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Young and Alone: The Growing Humanitarian Crisis at the US-Mexico Border

We spoke to some of the thousands of unaccompanied minors trying to reach the US through Mexico, an issue that is overwhelming authorities.
Photo by Luis Chaparro

Antonio doesn’t have a fucking clue about the “DREAM Act” or “Deferred Action,” the rosy-sounding programs meant to get undocumented kids legal status in the United States.

At just 10 years old, he traveled alone on the dangerous 2,000-mile migration path from his town in Guatemala to El Paso, Texas. Antonio is now stuck in a shelter in Ciudad Juárez, one of thousands of minors who are heading toward the US this year without papers, and often without any adult company. The children face fatal risks along the way and — as Antonio experienced — the threat of deportation if they make it over the border in one piece.


When I asked him, he couldn’t even pronounce dream, let alone deferred. But, Antonio did understand one thing. “Over there,” he could have had the opportunity to go to school, and eventually even acquire legal US residency, particularly because of his minor status, he reasoned.

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Antonio is a dark–skinned, thin, little boy with protruding ears. The route that he chose — entering Mexico through its southernmost border with a human trafficker, a complete stranger — was a difficult one.

This initial risk alone could have cost him his life. But he could have also died earlier, during the raft ride from Puerto Ocos, Guatemala — where he found a smuggler to help him reach the Mexican border — or on board “The Beast,” the freight train migrant-mover that is plagued by assaults and killings.

Later, Antonio could have met his fate during the bus rides he took through the cities of Saltillo, Torreon, and Chihuahua in northern Mexico, before making it to Ciudad Juárez. It is a region riddled with violence and drug-trafficking, and buses are sometimes held up.

This journey, which little Antonio detailed to VICE News last week, is similar to stories heard in a surge of migration by young people that is now overwhelming authorities in both the US and Mexico. The US government estimates that 60,000 unaccompanied minors could be caught this year, a tenfold increase in numbers that were reported in 2011.


President Barack Obama said on June 2 that the increase in trafficking of underage, unaccompanied migrants to the US is an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

'Let’s just say that things in Guatemala are not very good right now. There aren’t any opportunities.'

This unprecedented spike in children and families reaching the US through Mexico can lead to an indefinite stay in federal custody for many. Reports are emerging of increasingly horrific conditions inside detention centers, and a new government practice that might as well be called migrant-dumping.

The Greyhound terminal in Phoenix has an encampment of children and families that has settled there because US border authorities say they have nowhere else to put them. Fox News inelegantly referred to the practice as “illegal dumping” on a recent segment. And rumors circulating in Central America say that new US immigration rules are leading to leniency for migrants crossing with children, contributing to the spike of kids traveling north, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Antonio’s deportation
Antonio’s guide — or pollero as they are called, referring to the men who cram chickens into cages — charged around $6,000, which his parents sent from somewhere in the US. After more than a month of travel, Antonio said, they reached Ciudad Juárez. There, the trafficker had to dole out at least $100 for a “permit” from the transnational gang Barrio Azteca in order to pass through their turf.


Antonio’s pollero took him to cross into the US in a desolate desert region facing New Mexico. It would be easier, his pollero told him, than crossing closer to El Paso. Once across, he would have to make his way to Paisano Drive in El Paso. The man gave him a piece of paper and told him: “You walk down the road until you see a McDonalds, and when you get there call this number.”

But on that February night, once Antonio began to walk down the road, a US Border Patrol agent stopped him and asked what he was doing by himself in the middle of El Paso at night. The agent asked Antonio for his documents, took them, and then locked him in the back of a truck.

Antonio was promptly deported. The next morning, he said, he watched as US officials took his Guatemalan identification card and his two sets of clothes and tossed them in the garbage. He was delivered back to Mexico, where authorities shuttled him to a shelter called Mexico, Mi Hogar, 10 minutes from the international line.

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The shelter’s name means “Mexico, My Home.” In recent months, it has received hundreds of minors who have attempted the journey to the US. It’s similar to the shelter where a little girl from Ecuador, faced with the prospect of returning to her home country, opted for suicide instead.

This is where I found Antonio. Frightened, he initially denied that he had paid a trafficker, but as we got talking, he let the cat out of the bag. “My parents are over there. I just told them that I wanted to go, even though they didn’t want me to,” Antonio said. “Let’s just say that things in Guatemala are not very good right now. There aren’t any opportunities.”


Antonio said that his parents tried to convince him to not leave Guatemala, “It isn’t easy to live in the United States right now, either,” they told him.

