A Humanitarian Crisis: Children and Families Immigrate in Record Numbers

The United States’ already polarizing immigration issue has devolved into a humanitarian crisis. A surge in Central American nationals crossing the United States’ southwestern border strains local and national resources.

In the last fiscal year ending in September, 2014, a quarter-million migrants not from Mexico have been picked up at the Mexican border by US Border Patrol. By and large, those migrants are allowed to stay in the US, where they end up living in the shadows.

Rather than deport them or lock them up in crowded holding facilities, federal agents release the migrants into the US, allowing them to travel to relatives already living in the US.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spent several days speaking with migrant families arriving at the bus station in Tucson.

“The night we left, I had been raped. I felt they were going to kill us” explained a 19-year-old migrant who escaped Honduras with her family. We refer to her as “Sofia” to protect her identity from the Honduran gangs who threatened her life. Sofia spoke to us in Spanish, which we’ve translated here. “These people entered our home and really hurt us,” she said.

Her attackers were members of “Mara 18”, one of the most violent gangs in Honduras and the world. She said the gang was trying to collect extortion money from her family.

“My dad couldn’t pay them anymore,” she said. “He was tired of them threatening him. So they sent a note to the house, threatening him with death.”

When her family went to the police with the threat, the gang came back, tipped of by the very police the family had put their trust in.

“They said frogs (or rats) get their tongues cut out,” said Sofia.

"They beat me," said Sofia's father. "That, and when they entered our home and raped my wife and my daughter. That's the hardest thing that happened to me in my life. I don't even want to remember it."

Certain that he would die if he stayed, he fled Honduras with his family, eventually winding up in a single small room in the Bay Area.

According to the US Border Patrol, more than 68,455 families have been apprehended crossing the southwest border with Mexico this last fiscal year. That's more than three times the previous year when fewer than 15,000 families were apprehended.

The timeframe corresponds to a spike in gangs, violence and lawlessness in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three countries where the majority of these refugees come from.

"The immigrations policies in the United States...tries to accommodate two inconsistent ideas," said Tom Haine, who served as a federal attorney prosecuting immigration cases as well as an immigration defense attorney before retiring this past July.

"One is we provide a place for refugees who are suffering. And at the same time, the immigration system is also designed to protect the homeland."

The numbers of Central American Refugees have become so large, there's no room in court or holding facilities. After picking them up along the border, federal agents usually re-release immigrants into the US if they have a relative already in the country who can pay for a bus ticket.

As part of the bargain, the refugees agree to report into local immigration authorities once they meet up with their relatives in the US.

"The president is very committed to taking executive action to fix our broken immigration system" said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on "Meet the Press" recently. Johnson insists that while refugee numbers have peaked in June, they've now declined to levels closer to what the US has seen in January 2013.

"Bottom line," he said, "in recent years the total numbers of those who attempt to cross our southwest border has declined dramatically."

But at the local bus station in Tucson, the Investigative Unit saw local resources that were buckling under the influx of immigrants dropped off by immigration agents.

"Many of them were dehydrated. They were hungry. You know, their clothes were torn and dirty." said Galen Hunt, an AmeriCorps worker who works to house, clothe, and care for the people left by immigration agents. You know, they weren’t prepared to go to Minnesota, you know, shirt sleeve shirts. And that’s where this program stepped in further for those people at the Greyhound Bus Station.” "They dropped us off four blocks from the station," said Sofia, the 19-year-old Honduran immigrant who now lives in the Bay Area with her family.

"Thanks to my English, we were able to get here," she said.

Every two weeks, they make the trip to San Francisco to report to federal authorities, honoring the deal they made when they were apprehended at the border.

"We are very scared," said Sofia's mother.

Yet, they admit they feel safer here than back home, if not exactly secure. For them, a deportation back to Honduras would be a death sentence.

"I don't even want to think of it, that we'll touch that soil" said Sofia's father. "I think we'd be cadavers on a plane, traveling to our own death."

The Investigative Unit spoke with dozens of people directly involved in the immigration and refugee crisis. Over the next few weeks those stories will appear on NBC Bay Area. Check back here for the next story on Monday, November 10, 2014.

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