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Young migrant wins asylum in U.S. after dangerous journey across border

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As the U.S. grapples with thousands of unaccompanied migrant children at the border, CBS News is learning more about the stories of those making the dangerous journey. CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez joined CBSN with more on one young migrant's story as he fled his home country to escape gang violence and sought asylum in the United States.

Video Transcript

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: As the US grapples with the thousands of unaccompanied migrant children entering the US, CBS News is learning more about the stories of those making the dangerous trek across the Southern border. For many, the journey means a chance to escape gang violence, domestic abuse, and poverty after arriving on US soil. Back in March, the country saw a record monthly high of unaccompanied minors entering US custody.

And President Biden has faced continued criticism over the conditions at border patrol facilities housing those migrant families and what some see as a dire humanitarian challenge for this administration. CBS News immigration reporter Camilo Montoya-Galvez is following the story and is joining us from the Southern border in Mission, Texas. Camilo, you spoke to a young man who fled his home country of Guatemala about what his life was like before coming to the United States. I wanna play some of your interview for our viewers.

- I came to the US because my life was in danger, and I have-- I have fear. And the gangs in there were-- were threatening me, like, because I was a religious person. And they wanted me to sell drugs in school, and I didn't want to do it. So I was forced to come to the United States because if I-- if I would have stayed in Guatemala I would have been killed there.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: So Camilo explain to our audience. No one knows this beat better than you at CBS. Explain to the audience, um, are conditions like the ones Gilberto is describing valid conditions for migrating to the or immigrating to the United States, um, and what other stories have you heard from young people?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Sure. So Gilberto's case, he was forced to flee gang violence in Guatemala when he was 13 years old. That is obviously very young. He had to come here alone with a smuggler. He arrived here at the US-Mexico border as an unaccompanied child. He was kidnapped in Northern Mexico by a smuggler, Vlad. And then after crossing the US border, he was kidnapped a second time here in Texas. He was held for about a month, uh, and he was essentially starved.

He told me that he was fed once per week. After being found by Texas police, he was transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is the federal agency responsible for housing unaccompanied children. And once in US custody Vlad, Gilberto was able to access the legal protections that Congress created for unaccompanied children. He was able to seek asylum. He was able to reunite with his father in Los Angeles. And he was able to make and start a new life here in the US.

Asylum, Vlad, is designed for people who are fleeing persecution based on their race, nationality, political opinion, religion, and membership in a particular social group. Courts have recognized that sometimes gang violence can meet and merit asylum. And so Gilberto is one of many Central Americans who have been granted asylum based on gang persecution.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So you sort of went through a very sort of quickly kind of his journey getting here and going through the asylum process, and now he's sort of settled in. He did all of that during the Obama administration. How is the Biden administration processing these minors compared to what was happening under the Obama administration?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: That's a very good question, Anne-Marie. Under US law, unaccompanied migrant children are supposed to be transferred to the Department of Health and Human Services within three days of them being taken into custody here by US border officials. The Department of Health and Human Services is then charged with caring for them in shelters while it looks for sponsors, typically family members to place them with here on American soil, the children are allowed to seek asylum or other forms of protection from deportation.

And then, uh, they can go live with the family and friends here on American soil. During the Trump administration, during the pandemic especially, the US government suspended this process effectively ignoring this anti trafficking law. Because it argued that public health authority could supersede these protections, and that by allowing unaccompanied children into the US, coronavirus could continue to inside migrant holding facilities and broader communities here in the US.

So the Trump administration actually expelled more than 15,000 unaccompanied migrant children back to Mexico or to their home countries. The Biden administration has refused to revive that practice and is allowing unaccompanied migrant children to be processed here on American soil. So the Biden administration is not implementing a new policy per se, Anne-Marie. They are just following the law.

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: And Camilo, uh, you also spent some time at the border wall. We can see some of it behind you there. Um, what's the status of the construction under President Biden?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Yeah, so you can see it right behind me. We see a section of the barrier that has not been completed--

VLADIMIR DUTHIERS: There's a big hole. There is big hole there, Camilo.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Yeah, there is a big hole. That is a significant hole in the sec-- in this section of the wall. President Biden during his first day in office ordered an immediate halt to border wall construction. This is a project that Mr. Biden denounced as inhumane and as a symbol of President Trump's broader hard line immigration agenda.

So he brought a halt to construction, and he has also ordered the Department of Homeland Security to stop diverting military funds for border wall construction. And here in South Texas, he has instructed the Justice Department to stop filing lawsuits against local landowners for border wall construction. So right now, it is unclear whether Mr. Biden will finish sections of the wall just like this one that were already under construction.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: So Camilo you've been at the US-Mexico border for about a week now interviewing asylum seekers and officials there. You know, at the beginning of the Biden administration, there was all of this sort of back and forth about whether what was happening at the border was a crisis. Suddenly, Republican lawmakers started declaring it a crisis where they had not been doing that, um, when under the Trump administration, and were sort of pressuring the Biden administration to-- to call it what it is.

Eventually, the Biden administration got around to using the word crisis. So I'm asking you kind of-- we know you're a journalist, but I'm asking you also to kind of give us a little bit of a opinion here. And you know, in your analysis of what you have seen so far, would you call this a crisis at the border?

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Well, I think I can say Anne-Marie that immigration and border policy in general has always been a political flashpoint in Washington. Both parties have made rigorous debate on this issue for decades. But here in South Texas, we have really witnessed its real live consequences, the consequences the policy has on real people, on asylum seekers, on migrants, on border officials.

And, well, I am not going to say whether this is a crisis or not. I'll leave that to the politicians. I think I can say that for some of the asylum seekers that we interviewed, the crisis is in their home countries. It is formed by the gang violence, the widespread poverty, hurricanes, and other conditions that prompt them to come here. When they come here to the US, they don't think that this section of the US is undergoing a crisis.

They think that they're actually safe here, and that they were in a much better place than in their home countries. So I think that's important just to keep in mind then. When we think about crises, we also have to think about the condition that some of these people are fleeing in their home countries.

ANNE-MARIE GREEN: I think those are all great points, Camilo. Thank you so much.

CAMILO MONTOYA-GALVEZ: Thanks, Anne-Marie.