Antonio told VICE News that he wants to be a doctor, but for now, he will no longer be able to pursue his dream on the northern side of the border. He said that he is scared, that the journey has been very long, and that now he just wants to go home.

Officially, Antonio is now under the protection of the Mexico's federal minors program. The shelter offers him all of his needs for housing, clothing, and food, while federal officials assume the responsibility of locating his family and putting him on a flight back to his country. Antonio still has a long wait ahead of him. Authorities said it would be at least several months before they would be able to get his return trip sorted out.

Towns full of unaccompanied child migrants
The border states of Texas and Chihuahua are now both host to settlements of migrant children. On the US side are the minors who have successfully crossed and are waiting to be deported or hoping to be granted asylum. On the Mexican side are those who have already been deported and are waiting to be repatriated to their countries of origin. About 47,000 unaccompanied minors have been arrested from October 2013 to date at the border with the US, according to the US Border Patrol.

The Nogales processing center in Arizona is now reportedly holding close to 1,000 migrant children. Last month, US federal authorities opened up a temporary shelter in Lackland Air Force base, on the outskirts of San Antonio, to provide refuge for about 1,200 undocumented minors. Last week, a new shelter was opened up in California with the capacity to house 600 children.


The deported minors arrive at the shelters 'frustrated, anxious, stressed and depressed.'

This still doesn’t come close to the sufficient space needed to house the increasing influx of child migrants. Photos show horrific, overcrowded conditions at a facility in Texas. So what is the plan? According to a source at the Border Patrol, who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, the idea is to basically do more of the same — detain them at the border, and then deport them immediately.

Fernando Loera, director of the Mexico, Mi Hogar shelter’s Program for Attention to Migrant Minors, told VICE News that Ciudad Juárez suffers from “overwhelming number underage deportations.”

The day that I visited the shelter — a weather-worn building, with game rooms and a large kitchen — there were around 40 deported underage migrants inside. They originated predominantly from Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Mexico.

An average of 40 minors a month, between the ages of 11 and 17, are “repatriated” to this shelter, regardless of their actual country of origin, Loera said. In a typical year, 450 admissions to the shelter are recorded. In 2014, however, this number is expected to double.

“Here we care for them until they are repatriated to their places of origin,” Loera said. “If they are Mexican, they spend less time here. If they are Central American, it can take several months before they are transported.”


When Loera says “care” he means food, clothing, and psychological support. “In the interviews that we conduct, the minors are usually overcome by fits of tears, because they are facing a painful process,” he said. “They have also crossed through all of Mexico and have lived through the collection of payments, extortion, and violence.”

Loera refers to the repatriation as “a bereavement, a mourning.” He said that the deported minors live through a sense of grief and loss. The children have to let go of the life of opportunity they sought and imagined for themselves. “They arrive here frustrated, anxious, stressed and depressed,” he said.

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The case of Nohemí Álvarez — the 12-year-old girl who committed suicide at another shelter in Ciudad Juárez — epitomizes the severity of the situation. On March 11, Nohemí was found lifeless at the La Esperanza shelter after being apprehended by police when she was found in the custody of a pollero.

After an official found her lifeless body, the Chihuahua state prosecutor’s office determined that the girl had hanged herself with a shower curtain, improvised as a noose, in one of the shelter’s dormitories. Nohemí’s corpse was repatriated to Ecuador, where the few members of her family who remained there gathered for a wake. Her parents, migrants in the US, did not get to say goodbye.

Objects in the rear-view mirror may be closer than they appear
“Ricky Martin” — a pollero for 20 years — is nicknamed after the Puerto Rican pop star for his long dirty-blonde hair. The day that I met him he referred to himself as “the drug–addicted version of Ricky Martin.”


Ricky understands undocumented human trafficking better than any academic or police entity. Since the 1990s, and prior to 9/11, he had received people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Honduras, and southern Mexico, then dropped them off “safe and sound” on the US side of the border. “Without tricks, without risks,” he told VICE News from his Ciudad Juárez home.

Ricky Martin (right), who has been a pollero for 20 years.

When the Twin Towers fell in New York, human trafficking became almost impossible.

“Before, the wall wasn’t there, all of the cameras and sensors and Border [Patrol] surveillance weren’t there either. It was so easy. Before, one would just hide in the river, and off we go, hop in,” Ricky said.

The ramping up of border surveillance is due to the supposed threat of “terrorists,” although up until now, the only fish the net has managed to catch have been undocumented migrants and polleros like Ricky.

'Other reporters have called from England and New York and want to spin this thing, but I’m going to ask you to do me a favor: Don’t start "heating up the plaza."'

“Right now, it isn’t just the gringos who are making it so damn difficult. It’s also because the everything is being watched by La Línea and by the Barrio Azteca,” he said, referring to the two main gangs in Juárez.

