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Mercyhurst immigration expert sees border conflict with unique eye

Thursday, July 24, 2014

As a kid growing up on the U.S.-Mexican border, Frank Rodriguez remembers doling out water to thirsty illegal immigrants, mostly men 25 to 40, who wandered across his family’s Alamo, Texas, ranch on their journey to a better life. His mother went a step further, filling their stomachs with warm tostadas.   

“My parents taught us that morally it was our job to help the poor and feed the hungry,” said Rodriguez, a former police officer in the border town of Progreso, Texas, now on the criminal justice faculty of Mercyhurst University. Among his specialties are immigration policy and juvenile justice.

But the borderlands have changed since Rodriguez’ youth, a discovery that became profoundly apparent while visiting his aunt and uncle at a border station along the Rio Grande Valley at Harlingen, Texas, earlier this month.

“It’s not the 25- to 40-year-old men anymore,” he said, noting that in the past 15 years the average age range of those crossing the border illegally has dropped to between 15 and 25. “They are still mostly male, but today you have more women and children coming, and many of the children are unaccompanied.”

The majority of unaccompanied minors are from poor and violent towns in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Children from Mexico, once the largest group, comprise less than a quarter of the total.

Rodriguez’ aunt and uncle, volunteering as part of a Baptist church ministry, had earned certification to work with the immigrant children. Without being licensed, Rodriguez could only observe.

“I watched my aunt with a 10-year-old boy from Guatemala, who was acting as both mother and father to his 4-year-old sister,” Rodriguez recounted. “He told us that he didn’t know who his father was and that his mother had been killed by gang members … He said he was staying with his grandmother but when it got to be too violent, she fled and left them both behind.”

So, the little boy and his sister set forth on foot, like so many others becoming easy prey for robbery, violence, sex trafficking and forced labor.

“They walked, they took the bus, they begged … but they got here,” Rodriguez said.

He also heard the story of a 15-year-old boy from Honduras desperate to find his father.

Lost and alone, he broke down in tears. “I don’t know what will happen to me next,” he told anyone who would listen as he recounted how he had been locked up at several federal detention centers while awaiting judicial processing.

Because of a 2008 law intended to help victims of child trafficking, minors from Central America who enter the country illegally are entitled to an immigration hearing, a process that can take years to wind through backlogged courts.

While most children are well cared for in the shelters, Rodriguez said others suffer abuse at the hands of the very people paid to protect them.

“We don’t have the proper set up to process these children,” he said, as Congress grapples with a White House request for $3.7 billion to speed up the processing, which ultimately determines who will stay and who will be deported.

Drawn by the plight of these children, Rodriguez will return to the border Aug. 6 for two days before attending the International Society of Criminology conference in Monterey, Mexico. There he’ll present his research on immigrant minors who made it into the U.S. undocumented, unaccompanied and undetected between three and 10 years ago and what they are doing now.

Though himself a U.S. citizen, Rodriguez’ 90-year-old grandfather came to the states from Mexico as an undocumented immigrant and, in 1986, achieved amnesty when then-President Ronald Reagan drove legislation to make any immigrant who'd entered the country before 1982 eligible for amnesty. Rodriguez’ mother was the first of his family born in the U.S. as an American citizen.

“Immigration has followed me all my life,” Rodriguez said. “I love this country. I believe we can make it better for all of us.”