When Elvis Velasquez’s grandmother paid a network of “coyote” smugglers to transport the 13-year-old boy to the United States from his native Honduras, neither had any idea that he would travel as far as Michigan.
The cold northern climate and freshwater lakes were foreign to the boy, but Michigan’s decades of experience accepting unauthorized child immigrants and refugees meant that Elvis would never again have to fear Honduras’ rampant drug gangs. With little notice, Elvis Velasquez quietly joined a trickle of Central American children adjusting to a new life in the Midwest.
That was six years ago.
Fast forward to last summer, when there was nothing quiet about the arrival of nearly 200 unaccompanied immigrant children in Michigan. In July, people opposed to their placement in the state protested outside a high school in Vassar, where Wolverine Human Services planned to temporarily house some of the minors in its 145-bed facility.
Protester Tamyra Murray of Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement told the Associated Press she saw the crossing of the U.S.-Mexican border last year by tens of thousands of children as an “invasion,” and their placement in Michigan as a violation of immigration law. “If this program is allowed to proceed,” she said, “it will never end.”
State Sen. Mike Green, R-Mayville, worried about the newcomers’ histories. “We don’t know if they have diseases,” he said. Tom Wassa, a Republican candidate for the state House, suggested the children had “known diseases and gang affiliations.”
Nearly a year later, the exodus of minors from violent parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico to the U.S. has slowed dramatically, for reasons that appear to be under debate.
Meanwhile, most of the children brought to Michigan have been connected to relatives or placed with foster families in the state, according to interviews with relief agencies in Michigan and federal resettlement officials.
And Michigan has quietly resumed its role as one of the most welcoming states in the nation since the Second World War in accepting people, particularly children, fleeing poverty or violence in their countries.
“We’ll do anything in our power to help children,” Wolverine Human Services senior vice president Derrick McCree said of that agency’s effort last summer. “I understand it’s controversial, and many people might not agree with that. We can’t make everyone happy.”
The number of minors brought to Michigan last year was small compared with border states like Arizona and Texas. With help from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and religious organizations such as Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids and Lutheran Social Services in Lansing, the minors’ arrival provoked a heated political debate nationally and in Michigan over the limits of U.S. immigration policy.
Because they are minors, relief agencies would not identify the children nor make them available to Bridge for interviews. Agency representatives said, however, that the young immigrants credibly described violent conditions in their homeland and perilous journeys across Mexico.
Children from the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula (Elvis Velasquez’s hometown) told harrowing stories of being accosted by drug gangs. Some described the violent deaths of friends and siblings, others told of being robbed aboard La Bestia (“the beast”), the infamous migrant train through Mexico, or of begging for food, their feet bloodied and sore from walking north to the U.S.
Michigan has one of the largest long-term foster care programs in the nation for immigrant and refugee children, said Susan Reed, supervising attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. The Kalamazoo-based center and pro bono immigration law clinics at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School and Michigan State University work together with Bethany and Lutheran to represent undocumented immigrants.
The Obama administration appears to be paying attention to the track record of Michigan’s social service agencies. Lutheran Social Services will receive $2.2 million from the federal government to house unaccompanied immigrant children, U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence announced in May. Lawrence said the grant assists unaccompanied minors who “seek relief from the violence and poverty that threatens their very existence in their home countries.”
“The way the faith communities are involved with refugee and immigrant resettlement is something we can be proud of,” Reed said.
Some conservatives who want to tighten immigration policy suspect that some of the children who crossed last year were merely “economic immigrants” and not necessarily forced to flee their homelands because of violence, gangs or religious oppression, claims that would allow them to seek asylum in the U.S. as refugees.
But Reed and other advocates say they’ve seen the scars, and heard the horror stories, from the children they represent. “We’re talking about boys fleeing gang violence and poverty,” Reed said. “Every girl I’ve ever represented is a survivor of sexual assault that happened at home or on the journey north.”
