GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - They are officially known as Unaccompanied Alien Children -- kids who made it across the border from Mexico to the U.S. without family, some fleeing danger, some in search of parents who reached the states ahead of them.
The feds are flying more and more of these children to a federally-funded program in West Michigan run by Bethany Christian Services. It's the first step toward finding a permanent place for them to live in the U.S.
Bethany opened a school for the children last year, but doesn't want the public to know where it is or where the kids are living, fearing some could be tracked by the "coyotes" who helped them into the country or the human traffickers who smuggled them against their will.
"We just make sure that they are not traced, because really we don't know what is their background, what they went through," said teacher Carlos de la Barrera, who runs the school.
"That's why we're so protective of our children, protective of their location," said Dana Anderson, director of Bethany's Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. "They could be in danger. Absolutely, absolutely they could be in danger."
The federal government spends more than $170 million this year to help them -- about $12,000 a child last year. They get housing, food, clothes, education, counseling, medical, dental and lawyers who help them gain citizenship for free.
Bethany gets nearly $690,000 a year in federal money for its work.
The Goal: Citizenship
For many, including Erick Moya, who fled from Honduras and now lives in West Michigan, the goal is becoming a citizen.
Without the program, he said, "maybe we might get deported to our country. I have no idea what would have happened if there wouldn't be that program there."
West Michigan congressmen knew little or nothing about the program until Target 8 brought it to their attention.
"I'm not OK on spending money to allow people to come here illegally so that they can become citizens," said U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Grand Rapids).
"I've got some serious questions that run through my mind as to how exactly this program was put in place and why it's there," U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) said.
The Homeland Security Act of 2002 requires the federal government to treat undocumented immigrants 17 and younger as children instead of adults. The Department of Homeland Security turns them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
For a decade, Bethany provided foster care for under aged, undocumented immigrants like Moya and his wife, who also went through the program.
But Bethany agreed to do even more beginning last year after Central American kids started pouring across the U.S. border in record numbers.
Since 2003, more than 87,000 kids have gone through the UAC program, and the number is exploding -- expected to exceed 20,000 this year alone.
Many are fleeing the most murderous region in the world. Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, followed by El Salvador. Guatemala ranked sixth in the world.
"There's a reason children are running," said Anderson, the Bethany program director. "I have children. My 5-year-old wouldn't choose to leave our family unless he was extremely desperate, unless he felt unsafe, unless he was threatened. It would have to be pretty dire for him to choose to go through such a horrendous, horrific scary journey."
When Border Patrol agents catch kids, they're required by law to turn them over to shelters. But when shelters in border states are full, Bethany now gets some of the overflow, with federal agents flying the children to West Michigan.
Some as young as 2
Last year, Bethany opened the small school in West Michigan and hired 35 people including caseworkers, therapists, counselors, teachers.
"They're just like my kids, they're just like your kids, they're just kids," Anderson said. "It's extraordinary work."
Every week, two or three new kids show up at Bethany -- a total of more than 230 since it started last year. Most of the kids are ages 10 to 14, but a few have been as young as 2, Anderson said.
"Sometimes, we just have stories where Border Patrol gives us a call and says we found a youngster, and we don't know who they came with," she said.
The older teens stay in a residential center. Younger kids stay with foster families.
A half-dozen girls from Central America, ages 7 to 14, have stayed with Lisa Bauman and her husband at their West Michigan foster home while they waited to be re-united with relatives in the U.S.
All of the girls came to the U.S. after their parents had come here before them, Bauman said. She said one girl, who was 10, told her how she had followed another girl to the U.S. because she had a map. That other girl was 11.
"You know they've been through a lot, yet their resiliency, I think that's what our family has seen," Bauman said. "Over 40 times in the Bible, God says, 'Care for orphans and the vulnerable children and the aliens within our gates,' and to us, that's who these children are."
They don't stay long in Bethany's program -- about 50 days -- until Bethany can find relatives or guardians for them in the United States.
Then, for many, it's on to citizenship.
"No life for me here"
Erick Moya and his wife, Glendy Cosyal, agreed to talk to Target 8, but only because they're now adults and are no longer in the program. Both were 16 and didn't know each other when they fled.
Moya's father had killed his mother when he was 4 or 5 "for jealousy reasons," and was still in prison, forcing him to live with cousins and other relatives.
"I hear a lot of people come here to the United States, so I was thinking maybe I should do the same thing because there's no life for me here," he said.
Cosyal fled from Guatemala and what she calls an abusive father.
"He used to hit me with anything that he had, you know." She said she asked judges three times to make her father stop. "But they say, 'No, because your father pays for your school, he gives you food, you have a house.'"
"I knew my father was going to find me, so I decided I'd like to come here," Cosyal continued.
For her, it was a 1,200 mile, 21-day trip on foot and by bus, traveling with three men. She had saved money for the trip by selling chickens at a market.
She recalled paying a "coyote" to help her cross from one state to another in Mexico. At one of those crossings, a man forced her into his car until her coyote paid a "toll."
"He pulled me inside his car and he say, 'You're going to stay with me. You're so beautiful, and you're going to give me children.' It was scary because this old man was crazy."
Once in Reynosa at the Mexican border, she waited in a hotel for the trip across the Rio Grande.
"I was left in a hotel for five days with no food, or nothing," she said. "They just tell me all day 'Somebody's going to pick you up and cross you to the U.S.,' and we were there for five days with no food. It was really hard."
She said she paid $5,000 in U.S. money to the man who helped her cross the river with about 40 others. It was 2 a.m.
An hour later, Border Patrol agents caught her in Texas.
"I feel scared at first," she said. "I knew that, 'Oh, my God, they're going to send me back to my country,' and I don't want to go back. But, then I feel like safe because I know there's not going to be people here who are going to abuse me."
The feds moved her into a shelter near Brownsville for 11 months until a judge granted her asylum, she said. She was 17 when the feds flew her to West Michigan to live in a Bethany foster home until she turned 18.
Gangs and trains
For Moya, it was a 1,600-mile, six-week journey, jumping 10 trains, stopping for several weeks to work a construction job after his money ran out.
He was afraid of the gangs who might rob or kill him, and of falling off the train, and losing a leg under the train, and of Mexican immigration officers and police who might send him back or charge him for not sending him back, he said.
Four months after crossing the border, Moya was riding a bike in a small Texas town when police stopped him. Immigration sent him to a shelter. With free legal help, he was granted asylum. Two days before he turned 18, he was flown to West Michigan.
Cosyal and Moya met in a shelter in Texas. They now live with their U.S.-born daughter in a home they bought in West Michigan. Both have jobs at a bakery.
"It's really you know a gift, you know, it's a beautiful life here," Moya said.
Both have green cards and have applied to become U.S. citizens. Two of Cosyal's younger sisters have followed her to West Michigan through Bethany's program.
"We feel like we're home here because Guatemala wasn't safe for me, so here I feel safe," Cosyal said. "Yeah, I feel like this is home."
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