When not wrangling copy for the MoJo crew, Ian writes about immigration, sports, and Latin America. His work has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, Wired, and Slate. Got a comment or a tip? Email him: igordon [at] motherjones [dot] com.
Preparing for his dangerous trip north, a Central American teen stops to pen a letter to his uncle in the United States. He writes that his mom is telling him to think hard about the risks: the gangs on the trains, the cartels that kidnap migrants, the days of walking through the desert. But those roadblocks, he writes, are worth it: "I see myself earning a bunch of money in the United States, and my mom here without any worries."
More MoJo coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
So begins a new public service announcement aimed at keeping Central American kids from joining the tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants who have been apprehended by US authorities in the last year. The PSA soon turns dark, though: After the teen says goodbye to his mother, and his uncle puts down the letter he's been reading, the camera pulls back from a close-up of the boy, dead on the desert floor. A narrator urges viewers: "They're our future. Let's protect them."
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) developed the TV ads, as well as posters and marimba-infused radio spots, as part of its million-dollar Dangers Awareness Campaign. Rolled out shortly after Vice President Joe Biden's trip to Guatemala in June, the campaign is an attempt to counter rumors that unaccompanied kids will be allowed to stay in the United States. The ads emphasize that the journey is extremely dangerous and that children won't get legal status if they make it across the border.
The campaign will run for 11 weeks, CBP spokesman Jaime Ruiz told the Associated Press. "We want a relative that is about to send $5,000, $6,000 to a relative in El Salvador to see this message and say, 'Oh my God, they're saying that the journey is more dangerous,'" Ruiz said. "We try to counter the version of the smuggler."
Here's the other televised PSA, in which two silhouettes—a would-be migrant and a smuggler—discuss heading north, the smuggler turning increasingly aggressive and his shadow occasionally turning into that of a coyote, the slang word for a smuggler:
(Notably, CBP created slightly different versions of each of the stories for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the three countries that have sent the most unaccompanied minors to the US. Watch them all here.)
But with more than 57,000 unaccompanied kids apprehended in the United States since October—a situation that CBP head R. Gil Kerlikowske called "difficult and distressing on a lot of levels" when speaking to members of the Senate homeland security committee on Wednesday—the government seems willing to try anything.
Child migrants at a Border Patrol facility in Brownsville, Texas
The Obama administration sent a letter to Congress on Monday asking for emergency appropriations, reportedly worth some $2 billion, to deal with the "urgent humanitarian situation" of unaccompanied child migrants in South Texas. (I've been reporting on the phenomenon for the past year.) But for all the talk about increasing the number of asylum officers and immigration judges, child welfare advocates are worried about a potential change in the law that could mean removing Central American kids almost immediately after they are apprehended at the border.
More MoJo coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
As Vox's Dara Lind explains, the president could be asking Congress to revisit the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2008. Provisions in that law exempted unaccompanied child migrants from noncontiguous countries (i.e., everywhere but Canada and Mexico) from being immediately sent back, instead funneling them to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. While the children wait for immigration judges to decide whether they qualify for asylum, ORR temporarily houses them in shelters before reunifying them with US-based family members. Here's a handy flowchart from the Department of Homeland Security:
But with the recent surge of child migrants—more than 52,000 have been apprehended so far in fiscal year 2014—ORR-run shelters are at capacity, leading to an overflow of minors at Border Patrol holding facilities. On top of the violence and poverty plaguing Central America, some kids have reported hearing rumors that the US government would let them stay upon arriving—which some politicians have blamed on the fact that these children get to stay in the United States until their deportation hearings are resolved. (Right now, the average wait time for an immigration case is a year and seven months.)
So as part of the White House's strategy to discourage the continued flow of these kids, it wants to begin treating Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran children like Mexicans, who are almost always turned back after a brief screening by a Border Patrol agent. Here are four reasons why that's a bad idea:
1. Customs and Border Protection is a law enforcement agency, not a child welfare agency. In a 2011 report (PDF) on unaccompanied Mexican children, the public-interest law network Appleseed recommended that another Homeland Security branch, the US Customs and Immigration Service, take over the screening of these kids because "CBP officers are ill-equipped to conduct the kind of child-centric interviewing required by the TVPRA."
Then, on June 11, the ACLU and several other groups filed a complaint against CBP on behalf of 116 unaccompanied kids, alleging physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, inhumane conditions at Border Patrol stations, as well as due process concerns. If that weren't enough, the Border Patrol took even more flak three days later when its union, the National Border Patrol Council, tweeted the following:
While the tweet since has been deleted, it highlights the frustration of some Border Patrol agents at dealing with child migrants instead of focusing on the agency's core mission: protecting the nation's borders.