Many critics of U.S. immigration policy blame President Obama for the 2014 surge in child immigrants, claiming that his 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (popularly dubbed the “Dream Act”) unleashed the tidal wave across the southern U.S. border. The law offered a reprieve to immigrant children who came here as minors from the risk of deportation. But a study by University of California professor Tom Wong argues that increasing gang violence in Central America, and not politics in the United States, caused the child migration crisis.
Less discussed is a law signed by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, days before he left office which gives more protection and full hearings to unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. That law, passed with bipartisan congressional support as a bulwark against child sex trafficking, also required that the children be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services, placed in the “least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child,” and that the government explore placing the children with family members.
Michigan child and relief agencies, as well as churches, have been active for decades in settling immigrants and refugees in the state.
In 2007, First United Methodist Church near Grand Rapids helped resettle refugees from the African nation of Burundi following a 12-year conflict that ended in 2005. Pentecostal Christians in Traverse City worked with Bethany to help Ukrainians settle in Northern Michigan in the 1990s.
The Arab-American community in Dearborn welcomed Iraqi refugees following the first Gulf War in 1991. In 1978, Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County created the Soviet Jewry Absorption Committee to help resettle Eastern European Jews, echoing the welcome that Detroit gave Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis before World War II.
Bethany Christian Services has helped child migrants and refugees since 1956. The numbers increased dramatically from Southeast Asia in 1975 following the end of the Vietnam War. According to Dona Abbott, director at Bethany’s Grand Rapids office, the organization’s work with Central American children began in the 1980's, when civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala reached their bloody peak.
Indeed, Michigan is among the most welcoming states in the nation for refugees, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Last year, Michigan received the second most refugee arrivals (2,753) of any state, behind California, which had 3,068. Since 2007, Michigan has welcomed 18,000 refugees, again trailing only California, which took in more than 25,000.
Michigan also takes in an outsized portion of children entering the country alone. Between 1999 and 2005, social service programs in Michigan placed 27 percent of all unaccompanied child immigrants entering the U.S., according to ORR; that was well before the wave of minors entering the country last summer.
The distinction between a refugee who comes legally to the United States and a child migrant who enters illegally is important for how the children are handled, and whether they need to fight in court for the right to stay here. Bethany offers programs for both refugees and undocumented immigrants.
And yet, according to Susan Reed, the state could do more.
She said Michigan could take a page from Maryland, which last year passed Special Immigrant Juvenile legislation, which gives probate judges jurisdiction to decide whether to grant asylum to undocumented immigrants up to age 21. Michigan judges currently have no jurisdiction over immigrants 18 years or older who say they were forced to flee their country. They are often treated as adults and deported back to their home country.
“I’ve had clients in that situation who could have stayed if they were still 16,” Reed said. “I’ve also had kids who were too old and didn’t get legal status, so they got scared and went into hiding within the undocumented community. It’s a missed opportunity to potentially integrate someone into society.”
Elvis Velasquez, who is now 19, said he never knew his parents and was raised by his abuela (grandmother) Maria Angela in San Pedro Sula — widely considered the most violent city in the world, with a per capita murder rate about four times that of Detroit. Gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street hold more power there than the government. They prey on teens who they forcibly recruit to join the violent struggle for turf or, in the case of girls, sexual slavery.
“My grandmother didn’t want me to follow that path,” Velasquez said. “She didn’t have enough money to take care of me and send me to school. She was worried I’d take to the streets. It was her idea to send me.”
The journey north was perilous. After an easy drive with smugglers through Guatemala, Elvis and the other immigrants ‒ including his godmother who was 8 months pregnant ‒ were turned over to other smugglers. The group traveled at night through Mexico, carrying cans of food, bottled water and clothing, and walked only after dark to avoid the police and Zetas, a ruthless drug gang. The coyotes charged Elvis’ mother $6,000 to transport him to the United States. Their fees reportedly range from $4,000 to as much as $10,000.
“My grandmother was always on my mind,” said Velasquez. “She kept me going.”
