Guatemala’s first lady, Rosa Leal de Pérez visited Tucson’s Greyhound bus station Wednesday evening to thank volunteers and city officials for reaching out to the Guatemalan women and children who are dropped off daily by immigration officials before continuing their journey.
It was part of Pérez’s trip to Southern Arizona this week to assess the situation of Guatemalans, many of them women and young children.
“I come as a woman, as a mother and as a grandmother,” she said outside the bus station. “I have grandchildren who are the ages of the children making the journey and it breaks my heart.”
Pérez’s visit comes at a time when the federal government continues to grapple with an unprecedented increase in Central American minors and women traveling with their young children.
So far this fiscal year, the U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended more than 52,000 children and about 40,000 adults with minors.
Pérez arrived in Tucson Tuesday evening and during her trip has met with Catholic Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas, and toured the Tucson Border Patrol Sector and the Nogales Placement Center where U.S. Customs and Border Protection has been holding children since early June.
On Wednesday, there were 431 children from Guatemala held at the center, which is being used as temporary housing while the Office of Refugee Resettlement finds bed space for the minors.
CBP in Tucson didn’t provide current apprehension numbers of Guatemalans in the sector, but in April officials said they had detained close to 2,500 Guatemalan juveniles, compared with 2,456 in all of the previous fiscal year.
At that time, Border Patrol officials said they were concerned about the spike in the number of kids crossing the border, both alone and accompanied by their parents, especially as the hottest months of the year approached. Agents were also finding them wandering alone in some of the most remote areas of the desert.
Earlier this week, María Gómez, 19, waited for her night bus to Mississippi at the Tucson bus station.
She had walked five hours at night near the Douglas border crossing with her baby strapped to her back. By the end of the trek, the girl had scratches all over her legs and arms.
Like many of the women at the bus station that night, Gómez said she was escaping poverty and looking for a better life for her daughter.
Pérez said her husband’s government is aware of the poverty that exists in the Central American country and is working hard to tackle the problem at the root.
She said education and job opportunities are the key and the government has initiatives underway to provide technical training for young people and support programs such as cooperatives.
On July 8, the Guatemalan government will launch a prevention campaign for parents, asking them not to send their children to the United States, she said.
About 80 percent of those leaving Guatemala do so to reunite with their families, Pérez said, not to escape violence.
But Manuel Ortiz, president of a local Guatemalan organization who fled the civil war 21 years ago, said the root of the migration continues to be the violence the country has experienced.
He also asked Pérez to do more for indigenous communities. “There are indigenous people who don’t have electricity, who don’t have potable water,” he told her.She responded that the president is committed to lift the country out of poverty as much as possible. “With willpower and God’s help we are on the right path.”