2. Screenings for unaccompanied Mexican kids are all over the map (if they happen at all). When an unaccompanied Mexican child is apprehended by the Border Patrol, agents are supposed to screen him within 48 hours. Specifically, they are supposed to determine three things: (1) whether the child has been the victim of trafficking; (2) whether the child has a fear of returning to Mexico; and (3) whether the child is able to voluntarily make the decision to return home. If the screening reveals that the child hasn't been trafficked, isn't afraid to go back, and can make the decision by himself, then he can be sent back.
In practice, says the ACLU's Sarah Mehta, "When they're happening, the screenings are inconsistent, but often they're not happening." Some agents don't speak Spanish; in other cases, Mehta says, kids have reported not being asked any questions at all, or being told by agents that they can't get deportation relief for whatever they experienced at home or along the way to the United States.
Also, the TVPRA states that agents must have "specialized training" to "work with unaccompanied alien children, including identifying children who are victims of severe forms of trafficking in persons, and children for whom asylum or special immigrant relief may be appropriate." Both the Appleseed report and Mehta say there's no indication Border Patrol agents receive such training.
3. Border Patrol facilities are terrible places to screen kids. There's a reason why child welfare advocates talk so much about child-appropriate facilities for unaccompanied migrant kids. This Arizona placement facility, photographed on June 18, isn't exactly what they had in mind:
Ross D. Franklin/AP
"The detention environment is terrifying for most kids," Mehta says. "It's not an environment that kids are going to open up and talk about trafficking." Indeed, one CBP officer told the Appleseed researchers that he doesn't expect Mexican kids to trust agents in what he called a "police station" environment. And here's some detail from the ACLU-led complaint filed on behalf of unaccompanied kids against CBP:
C.S. is a 17-year-old girl who was apprehended after crossing the Rio Grande. CBP detained C.S. in a hielera [a cold cell, or "freezer" in Spanish] in wet clothes that did not dry for the duration of the three and a half days she was there. The only drinking water available to C.S. came from the toilet tank in her holding cell. The bathroom was situated in plain view of all other detainees with a security camera mounted in front of it. C.S. could not sleep because the temperature was so cold, the lights were on all night, and officials frequently woke the detainees when they tried to sleep.
4. There's too much at stake. While it's true that many kids might not qualify for asylum or other forms of deportation relief, those who do deserve to have their claims heard by the US government. Maria Woltjen, the director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children Rights, told me last year that repatriation of unaccompanied Central American kids "is the million-dollar question." She continued, "When kids are getting deported, there's a phone call to find out who they'll go back to, but the reality is our immigration officials fly them over and hand them over to some official in the country of origin." What would that look like if summary deportation were the norm? (As I wrote earlier this month, there are limited resources available in Central America to greet deported children, let alone protect them from violence, and it is yet to be seen how much of that reported $2 billion in emergency funds will go to reintegration efforts.)
And it's worth remembering that of the 52,000 unaccompanied kids apprehended in fiscal 2014, some 15,000 were from crumbling Honduras—including more than 2,500 from the world's deadliest city, San Pedro Sula.
This post has been corrected. The ACLU and others filed a complaint against CBP, not a lawsuit.
A recently produced infographic from the Department of Homeland Security shows that the majority of unaccompanied children coming to the United States are from some of the most violent and impoverished parts of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
More MoJo coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
The map documents the origins of child migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol from January 1 to May 14. It was made public by Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights organization, and it includes the following analysis about the surge in child migrants:
…Many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating that they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US. Salvadoran and Honduran children, on the other hand, come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home.
This echoes what I found in my yearlong investigation into the explosion of unaccompanied child migrants arriving to the United States. As I wrote in the July/August issue of Mother Jones:
Although some have traveled from as far away as Sri Lanka and Tanzania, the bulk are minors from Mexico and from Central America's so-called Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, which together account for 74 percent of the surge. Long plagued by instability and unrest, these countries have grown especially dangerous in recent years: Honduras imploded following a military coup in 2009 and now has the world's highest murder rate. El Salvador has the second-highest, despite the 2012 gang truce between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Guatemala, new territory for the Zetas cartel, has the fifth-highest murder rate; meanwhile, the cost of tortillas has doubled as corn prices have skyrocketed due to increased American ethanol production (Guatemala imports half of its corn) and the conversion of farmland to sugarcane and oil palm for biofuel.
Below is a more granular look at where kids are coming from, also produced by DHS. San Pedro Sula, the world's most violent city, was home to the largest number of child migrants caught by the Border Patrol (more than 2,500). Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa, sent the second-most kids, fewer than 1,000.
Garrett Broshuis, back when he pitched at the University of Missouri
Garrett Broshuis' first job out of college took him to Salem, Oregon, where he worked six or seven days a week, usually from around three in the afternoon to midnight or later. That didn't include the hundreds of hours on cramped buses to towns as far away as Boise and Vancouver. Many of his coworkers lived in employer-provided housing, sleeping in the bedrooms of host families' college-bound kids or on basement futons. They were paid $1,100 a month. "Professional baseball," Broshuis says, "was disappointing from the first week I was there."
