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Charlee Hernandez was 17 when he decided he had no choice but to leave home.

Even in a comparatively middle-class coastal neighborhood in economically ravaged Guatemala, Hernandez felt like he had no prospects. He also had no father or mother—his dad having left before he was born and his mother traveling to the U.S. when he was 6 to try to find a job and send money back to her family.

Now the maras, local gangs, were breathing down Hernandez’s neck. They wanted to rope him into arms dealing and drug smuggling. He repeatedly refused.

“I told myself, if I do this, I won’t be able to live the life I want to,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “I won’t ever see my mom again.”

But the maras didn’t let him off the hook easily. They began following Hernandez. One day, on his route to school, they pulled him off his bicycle, beat him and stole the bike. The muggings became more frequent, and eventually, Hernandez said, they threatened to kill him if he didn’t do as they said.

Feeling hopeless, Hernandez said he had to flee Guatemala in the summer of 2017 in hopes he could find refuge in the U.S. with his mother.

“Before they could really hurt me I left,” he said.

Charlee Hernandez in his home country of Guatemala in 2017, the same year he left to seek asylum in the U.S. He was 17 years old. Courtesy photo Charlee Hernandez.

For three months, Hernandez walked through Guatemala and eventually Mexico, mostly alone and on foot. He paid off two officers to let him pass at the Guatemala-Mexico border. The cost was only 100 Guatemalan quetzales—less than $13. He spent nights sleeping on the cold streets, and often went days without food or water while walking under the hot tropical sun.

In late September, Hernandez evaded Mexican authorities by running across a dirt mound and a creek into the U.S. Once on American soil, he was detained by U.S. immigration officers. This was his plan all along, to be captured and ask for asylum from the gangs and poverty that had driven him across the border.

There was a sense of relief, Hernandez said, when he stepped onto U.S. soil.

“I felt like all this weight was lifted off my shoulders,” he said.

Charlee Hernandez’s journey took him from his hometown in Escuintla in Guatemala to Gracias a Dios, through Mexico and eventually to El Paso, Texas. Graphic by Valerie Osier

Experts say Hernandez’s experience is similar to many kids now arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border in record numbers, hundreds of whom will soon be held at the Long Beach Convention Center, which the city has volunteered to let the federal government convert to a shelter in the coming days.

In addition to gangs and poverty, many people have been displaced over the years in Central America as a result of economic exploitation from foreign governments, according to Lauren Heidbrink, an expert in Central American migrations and professor at Cal State Long Beach. For decades, unfair trade deals and armed conflicts have destabilized the region, she said.

The Guatemalan minors that she’s worked with share a similar background with Hernandez: They faced economic despair and threats from organized crime. Environmental catastrophes like recent hurricanes have further weakened fragile communities, prompting families to pack up and leave or forcing kids like Hernandez to brave the journey on their own.

Those pressures have come to a head recently at the border, where the number of people seeking asylum, especially children, has reached all-time highs.

In March, U.S. Border Patrol agents encountered 84,934 citizens from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador at the border, 15,843 of them unaccompanied minors, the most ever.

Global issue

Heidbrink believes the recent influx of refugees is a policy-made humanitarian crisis that spans multiple administrations. Using a pandemic-related justification, President Donald Trump’s administration had been quickly expelling families seeking refuge without letting them go through the asylum process. The move was met with criticism, and although President Joe Biden has kept that policy in place, arguing it prevents COVID-19 infections, he has relaxed the previous administration’s “stay in Mexico policy,” which forced asylum-seekers to wait on the other side of the border while they sought a hearing. Under Biden, most unaccompanied children are no longer turned away at the border.

That means the large number of kids arriving from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador must be transferred out for Border Patrol custody and to the Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours, creating a demand for more space at facilities like the one proposed for Long Beach. The chances of children being granted asylum are far greater than that of an adult, so families are making heart-wrenching decisions to send their children ahead of them, Heidbrink said.

Many people see this influx of refugees as a uniquely American problem, but research shows the U.S. is not alone, Heidbrink said.

For example, political turmoil in Venezuela prompted a mass exodus of refugees to flee to neighboring Colombia in South America. And in recent years, Peru has been identified as the top destination for asylum seekers per capita coming to its borders. The U.S. comes in at fifth place. In Europe, countries such as Germany and France have taken in refugees seeking asylum from the Syrian civil war.

“I think we’re just not looking and assuming they are not migrating elsewhere,” Heidbrink said. “But if you look at the data, they are.”

Regardless, to help with the sudden increase of asylum seekers in the U.S., the federal government has already used convention centers in Dallas and San Diego to hold children temporarily, freeing up space at overcrowded detention centers at the border.

