Photo by Jessie Wardarski / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Central American minors pushed north by poverty, violence, hopes for refuge

By Emilie Eaton / Cronkite Borderlands Project

Published Sept. 25, 2014

ARRIAGA, Chiapas, Mexico – As night falls, Samuel Carcamo, in a gray button-up shirt and cuffed jeans, stands on the tracks with dozens of other migrants waiting to climb on top of the northbound freight known as “The Train of Death.”

A native of El Salvador, he is already more than 400 miles from home and has at least another 1,200 miles to get to Houston, his ultimate destination.

He looks younger than the 17 years old he claims to be. Either way, Carcamo is one of the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America making the dangerous journey north to the United States, where the flood of illegal immigrant children and families has overwhelmed government agencies trying to respond.

But in Arriaga on this night, local children and families come by the tracks to watch the migrants as they gather to jump aboard the train that comes once or twice a week. Vendors peddle candy and food. Across the street, men sitting on the sidewalk peer at the migrants. A gang, the locals say. Stay away.

The dangerous, long train ride that begins in Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state, is a gateway to escaping poverty and gang violence in their countries. It also means risking life and limb to make the trip north, dodging police and criminals during a harrowing ride for hundreds of miles on top of a freight train.

But to Carcamo, the journey means trading a hopeless situation at home for potential security and prosperity in the United States. There are no jobs in El Salvador, he said, and gang influence continues to grow. If he can get to the U.S. and find a job, he can help his family get ahead.

“You might die on the way,” Carcamo said. “But it’s for a good cause – your family.”

Samuel Carcamo, 17, is emigrating to Houston to make more money and help his family in El Salvador. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski)
Samuel Carcamo, 17, is emigrating to Houston to make more money and help his family in El Salvador. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski)

No one knows how many children come through Chiapas, and how many make it to the United States, but the numbers caught in the U.S. has skyrocketed.

In fiscal 2008, there were 8,041 of what the U.S. government calls “unaccompanied alien children” caught by Customs and Border Protection after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Four years later, that number more than tripled, to 24,481, and the Department of Homeland Security estimates that 90,000 such children could be apprehended in the U.S. this fiscal year.

The reasons for the flight of children from Central America include poverty, violence in their homelands and a belief by some that the U.S. legal system will grant them permanent refuge.

“I think traditionally people think that migrants are coming to the U.S. to work,” said Jennifer Podkul, a senior program officer at the Women’s Refugee Commission, who has studied the issue. “What we were finding as we were talking to these kids was that in fact a lot of them felt like they were being pushed to the United States.”

Jimena Diaz, Guatemala’s consul general in Phoenix, has visited detained minors in Arizona to make sure they are being treated properly. In an interview in March, months before the much-publicized surge, she said many from her country were coming because they think they can legally stay.

Jimena Díaz, consul general for the Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix, has noticed a spike of unaccompanied child migration in recent years. (Photo by Emilie Eaton.)
Jimena Díaz, consul general for the Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix, has noticed a spike of unaccompanied child migration in recent years. (Photo by Emilie Eaton.)

Unlike many undocumented adult immigrants, minors from Central America cannot be quickly deported under U.S. law and some may have legitimate claims for asylum or refugee status. Diaz said that many minors intend to get caught when crossing the border, knowing the U.S. system grants legal relief to unaccompanied minors.

“Because they are minors, they can stay here. That’s also a reason why it has been increasing,” Diaz said. “Because they know they will be able to stay here.”

Life 400 Miles Away

Carcamo’s decision to travel north was sudden. A week before his journey began in early March, he was in school and working in construction in his hometown of Santa Ana. Not much had changed. The poverty, crime and gang activity was as pervasive as ever. But he had saved some money to help pay for the journey and he decided the trip was necessary.

It wasn’t an easy decision, especially leaving his parents behind.

“I talked to (my family) about it and, truthfully, they were very sad,” Carcamo said. “But it is something that has to be done. You have to make the effort.”

Carcamo had his first run-in with bandits only a few days into his journey. He paid a man to ferry him across the Usumacinta River between Guatemala and Mexico. The man then turned him over to robbers who took all his money.

He found refuge at a free, bare-bones shelter for migrants, La Casa del Migrante, in Arriaga, a three-hour drive from the Mexico-Guatemala border. There, he could await the freight train north and reduce his chances of being robbed again.

Daphne Van De Werf, who took 10 weeks off from her job as a university support staffer in Holland to volunteer at La Casa del Migrante, has heard many stories like Carcamo’s in her short time there.

“It’s incredible because I still can’t grasp why they do it,” she said. “How much danger and poverty can you have that you give up the safety of your own country and your own house and your family?”

The young men are troubling enough, but when Van De Werf sees single mothers or families with children and babies, she fights the urge to ask why they would subject their young to so much danger.

