A whole generation of migrant kids is languishing at the U.S.-Mexico border

Merlin Genoveva Avila Amador, 27, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with children Leonel Moya Avila, 8, left, and Jonathan Moya Avila, 11, at a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
Merlin Genoveva Avila Amador, 27, of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, with her children at a shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, in March.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

For the two dozen migrant children living inside a small church on the outskirts of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, most days go like this: Breakfast at 8 a.m., dinner at 6 p.m., and hours of nothing in between.

There is no school, and except for a handful of worn Bibles, there are no books. Dangers abound in the surrounding hills, so most haven’t left the razor-wire-ringed compound in weeks or even months.

“I feel imprisoned,” said 16-year-old Alison Mendoza.

She left Nicaragua with her parents and two younger sisters in March after her father received death threats for demonstrating against President Daniel Ortega, whose government has jailed and killed thousands of dissenters.


The family has been waiting here in Juarez for nearly two months for their chance to request political asylum in the United States. A Trump administration policy allows only a handful of asylum seekers to pass through ports of entry at the U.S. border each day.

Mendoza and her sisters, 6-year-old Sol and 11-year-old Michele, are among the thousands of migrant children languishing along the border as a result of changing migration trends and White House policies that seek to deter asylum seekers.

They left friends and relatives behind and endured the trials of the migrant trail only to end up stuck in camps, cheap hotels and shelters such as Buen Pastor, which is now home to children and their families from as far away as Ghana and Congo. Pawns in an adult’s dispute, their future is entirely uncertain.

Two recent Trump administration mandates are almost certain to result in even larger numbers of migrant children being stranded here.

One calls for asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their cases are adjudicated. Roughly 3,000 migrant children and their families have been returned to Juarez under that program since April, according to Chihuahua state officials.

Another new mandate announced this week calls for asylum to be denied to migrants who did not apply for protection in at least one country they passed through while trying to reach the United States.

The rules mean that there is a very strong likelihood that if the Mendozas finally do cross the border to plead their case, they will be sent right back to Juarez.

“What will we do?” said Donald Mendoza, 37, who left behind a good job at a Managua university that would have allowed him to pay for all three girls’ college educations.

The Mexican government has committed to providing schooling to migrants who are returned from the U.S., but Mendoza doesn’t want to raise his girls in notoriously dangerous Juarez, where 10 people were slain on Sunday alone.

“This is not the life I planned for my children,” he said.

Buen Pastor opened its doors about 20 years ago to migrants — back then almost always single men — who passed through Juarez before seeking to sneak across the border.

“They would come, rest for a night or two, and then cross,” said Pastor Juan Fierro Garcia.

But over the last two years, entire families began trudging up the dirt road that leads to the church.

Many had heard that U.S. authorities were releasing migrants as long as they requested asylum and were traveling with children.

“We didn’t know much about the situation, just that families were passing,” said Joseph Venegas, 26, who left Honduras last month with his wife and their two sons.

After crossing into the U.S. illegally last week, and turning themselves in to border authorities, Venegas and his family were held for two days and then released back into Juarez with an order to appear at an asylum hearing in October. A Mexican official told them how to get to Buen Pastor.

Ten-year-old Jose sobbed on the way there. “I want to go back to Honduras,” he wailed.

“We had bad luck,” his father explained. “The law is the law and we have to respect it.”

“We are doing all of this for you,” Venegas added.

Venegas said the family decided to leave because a teacher’s strike meant Jose hadn’t been able to go to school for months.

But now, as he watched Jose sit morosely in one corner of the shelter and his wife nurse their coughing 4-month old baby on a nearby bench, he wondered whether leaving had been in the best interest of his kids.

“What kind of childhood is this?” he asked.

The experience is a little easier on the younger children, many of whom don’t understand exactly what is happening, and who run around the shelter in a tight pack. The youngsters from Africa speak only a small amount of Spanish, but they still manage to make friends.

The lack of toys means the children entertain themselves around a big table, beating it like a drum until their parents complain or turning it into a fort under which they hide and whisper.

There are several small buildings clustered around the compound — a men’s dormitory, a women’s dormitory and the church sanctuary where families camp out each night on mattresses squeezed between the pews.

The crowded conditions and a constant stream of visitors — NGO workers, pro bono lawyers, and journalists all asking the same tired questions — means there is zero privacy. Young women groom themselves and change clothes under the cover of blankets.

A psychologist from the state comes once a week. On a recent morning, she gathered the children around a big round table and led them in breathing exercises.

She asked them to go one by one, saying their names and where they were from.

“I’m Natalia from Honduras,” one girl said.

“I’m Akasia from Congo,” said another.

A thin child from Guatemala declined to speak, burying her head in her arms.

“She is sad,” the 7-year-old boy next to her explained.

“It’s OK,” the psychologist said. “It’s okay to be sad.”