GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s debate across the country about whether the thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented children pouring across the southern U.S. border should go or be allowed to stay and given a path to citizenship.
For Freddy Martinez, the debate isn’t intellectual.
He was only 10 when he decided to leave Honduras in Central America after his mother died and left him an orphan. Had he stayed, he said, he would likely be dead.
“It took me almost four years (to make it to the U.S.),” said Martinez. “Because I was trying to make money and survive, but most of the time I was sleeping on the street.”
Martinez said that his journey included time in Guatemala and months in a Mexican prison after he was captures by authorities there.
He was sent from Mexico to Guatemala. Again, he walked — sometimes without shoes — trying to get to America. He said he hopped train cars, headed north.
He told 24 Hour News 8 about a time that a Mexican gang held him up on a train car. He said they took his tennis shoes, leaving him without any to wear for a week.
“I was happy to get the pair of shoes because I know how hard it is to walk in the road,” he said.
Eventually, Martinez said, he was able to make it to the U.S. by swimming across the Rio Grande to Texas.
“I prefer to get killed trying then get killed and never try,” he said.
When immigrant children without family are picked up near the border, often fleeing poverty and gang violence, they are entered into a federal program if they meet qualifications. Eventually, many of these children are sent to agencies and foster homes across the nation.
Last week, there were protests in eastern Michigan, with some people upset about the prospect of the children being placed there.
But it has been happening in West Michigan for years. Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids helped Martinez and continues to place undocumented children with foster families.
So far this year, nearly 100 undocumented children have arrived in Michigan, many of them coming to Grand Rapids.
Attorney Liz Balck from Justice For Our Neighbors — a West Michigan immigration ministry run through the United Methodist Church — said Martinez’s story is one she has heard before.
She helps unaccompanied minors who get to West Michigan petition to stay in the country.
“As soon as the children are apprehended at the border, they are immediately put into removal proceedings, which essentially is designed to remove them from the United States,” said Balck. “Once they’re in the process, they need an attorney to help them.”
Balck went on to describe how difficult the process is, how complicated and time consuming — especially for non-native English speakers.
“Most Americans I think would find the process difficult, let alone a child from another country,” said Balck.
Balck went on to say that the children who are allowed to stay have truthful, compelling stories.
“The immigration system has been dealing with people’s testimony for so long that the child just doesn’t have to convince me. The child has to convince an adjudicator who’s trained in these types of stories and who’s extremely well-trained in the country conditions,” Balck said.
She said children who make it all the way to Michigan probably have a good chance of staying legally.
But closer to the border, that’s not always the case.
“I think that the government is sort of sorting the cases and the children based on whether or not they have viable chance to stay through the immigration system and the folks who I think they believe really need to stay in their countries of origin,” Balck said.
West Michigan pastors plan to have a press conference Wednesday to speak about a state-wide day of prayer for the unaccompanied minors.
The day of prayer is scheduled for Sunday.