“Who am I to ask them, ‘Who do you think you are to travel with your children? You should stay at home,’” she said. “I always think, maybe the problems at home are so bad that they have to travel, so I will help.”

Liceth Arely Merlos is emigrating from El Salvador to the United States with her 13 and 14-year old children. She is currently staying in La Casa del Migrante in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mex. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski.)
Liceth Arely Merlos is emigrating from El Salvador to the United States with her 13 and 14-year old children. She is currently staying in La Casa del Migrante in Arriaga, Chiapas, Mex. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski.)

Podkul, the Women’s Refugee Commission official, cited a comment by one of the 151 detained children she interviewed at a U.S. Air Force base in Texas for a 2012 study on the migration. She said it exemplified what many Central America minors face.

“I said to him, ‘It’s so dangerous going through Mexico. Why would you want to go through Mexico by yourself?’ He rode on top of the train. People die and are kidnapped, and all these horrible things happen,” she said.

“And he was like, ‘Look. I lived in Honduras. It’s so dangerous there. I mean, I would regularly see dead bodies on the street. If I stayed in my country, I would definitely die. If I tried to get to the United States, maybe I would die, but I’d still have a chance,’” she said.

The Journey

As Carcamo stood on the tracks waiting for The Train of Death – also called “la bestia,” or the beast – he smiled, laughed and joked with friends.

But in truth, he was most worried about this portion of the trip, a 12-hour ride on top of the train until it reached the city of Ixtepec, Oaxaca, Mexico. He worried about getting tired and falling off – many who do lose limbs or die. He feared bandits, gangs or drug-cartel soldiers who regularly board the train to demand money, or kidnap migrants for ransom or use as drug mules.

Samuel Carcamo admits he may die traveling through the U.S., but he's doing it anyway to help his family. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski.)
Samuel Carcamo admits he may die traveling through the U.S., but he's doing it anyway to help his family. (Photo by Jessie Wardarski.)

A month before his trip, three migrants were killed in Oaxaca by a gunman who boarded the train and demanded money and personal belongings. A fourth was killed as he tried to jump off the train to escape. Weeks earlier, prosecutors in Veracruz, Mexico, filed a criminal complaint against a Mexican rail line for complicitity in the many crimes against migrants.

Van De Werf, who registers and interviews migrants at the Arriaga shelter, said 10 percent reported they already had been robbed or assaulted.

“This is only the beginning,” she said. “When 10 percent already have problems, I think 100 percent will have assaults or robberies when they finally meet the (northern) border.”

But Carcamo said when things got bad, he worried most about his family.

“It was distressing,” he said. “I thought about my family, and how they were already worried about me and that they might not see me again. That was painful.”

One who made it

For those who do make it to the United States, it often takes multiple tries.

It took Elias Perez two tries – including two weeks of detention in Mexico and repatriation to Guatemala – before he made it Phoenix eight years ago at age 14.

On his first attempt, Mexican police stopped Perez and his brother and sent them to a detention facility near Cancun, where they were held for about two weeks until there were detained Guatemalans to send back on a bus. Conditions in the center were OK, he said, but he was so scared the first night he could barely sleep. After a while, he got used to it. It helped that his brother was with him.

Many human rights activists believe detention of minors is a poor alternative for governments trying to deal with illegal immigration.

“Our belief based on our research is that detention is never in the best interest of the child,” said Vanessa Martinez, a program officer for the International Detention Coalition, which advocates for an end to childhood detention throughout the world. “They should always be put in alternative care models.”

Martinez said a 2011 Mexican law required the National Migration Institute (INM) to transfer children from detention facilities to centers run by the National Agency for Family Development, or DIF, but, “A lot of things actually didn’t happen with the law.”

“Most kids stay in detention. Most kids aren’t transferred to DIF,” Martinez said.

The law was well-intentioned, advocates say, and included a new job classification specifically to protect migrant children. But Martinez and others say those new agents have too many responsibilities and their duties as immigration officers come first.

INM officials said they have not heard reports of children staying in detention centers or of child-protection agents being overburdened. They did not respond to further inquiries about their immigration policies.

Maria de Lourdes Rosas, a research assistant at Fray Matias Human Rights Center, said children in the DIF facility she visits in Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, don’t have mattresses and sleep on the cement floor. Nutrition is poor, medical services are limited, and there’s little room to walk around freely, she said. When children misbehave, punishment is a dark, isolated cell.

But Jeanne Atkinson, the executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., said DIF facilities she visited during a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops-sponsored research trip to Chiapas and Central America were adequate. She was more concerned about what would happen to the children once they were released.

“I would personally like to know whether these kids left these shelters with the tools they needed to be engaged in society as adults,” Atkinson said.