Once, members of the Barrio Azteca pistol-whipped Ricky and split his head open.

“For every person that I take across, they take 100 dollars, and I — because I do fair business — don’t ask the people for the money until they are on the other side. That time I didn’t have the money, so they beat the shit out of me,” Ricky said, with his eyes to the ground. “I think I am going to quit this job.”


The problem, besides the “tolls” being charged, is that the undocumented migrants, especially the minors, are often used as narcotics mules. They are given backpacks full of drugs that the gangs order them to take across the border, as a way to pay back the traffickers. It is common for unaccompanied women and girls, seen as easy targets, to be raped.

Adrián Sánchez, a spokesperson for Ciudad Juárez police, confirmed that he is aware that this informal industry is controlled by the mafias.

Pastor José Tavizón, who receives undocumented deportees, put me in contact with one of the heads of La Línea, who I asked to interview about the plight that underage migrants face while attempting to cross the border.

'My parents wanted me to try again, but I don’t want to anymore.'

“I can’t right now, my friend,” the supposed mob leader said over the phone. “Other reporters have called from England and New York and want to spin this thing, but I’m going to ask you to do me a favor: Don’t start ‘heating up the plaza.’”

The phrase, “calentando la plaza,” is parlance for rising tit-for-tat killings that occur in “plazas,” or trafficker-controlled cities, in Mexico.

It is from these men that polleros like Ricky, who considers himself something of an “independent contractor,” hide. Ricky has two female contacts in El Salvador and Honduras, who guide the children through Mexico, communicating with cellphones, until they reach Ricky’s house. From this humble brick building atop a paved hillside one can see the Rio Bravo, the border fence, and downtown El Paso.


“She keeps $5,000 and guides them with her cellphone, to avoid risks. She tells them where to eat, where to sleep, everything, every detail, and then they get to me, and I keep about a thousand. But then I have to pay off these lunatics,” Ricky complained.

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Between Ricky, the women in Central America, the man I spoke to on the phone, the Barrio Azteca gang members, and the Border Patrol agents, it’s clear that child migrants have a hell of a time trying to reach the US.

Escaping from home
Despite the belief that these children are crossing the border with the idea that they will eventually be granted amnesty, allowing them to legally remain in the US, the reality is that they are fleeing from horrific crime rates at home.

“We have heard rumors and reports that say the increase [in undocumented minors] is a response to the belief that these minors will be able to stay [in the US], or that the immigration reform will somehow benefit them,” Cecilia Muñoz, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said in a videoconference on June 2. “But it clearly appears as if their real reason is what is occurring in their country of origin.”

But little Antonio, just like the other minors who spoke to me at the shelter in Juárez, does not see the difference between the two: Things are getting worse in Central America, and the only opportunity they have to attend school appears to be in the US.


Muñoz explained that the minors who have just arrived in the US will not see the benefits of the Deferred Action reform, which was approved in 2013 by the Senate. This program would allow undocumented people who meet certain requirements — such as completing university in the US, for example — to legally stay in the country.

The trips back
The common denominator among underage migrants who attempt to cross into the US unaccompanied appears to be, in part, ambition to seek out a proper education, combined with old-fashioned desperation. Sitting next to me, along Rio Bravo’s riverbed, is 16-year-old Chihuahua native who said his name was Leonel. He tells me — with a pronounced speech impediment — that he was deported just yesterday.


“I crossed to study, because here it is difficult. They say that the schools aren’t very good; at least, that’s what my grandpa says,” he said.

Leonel was robbed of the $800 that a pollero charged him to travel the short distance from Ciudad Juárez to El Paso. “That guy came at nighttime to ask my grandpa for money so that he could take me to my parents, who are in Denver,” Leonel said. “But as soon as he gave him the money, the guy took off. All he did was steal from us.”

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Leonel’s parents again saved up the money to attempt to reunite with their son. On his second attempt, he managed to make it across the border, but only briefly. “The pollero dropped me off right at the fence and he told me to walk down the street. But I was seen by a patrol. He [the pollero] returned [to Mexico], but I got caught,” he recalled.

Leonel said that the Border Patrol agents threatened him with incarceration and told that they would take him far from his family if they saw him again. They detained him for 24 hours, took down his information, prints, and pictures, and then returned him to Ciudad Juárez. “My parents wanted me to try again, but I don’t want to anymore,” he told me. “To be honest, it is really scary. The gringos scared me. I think I’ll go to high–school here, or in Chihuahua, instead.”

Follow Luis Chaparro on Twitter: @LuisKuryaki