(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Detainees are escorted to an area to make phone calls as hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. Two locations in Brownsville, Texas, and Nogales, that have been central to processing the more than 47,000 unaccompanied children who have entered the country illegally since Oct. 1.
For the past year, thousands of underage immigrants from Central America have been streaming across the Mexico border into the United States alone. Nearly 50,000 have been detained by immigration authorities since October. Housing and caring for those children until they can be reunited with parents or relatives has been a daunting task.
The metro D.C. region is home to one of the largest Central American communities in the U.S. and is now a community where many families are suffering over absent children and some are risking everything to get them back.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer helps two young boys pick out clothes as they join hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children as they are being processed and held at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center on Wednesday, June 18, 2014, in Nogales, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool)
Finding a way to avoid La Bestia
Last May, 15-year-old Mario decided he could no longer live in El Salvador because of threats by local gangs.
“There’s so much violence,” said Mario. “I was even afraid to go to school. In El Salvador, many students on their way to school are disappearing.”
Mario set out alone on a 3,200 mile journey to Gaithersburg, Maryland, hoping to reunite with his mother whom he hadn’t seen for six years. A week after setting out, tired and hungry, the ninth grader reached Mexico.
"It was very dangerous in Mexico. The drug cartels were always shooting at one another at night and I was very worried but I always kept going,” Mario said.
Thousands of miles away in Gaithersburg, Mario's mother, a housekeeper named Katia, had just learned that her son had set out alone on this trek.
“My mother surprised me when she told me he was no longer with her, that he had decided to come looking for me,” Katia said.
Katia spent two agonizing weeks without knowing Mario's fate. “I felt my hands and feet were tied because there’s nothing you can do except ask God to protect your child on that road. Pray for a miracle so you and your child can be together.”
Mario had $500 for the trip. It had taken him more than a year to save it. The money was almost gone by the time he got to Mexico and the teen faced a dangerous dilemma: how to best reach the U.S. border? One way was by hopping on freight trains.
“The train is called La Bestia — The Beast. Young people like me would tie themselves with ropes to keep from falling,” Mario explained. “Single mothers with babies in their arms and hanging from the train… people suffer on that train.”
Mario knew that “La Bestia’s” other nickname is El Tren de la Muerte, or The Death Train. He did not wish to fall prey to those steel rails and wheels. Exhausted, the baby-faced teen trudged towards the Rio Grande.
“I crossed the river on a small raft and knowing God was by my side, I wasn't scared,” said Mario. The only thing going through my mind was that all I was doing, God willing, was to make a better future for myself.”
About a half hour after crossing, Border Patrol agents found Mario wandering. They took him to a detention facility in Texas and then to a Catholic center in Florida. Three weeks later, Katia drove a borrowed car to Miami where the miracle she prayed for was granted.
"I'm very happy to have him by my side and together we'll fight to get ahead,” Katia said.
In God's hands
Meanwhile in Hyattsville, Maryland, Elena, a fast food worker, was struggling over her decision to scrape and borrow $12,000 to smuggle her three small children from Guatemala.
"It was a difficult and desperate decision," she explained.
According to Elena, the children's grandparents were sick and no longer able to care for them, and the fear of violence outweighed the potential hazards of smuggling the children to America.
"You know you are placing your children at risk by bringing them by themselves on this trip,” said Elena. “I placed them in God's hands and prayed on my knees every night.”
One night last month while Elena was praying for her children, the 3,000 mile journey from Guatemala by bus, car and on foot ended for 13-year-old Elmer, 12-year-old Luis and ten-year-old Cristina. The siblings held hands tightly in the dark, dwarfed by a massive concrete and steel fence on the Mexico-U.S. border.
The children say they climbed the wall on a huge ladder, before the smugglers threw them onto the other side of the wall. They recall being scared and crying as they ran towards the woods on the side away from the wall.
Before abandoning the children, the smugglers known as coyotes, gave the children a final message: “If immigration doesn't get you, keep walking.”
Melissa Graves with Lutheran Social Services says these stories reflect the reality of thousands of youngsters fleeing Central America.
"These youths are boys who have been threatened by local drug cartels to join their gangs or their families will be killed. They're girls who have been forced into sex trafficking."
Local as well as national problem
The U.S. Border Patrol estimates that as many as 90,000 unaccompanied minors will be detained on the border this year. Three quarters of them are coming from Central America. They must be placed in the custody of relatives here while their immigration cases proceed.
The metro D.C. region has the third largest concentration of Central Americans in the United States, so it’s likely that hundreds if not thousands of these children could soon be coming here. Many local public schools are already experiencing the influx. Stefanny Aramayo counsels recently arrived immigrant students at a Montgomery County High School. She says her class size more than doubled over the course of the school year.
"I started off with 12 in October 2013 and now in May 2014 I ended with 26," she says.
Aramayo says it’s not just a question of more classrooms and teachers but also addressing the needs of children traumatized by their violent past — kids who have had little parental supervision or formal schooling.
"One of the boys said he prefers to be playing with his cows back in his country than being in school," Aramayo says. “I have a student who came from a tiny village in Guatemala. The first time I put her in front of a computer, she wanted to cry because she didn't know what to do with it. She said, 'What do we do with this?'"
"This issue on the national level is affecting us here locally," says Nancy Navarro, a Democratic Council member in Montgomery County. "The fact that the House of Representatives refuses to take on immigration reform is a problem because now local jurisdictions such as ours, we're going to have to absorb these young people not only in the school system but provide them with the social safety net that they need and that they deserve."
But those who argue against the legalization of undocumented immigrants blame the White House.
“The reason that you are seeing this flow of children is because word has gotten back to Central America that if you are an unaccompanied minor or a mother with young children you will be let go into the United States. This is because of Obama Administration policy. This is a crisis created by the Administration," says Mark Krekorian with the Center for Immigration Studies.
Candace Kattar with the Youth Group Identity says it’s not that simple.
“We have been waiting for immigration reform in this country for how many years? Nothing is happening and nobody within those communities, within the Latino communities from Central America from Mexico, see any change in sight,” says Kattar. “Families aren't going to wait any longer, they're going to bring those children here.”
Speaking of children, the three Guatemalan siblings are getting to know the mother they hadn't seen in six years and Mario — the boy who wouldn't ride the train of death — dreams about a better life. He says, “I am devoting myself to school. I want to be someone here in the United States, I want to be a doctor.”