The Northern Border

Perez, the Guatemalan who came to Phoenix at age 14, said he risked multiple trips because his home life changed dramatically. His mother died when he was still a boy. His father remarried, but Perez said his stepmother treated him and his siblings poorly, sometimes saying she only had food for her husband, not them.

After their failed attempt, Perez’s brother traveled to Phoenix alone. Perez continued saving – something he had done since age 12 – and decided to try again himself a month later.

This time, he thought he went prepared. He bought a “refugee pass” that he was told would let him travel freely through Mexico – though experts say it was probably a scam. He boarded a bus to Tijuana, Mexico, and arrived safely two days and three nights later.

But Mexico’s northern border is fraught with the same dangers as its southern one: Kidnappers, smugglers and bandits all prey on migrants. More than 2,000 illegal immigrants have died in Arizona since 2001, half from exposure while navigating the demanding terrain in extreme heat or cold. Perez, wno had seen movies in which migrants faced with such obstacles go insane, said it gets “into your mind that this could happen to you.”

Perez paid a “coyote,” a smuggler, who led him and a group of others over the border and into the desert. It was December. It was cold. And he was still just 14.

When asked about his trip, Perez speaks calmly and at first says he didn’t encounter any problems. He wears a Kansas City Royals baseball hat, Nike shoes and an American Eagle sweatshirt. Paint lines his cuticles and fingernails, remnants of his work as a house painter. Only after talking for some time does he acknowledge some of the problems he encountered.

Elias Pérez, 22, emigrated from Guatemala by himself when he was 14. (Photo by Emilie Eaton.)
Elias Pérez, 22, emigrated from Guatemala by himself when he was 14. (Photo by Emilie Eaton.)

One night, the group stopped for a few moments to rest, but when Perez stood up, his feet were frozen. He told the smuggler, who gave him a pill. What was it? Was it supposed to wake him up? Was it going to get his blood flowing?

He took the pill; it seemed to work. To this day, he doesn’t know what it was.

Another time, gun-wielding bandits stopped the group and demanded money and valuables. Thankfully, Perez said, he had placed his valuables under the insole of his shoe and didn’t lose anything.

After crossing the border, Perez called his brother to pick him up. They made the final portion of his journey to Phoenix together.

Navigating the U.S.

Perez eased into American life fairly easily. He missed his family and worried about their safety in Guatemala, but he had his brother and he found a job painting for a construction company in Phoenix.

For many, however, the transition isn’t as simple. For those who are caught, it is the first step in a complicated, problem-filled path through multiple federal agencies that activists say can sometimes include mistreatment at the hands of Customs and Border Protection agents.

“(Minors) were tasered or they were screamed at or intimidated during the apprehension process, even … when they were not trying to run away or try to get away from the CBP agent,” said Podkul, of the Women’s Refugee Commission.

In detention facilities they visited in 2012, Podkul and other researchers found that children slept on the floor, there were no blankets, the lights were on for 24 hours a day, and minors weren’t given warm food. Some children were held in locked holding cells, windowless rooms or cages, the report stated.

While CBP did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, a 2010 report by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found that CBP agents followed all policies regarding unaccompanied alien children. Sometimes, the report said, they went above and beyond the call of duty.

When children refused to eat the food offered, for example, agents would buy food from vending machines or fast-food restaurants, or would offer them their own lunches and dinners, the report stated. The Border Patrol station in Tucson contracted with Burger King to provide food for young detainees.

By law, unaccompanied minors are supposed to be in CBP custody for no more than 72 hours after they are caught. But during a 2012 spike in border crossings, there were reports of children held in detention longer because the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Department of Health and Human Services branch that cares for unaccompanied children, could not handle the influx.

Lisa Raffonelli, a spokeswoman for that office, did not comment on how long minors waited in 2012. But she said the office made accommodations in April to manage the growing number of children being referred.

“ORR has increased its overall bed capacity and staffing and instituted new policies to streamline reunifications and discharges,” she noted in an email interview.

After going through mandated processing, minors are placed in the custody of a sponsor in the U.S., preferably a family member. Sometimes a licensed program, such as a shelter, will sponsor children.

There are several forms of legal relief available to unaccompanied minors, including asylum, U-visas for victims of physical or mental abuse, T-visas for victims of human trafficking, and citizenship.

A New Home

Perez chose none of those routes, preferring to blend in with the legion of undocumented workers who have been the backbone of Arizona’s construction industry. He works during the day and, if he’s not tired afterward, plays soccer at night. He loves action movies and listens to his favorite band, Mana. He sends money home to his family and thinks about the day, “maybe in two years,” that he’ll return to Guatemala.

He’s found the better life he sought when he left eight years ago. But that journey, that risk is not something that he wants for those he loves. His sister asked if she could come. He said no.