Long Beach officials say the shelter planned for the Long Beach Convention Center will accommodate up to 1,000 children, some as young as 3, until they are reunited with family members or sponsors who are already living in the U.S.

What the Convention Center shelter will look like still isn’t completely clear. City officials have said it is set to open this week, but many details of how it will operate haven’t yet been revealed.

However, Hernandez’s story gives a glimpse at what some kids will likely experience on their path through such a holding center.

Seeking asylum

When he arrived at the U.S. border, Hernandez recalls calmly putting his hands in the air and walking toward Border Patrol agents.

The officers interrogated him and asked him to remove his shoes and belt. They searched him as they questioned him about where he came from.

“I told them I want to cross because I want to go see my mom,” Hernandez said. He said he remained calm the entire time and answered all the questions truthfully. Hernandez said the officer who detained him treated him relatively well.

After he was searched, Hernandez was detained in a patrol car, until another vehicle arrived to take him away.

Hernandez was taken to a place that had a cold room in it. As he sat there shivering, officers asked if he had eaten anything. Hernandez shook his head, and the officers brought him a microwavable burrito—the ones Hernandez now sees at gas station convenience stores.

There was a pile of dirty jackets in the frigid room he was in—some had a strange stench to them—but the temperature was so low, and he was still wet from the creek he ran across earlier that day, Hernandez grabbed one of the jackets and wrapped himself in it.

The cold room was an interrogation room. Again, officers asked him questions about his destination and where he came from. They took video and photos of the questioning. Though he was shivering, Hernandez said he kept a cool head and answered the questions honestly.

Later that night, they took him to a second location. This time, Hernandez noticed the place did not have adult detainees, only children his age. The overhead lights were always on and beamed brightly, so he could not tell if it was night or day.

“It was a place where you lose track of time,” Hernandez said. “The only way you can tell the time was through the food that was given. Breakfast meant morning, lunch meant midday and dinner meant evening.”

Based on this recollection, Hernandez said he was there for three days. On the morning of the third day, officers collected a group of the children staying there, including Hernandez, and transported them to an airport.

Two case workers, who were assigned to reunite Hernandez with his mother, followed him around and escorted him onto a plane. He was flown to a third center, this time in Houston. They told him he was going to a place where there were more kids his age.

When he arrived at the Houston center, Hernandez said the conditions he experienced weren’t bad.

“I didn’t have any problems,” he said.

Inside, workers taught the children during English classes and led them through group exercises. After lunch, the children were brought to a big room where they could play.

They were all minors, Hernandez said, ranging from 15 to 17 years old. He stayed at this center for 21 days as he waited for a sponsor to sign for his release.

Hernandez recalled the last day he was there when a woman requested to see him. He was escorted over to an office where she asked him if he knew why he was called in.

Hernandez said he suspected it was good news, and that his sponsor had called for his release.

The woman nodded. She told him he was scheduled to leave the next morning.

“I felt like the happiest kid in the world, and I started to cry,” Hernandez said. “I could accomplish my dreams. I couldn’t believe it.”

Charlee Hernandez, 21, made the journey from his home country of Guatemala to the U.S. when he was 17 to seek asylum and reunite with his mother who fled the country when he was 6. Photo by Sebastian Echeverry.

A family friend with U.S. citizenship had volunteered to sponsor Hernandez. After his release, Hernandez was allowed to travel to Los Angeles where his mother was waiting for him.

When Hernandez landed in Los Angeles and saw his mother for the first time in 11 years, a rush of emotions came over the two of them. Hernandez said he ran into his mother’s arms and as they embraced the two began to cry.

“She was so happy to see me, she hugged me and the two of us cried,” Hernandez said. “She left a small 6-year-old back home, and now she saw him at 17. It was very emotional.”

Hernandez has now lived in Los Angeles for four years. The 21-year-old has earned a certificate of completion for English classes and is planning to attend college in the future. In 2020, a judge granted Hernandez a worker’s permit, and he’s currently employed manufacturing parts for food trucks.

His mother remains undocumented, but Hernandez believes his asylum-seeking case will end in him successfully acquiring his residency. His next court hearing is scheduled for some time in 2022.

Hernandez said he thanks God every day for protecting him along his journey out of Guatemala. He knew that it was dangerous, but the conditions in Guatemala were not improving, and without his mother being there to guide and support him, he felt coming to the U.S. was the only option left for him.

Many who embark on the journey don’t make it. In 2017, the same year Hernandez arrived in the U.S., Customs and Border Protection reported that 7,216 people had died trying to cross the border since 1998.

“That’s why we call it the American dream,” Hernandez said, “because you have to suffer in order to get to this destination. If someone wants something worthwhile, then it’s always going to cost you.”

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