Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

For desperate parents of Central American child migrants, a false rumor and false hope

More than 50,000 migrant children and teens from Central America have headed to the U.S. since last October.
More than 50,000 migrant children and teens from Central America have headed to the U.S. since last October.
Chris Sherman

Even before she left El Salvador for the United States six months ago, Tricia had heard about the "permiso." The 30-year-old mother of two heard it again on her way here, from the smuggler who accompanied her after she left her children home with their father and grandmother.

"I had been told by friends, even by the same people who brought me, that there was a law or something like that, for children, so that they can't be sent back to their country," said Tricia, who didn't want to use her last name because she's in the U.S. illegally. "Something the president had declared, a permit that they had given."

There is no such thing, of course. But in the international game of telephone that is communication between immigrant communities in the United States and relatives back home - in a part of the world where relatively few have Internet access - the "permiso" rumor became a small ray of hope for some parents, like Tricia, desperate to get her children out of El Salvador.

In her town, Tricia says, gangs ran rampant. Sometimes, as gang members attempted to flee from police or from one another, they scrambled across the roof of her home - trying to shield her two boys, 6 and 8, she would tell them that the noise was made by cats. Other times, she said, gang members would take refuge in the outhouse, in her family's backyard.

"Sometimes the police would be after them, and they were armed," Tricia said. "They would be running, and my kids would say, 'Mama, why does that man have a gun?' I didn't want for my kids to grow up in a place like that. There are kids there who are 10, 11, who are already involved in gangs."

So after she arrived in the U.S., moved in with relatives and found a job cleaning homes, Tricia sent for her boys. They joined the mass migration of children and teens from Central America headed north, to the tune of more than 50,000 so far since last October. The boys' grandmother accompanied them on the trip; last week, the two children joined their mother in Los Angeles.

Like most of the Central American parents who either send for their children to join them in the U.S. - or send them to live here with relatives - what really drove Tricia to entrust her boys to a smuggler was a sense of desperation over growing violence and instability that has plagued her native country in recent years.


But some have been encouraged by misinformation, spread by relatives and friends and in many cases by smugglers looking for business. At the root: U.S. policies designed to protect trafficking victims, chiefly a 2008 law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The law in a sense does protect Central American children, in that it allows minors from countries that don't have a border with the United States to at least receive an immigration hearing. Minors who arrive from Mexico, by comparison, are quickly repatriated.

It's this policy that President Obama has suggested revising to expedite the deportation of Central American youths, a suggestion that's being met with resistance from immigrant advocates.

Not all parents are aware of the "permiso" rumor. Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar and postdoctoral candidate, has been studying child migrants in El Salvador, interviewing youths deported to El Salvador from Mexico and their families. Out of more than 400 families she interviewed before the beginning of June, she said, only 16 mentioned the possibility of special treatment for minor children.

As for families aware of recent federal policies like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, criticized by some Republicans as adding fuel to the rumor mill, Kennedy said there was only one she encountered. She said that ironically, she's come across more families talking about a "permiso" and special treatment for minors since President Obama addressed the issue as a humanitarian crisis in early June.

"Are family members, coyotes, guias, saying that children might have an easier route once they arrive in the US? Probably they are," Kennedy said by phone. "But at the end of the day, they would not agree for their children to go on these incredible, dangerous journeys that they themselves took - they know what their children are risking, the children know what they are risking – they would not take them if they were not incredibly desperate."


More recently, bits of news about Obama's recent talk of deportation have been trickling back to Central America. For those aware of it, this development has some worried, said Jose Guadalupe Gomez, a community radio reporter in eastern Guatemala.

"Here, the information arrives in pieces," Guadalupe Gomez said. "I think there is a lot of concern as to what can happen to those who are detained. It runs like a cold kind of news, like a bucket of water."

Guadalupe Gomez said that in Guatemala, the "permiso" rumor has also circulated - but that it has done so against a backdrop of grinding poverty and little hope for the future.

"There is very little opportunity here...there is a disenchantment," he said. "So people want to go to the United States. I can attribute it to the rumor, but we can't forget the human part: That these immigrants have been in the United States many years...and they want to see their children. The effects of immigration here in Guatemala have not all been positive. It has brought economic development, but it has also divided families."

For those divided families, making the decision to send a child north is a tough call. Another mother from El Salvador, Esther, left her one-year-old son in her mother's care when she left 10 years ago for Los Angeles, with the goal of earning money to support him back home.

Several months ago, she sent her son, now 11, a new pair of Nikes. When she called to see if he liked them, he said that he did - but that he was too afraid to wear them outside, for fear someone might attack and rob him. He began begging her to send for him, and she relented last spring. He made it as far as southern Mexico and, after a harrowing experience, he was deported back to El Salvador. His mother doesn't want for him to take the risk again.

"He tells me on the phone, 'Mami, isn't there some way you can get me out of here and take me there?'" said Esther, who herself never heard the "permiso" rumor. "I say 'No, I can't.'"