Broshuis was a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants' minor league system, a University of Missouri right-hander selected in the fifth round of the 2004 draft and sent to play for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes of the Class A Northwest League. The minors are filled with players like Broshuis who probably won't make it to the show but are crucial to fill out rosters and help develop major league talent. (About 10 percent will make it to the majors.) But even as Major League Baseball is booming, raking in more than $8 billion annually, these players are shut out from the profits. Since 1976, the rock-bottom salary in the majors has gone up more than 2,500 percent; in the minors, it has gone up less than 70 percent. Starting pay for minor leaguers is between $1,100 and $2,150 a month, and only during the season, which can be as short as three months. "The average baseball fan knows that minor leaguers aren't getting rich," Broshuis says. "But I think the average baseball fan is shocked to know what the salaries actually are."
Now that he's hung up his glove to practice law, Broshuis thinks he's found a way to change that. In February, he helped file Senne v.MLB, a federal lawsuit on behalf of 20 former minor league players who allege that Major League Baseball violated the Fair Labor Standards Act and state laws by paying them less than minimum wage and failing to compensate them for overtime. "I think it's a pretty novel approach," says Michael McCann, a law professor and director of the University of New Hampshire's Sports and Entertainment Law Institute. "Wage law is not an area that's been brought up frequently in sports law."
Broshuis (pronounced BRUSH-house), who now works in St. Louis, considers himself one of the lucky ones—he did, after all, collect a six-figure signing bonus before heading to the minors. Most of his teammates, he recalls, signed for a thousand bucks and relied on their parents to pay cellphone bills and rent. The family that housed Broshuis lent him a beat-up truck to drive players to the ballpark; team meals consisted of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or cold-cut trays. When the offseason came around, everyone scrambled to find temporary work, often relying on private lessons to get through the winter.
"Baseball's tough for a smart person," says Dirk Hayhurst, a longtime minor leaguer and author of the acclaimed The Bullpen Gospels. "Not that it's full of stupid people, but I would say that people who question the system don't really survive well." Plus, because they hear about the huge salaries awarded to the likes of Zack Greinke or Miguel Cabrera, "fans have zero sympathy for you."
"They're chasing this boyhood dream that they've been after since they were three or four years old," Broshuis says. "So guys are reluctant to do anything that might place that dream in jeopardy."
Broshuis was writing a column for Sporting News (and later Baseball America) and thinking ahead to a law career, so he started talking to labor lawyers about the wage issue. He found Don Wollett, a retired attorney whose book Getting on Base: Unionism in Baseballlays out the case for a minor league union. The Major League Baseball Players Association is sports' strongest union, but it doesn't represent minor leaguers and often signs away their rights in collective bargaining agreements struck with team owners. Minor league umpires and minor league hockey players have successfully unionized, though, and Broshuis figured baseball players were next. Yet players were worried about rocking the boat. "They're chasing this boyhood dream that they've been after since they were three or four years old," Broshuis says. "So guys are reluctant to do anything that might place that dream in jeopardy."
As Broshuis talked up unionization, his big league dreams were fading. He finished with a 3-17 record in 2007, tying for the most losses by a minor league pitcher that season. Though he bounced back in 2008, at the end of spring training in 2009 the Giants' brass told Broshuis he wasn't in the team's future plans. He stuck around for one final season and took the LSAT three days after the season ended. "I went to law school to find a career," he says, "but I also went in part to find a solution to this problem."
Figuring out a way around MLB's antitrust exemption was the first order of business. The exemption, in place since 1922, shields teams from allegations of monopolistic business practices, such as colluding to suppress minor leaguers' wages. But it doesn't protect MLB from federal wage and overtime laws, which is why Broshuis' case focuses on unpaid and extra work, from seven-day-a-week schedules to mandatory offseason workouts. McCann thinks the suit, one of a surge of sports-related cases targeting everything from concussions to college athlete unionization, signals big changes not seen since the free-agency lawsuits of the 1960s and '70s. However, if Senne gets past MLB's initial motion to dismiss, it will likely take years to litigate, particularly if it expands into a class-action suit.
"Baseball's slow to change, thinks it's in the right, and has a ton of money. So it's going to make these poor, pathetic minor leaguers—who everybody looks down upon—go through hell to get it done," Hayhurst says. "But I think after it's done these guys will look like heroes."
Last week, a Native American tribe in Northern California ran a new TV ad during the NBA Finals that targeted the racist name of the Washington football team. "Unyielding. Strong. Indomitable," a narrator intones at the end. "Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don't?" The ad then cuts to a picture of a helmet with the team's logo.
On Sunday's Last Week Tonight, John Oliver used President Obama's first visit to American Indian land to segue into the battle over the R-word. "For the average American," he joked, "that ad should tug at 1/16th of your heartstrings and make the rest extremely guilty." But then Oliver & Co. went a step further: They made their own anti-Redskins video. Watch the whole segment here: