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Becoming American: This unaccompanied minor nearly drowned coming to the US. Now he

The water was cool and dark and swirled around Francis Portillo as he waded into the Rio Grande.

Portillo, then 14 and all alone, felt the water rising to his chest, to his shoulders, to his chin. He began paddling to the other bank and made it more than halfway across, the United States and all its promises just a few feet away.

Suddenly, the current pulled him downriver. His head bobbed in and out of the water as he struggled to stay afloat. He paddled frantically but couldn’t break the current. He was going under. 

Portillo raised his hand in a final salute to a friend on the far bank when suddenly someone clasped his hand and yanked. A team of U.S. Border Patrol agents patrolling the river in an airboat pulled him up and out of the river. 

“At that moment, I knew I was safe,” he said. 

Portillo, now 25, fled his native Honduras in 2010 and arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border as a scared unaccompanied minor speaking no English and with no relatives or contacts in the United States. He left behind an abusive father who would routinely beat him with a crocodile-skin belt and crushing poverty that doused any glimmer of hope for his future.

Unaccompanied minors arrive at border by the thousands

A decade later, unaccompanied migrant minors are arriving at the border in record-setting numbers. U.S. Customs and Border Protection encountered 18,990 unaccompanied children in March — double the number of children encountered in February and double the number from March 2019, when border agents intercepted high numbers of migrants along the border. Last year, the numbers sharply dropped because COVID-19 effectively shut down the border.

The vast majority of the migrant children are housed temporarily in federal shelters then reunited with a parent or relative living in the United States as their cases proceed through immigration court. Those, like Portillo, without any contacts in the United States – around 10% in previous years – are placed in long-term foster care.

The foster care program overseen by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, known as the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, has more stringent vetting and oversight than state-level foster care, said Lisa Koop, associate director of legal services at the National Immigrant Justice Center, a legal advocacy group that represents young immigrants.

And the program comes with counseling and other resources that help children process any trauma they may have acquired in their home country or during their long journey to the United States, she said.

“We’ve seen a lot of these children do an incredible job of assimilating, learning English and going to school and graduating,” Koop said of unaccompanied minors in the United States. “A lot of them do really well.”

‘A dream come true’: The life of an unaccompanied teen migrant, ten years later

Francis Portillo traveled alone from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border as a 14-year-old in 2010. Today, he speaks English and works in construction.

Jasper Colt, USA TODAY

Portillo said he feels for the groups of unaccompanied minors currently arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. He knows how they’re feeling: scared, anxious, distrustful. He said he hopes they get connected with a good lawyer, as he did, and find their way in the United States. 

“They’re fighters,” he said. “We’re not all bad people. We just want to be safe.”

Portillo’s story is both a shining success and cautionary tale, advocates said. He excelled in the federal foster care program – but only after an attorney stumbled into him in court, took on his case and guided him out of shelters. His story was corroborated by immigration court filings and interviews with his lawyer.

Belt lashes and beatings

Since he was 8 years old, Portillo was made to wake up at 3 a.m. each morning and milk the cows on the ranch his father oversaw in Ocotepeque, Honduras, near the border with Guatemala. He thrived in school, enjoying the way grammar and reading came easily to him, but was made to drop out in third grade, as his father,…

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