Before crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, he said the smugglers unexpectedly abandoned the group. The boy crossed the border but got lost and said he walked for hours, alone, among the cactuses. His hands cut from cactus spines, and exhausted, Elvis eventually found a highway and surrendered to local Texas police, who turned him over to U.S. immigration authorities.
“The coyotes abandoned us to save their own skin,” said Velasquez. “You can’t trust them.”
As a minor, Elvis wasn’t deported but instead spent three months in a Texas shelter. When the authorities learned the boy had family in Michigan, he was sent to live with his aunt in Grand Rapids, where he was later granted asylum. Today, Velasquez holds a green card, pays taxes and works in a factory in Grand Rapids, making $8.20 an hour. He said he hopes to save enough money to get his own place. Once he turns 21, Velasquez plans to apply for U.S. citizenship.
He also writes poetry about his journey from Central America and performs his work at local high school competitions.
Hundreds of other young adults in Michigan share similar stories. One man interviewed by Bridge, referred to only as Erick by Bethany Christian Services, which arranged the interview, said he immigrated north a decade ago as a 17-year-old from the Honduran region of Francisco Morazan. Erick was granted asylum and placed with a foster family in Grand Rapids by Bethany. Today Erick is married, has a daughter and owns a home.
“This place is tranquilo,” Erick said of his new life in Michigan. “You don’t have to worry about drug gangs.”
Relief agencies say that for many of the minors who crossed into the U.S. last year, their arrest by U.S. border agents was sweet relief, because it meant water, food and a bed in a shelter.
Many, like a Honduran boy referred to as “Jose”, who had no relatives in Michigan, were transferred into Bethany’s long-term foster care program. They were then placed with families and enrolled in local high schools. Freed from fear of gangs and violence, advocates of progressive immigration policies say, these teens are now free to dream of brighter futures.
A year later, Jose, now 16, lives in a Grand Rapids suburb and plays soccer. He aspires to get a high school diploma, become a mechanic and stay in Michigan, agency workers say. But they say he misses his family, his native cuisine and music. And he misses listening to his abuela pray while preparing tortillas and beans for dinner.
Refugees vs. child migrants
It is unclear how many of the estimated 200 Central American minors brought to the state last year will permanently settle in Michigan. Once a child is released to a parent or a sponsor, ORR, the federal resettlement office, no longer keeps track of them.
In the fiscal year ending last September, ORR released 193 children to sponsors in Michigan. That figure has dropped precipitously, to 42 so far this year, as the number of unaccompanied children leaving Central America has slowed.
Ironically, funding for undocumented child migrant services sometimes competes with funding for refugee services. Last year the federal government diverted money intended for refugees to pay for the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America. That put pressure on organizations such as Lansing-based St. Vincent Catholic Charities. St. Vincent provides orientations and programs to help both child and adult refugees find places to live, work and get health care. For three or four months last year, St. Vincent was forced to lay off staff. They were rehired when the federal dollars for refugees were reallocated on Oct. 1.
In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder has expressed support for refugees and immigrants to live and work in the state, noting that many come here with valuable career skills.
But most government programs that aid refugees and child migrants ‒ such as the $2.2 million awarded Lutheran Social Services ‒ are federally funded and regulated. Still, Al Horn, the state’s director of refugee services, told Michigan Radio last September that his department has focused on recertifying refugees for high-skilled jobs.
“Refugees really want to come in and be productive,” said Horn. “They want to take care of their families. They have a lot of skills. They’re survivors. And they really bring a lot to Michigan.”
Immigration advocates say that young immigrants brought to Michigan will return the favor in the years to come.
“They are kids now,” said David Koelsch, who runs the immigration law clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. “But four or five years from now they’ll be in college, and after that they’ll contribute to society. We help them out now and later on they’ll help us out.”
Jacob Wheeler lives in Traverse City, where he publishes the Glen Arbor Sun and Betsie Current newspapers. From 2004-2006 he lived in Guatemala, where he wrote Between Light and Shadow (2011, University of Nebraska Press), a narrative nonfiction book about the country’s adoption industry.