Outside the hallways of the Capitol, the immigration reform debate isn’t political. It’s personal.
When Washington, D.C. resident Cindy Monge saw the images of unaccompanied minors crossing the southern border it hit home. Eight years ago she was one of them.
Monge left Guatemala in 2006 to reunite with a father she had never met and a mother who had spent six years traveling back and forth on a tourist visa.
“I only had one option, which was to cross the border,” she says. “I wanted to be with my parents.”
Alone at age 11, she traveled from bus to bus, contact to contact as she made the harrowing journey from Guatemala to the Mexico-U.S. border. For eight days she lived off peppermint candies and water, hiding in luggage compartments to evade Mexican authorities.
At the U.S. gates, clutching a false birth certificate provided by smugglers, her plan derailed.
“They took me to the back, they did my fingerprints, they found out everything,” Monge says, recalling her journey in an interview with ABC News. “I felt like it was the end for me.”
She would spend the next month in a juvenile detention center without an immigration hearing, praying that her undocumented father would risk his own security to claim her.
“I was alone in my thoughts and in my mind about what was going to happen next,” she says. “What was going to happen with my parents? Would they even know about me? Would they find out what was going on?”
Monge, who is now 19, shares a story with the 57,000 minors who have flooded through the southern border in the past nine months, a 106 percent increase since last year. While there is bipartisan agreement an immediate fix is necessary, Congress divides on how to address the crisis and whether to implement comprehensive immigration reform. With the president’s $3.7 billion supplemental package in limbo, and the August recess fast approaching, immigrant communities in the United States grow restless over inaction.
A month after she was taken into custody, Monge’s father came to claim her from the San Diego detention center. He brought her to Maryland, where he worked as a gardener, and told her to never speak of her status to anyone, to “never come out of the shadows.”
“This is a secret and you’re taking it to the tomb,” she recalls him saying. “To everybody you are a resident or a U.S. citizen.”
The flow of unaccompanied children has been a trickle that just recently became a wave. Monge left Guatemala eight years ago for the same reasons children are leaving today – to flee violence and poverty and to reunite with her family.
Immigration expert Marie Price calls it a calculated risk. “The threat is immediate” if individuals stay in these countries, says Price, former director of Latin American studies at George Washington University. “People do get killed, whereas you have a shot of running the gauntlet and getting through Mexico to the United States.”
While concentrated in the U.S., unaccompanied minors also seek asylum in countries like Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, which have documented a 435 percent increase in asylum application in recent years, according to a U.N. report.
Monge quickly learned English, attended public school in Maryland and “understood that I needed to accustom to this country and I needed to Americanize as fast as possible.”
When she was 15, she received legal status under Homeland Security’s deferred action for childhood arrival plan (DACA). Since 2012, more than 600,000 children have received legal status under the controversial statute.
Congress' inability to agree on legislation has consequences for tens of thousands of families, have poignant consequences for Monge. Her parents grew tired of waiting for reform and decided to leave the country. They were tired, she says, of living in constant fear of arrest and deportation.
“I’m going to be left alone again,” she says through tears. For the second time in her short life, she says, she feels abandoned, trapped on the wrong side of a border that’s divided her family.
Monge recently graduated from high school and plans to attend community college in the fall. But even once in the U.S. her journey has not been easy.
“Some days we didn’t have food in our house. We had nothing,” she says. She works two jobs back to back. “I’m always trying to save money. Everything I wear, everything I have was given to me.”
But despite the journey, the detention center and the life in the shadows, she doesn’t hesitate to say it was all worth it.
“I was in such a small town and now this country is like a world,” she says, dreaming of one day working at the United Nations. “It opens your eyes. It opens your mind.”
ABC News' Ben Siegel contributed to this report
- Immigration Issues
- Politics & Government
- unaccompanied minors