing a letter to the president expressing his concerns. He also spoke passionately about his concerns about illegal immigration yesterday at the Neshoba County Fair.
"It is difficult in Mississippi when HHS [the Department of Health & Human Services] calls us and says you have 179 children in your state and we're not going to tell you where they're at - that's a problem," Bryant says.
The 179 children in Mississippi are just a small share of the more than 30,000 unaccompanied children released to sponsors so far this year. But El Pueblo director Jennie Searcy says she’s seen a notable increase on the Coast - from about 10 to 12 unaccompanied children a year in the past, to three to five children a week now.
The majority of the children in Mississippi have been placed with family, she says, though it’s possible some have ended up in the foster care system. The children in Mississippi are mostly from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Searcy says she’d like to see them provided some sort of refugee status, if they’re eligible.
"I'm not really sure where Honduras is on the list of U.S. foreign policy priorities right now, so I don't know what we are going to do," she says. "This is obviously an issue that we're going to have to address in the countries the children are fleeing from. Desperation knows no boundaries. They're going to come if they can't eat and they can't live."
Most of the unaccompanied children who have come to the Coast are between 10 and 13 years old. Some are as old as 17, and others even younger – including a 3-month-old child who made the trip with a teenage sibling.
Searcy says El Pueblo has seen an outpouring of support from people who want to help these children.
"I think that we as Americans really value the lives of innocent children," she says, "and I'm disapointed to see partisan politics over something divisive like immigration reform affecting the lives of vulnerable, and in many cases orphaned, childred. And obviously border security is working because they're all stopped - they're coming in with deportation orders. So I don't think that's an argument that we have to worry so much about right now."