Since October, a staggering 57,000 unaccompanied migrant children have been apprehended at the southwestern U.S. border. Sometimes, they've been welcomed into the country by activists; other times they've been turned away by protesters.
President Obama has called the flood of migrant children seeking refuge from violence and poverty in Central America a "humanitarian crisis at the border." Earlier this month, he requested $3.7 billion from Congress to respond to the crisis and urged Central American leaders to discourage more children from attempting the dangerous journey through Mexico, where they are targets for local criminal gangs and drug cartels.
The number of migrant children hailing from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala has more than doubled since last year. But who are these young people, and why are they coming in such large numbers?
Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who's been working in El Salvador, has some answers. As part of her research in the capital, San Salvador, on unaccompanied minor migrants, she interviewed more than 500 children and adolescents as they returned to El Salvador after being deported from Mexico.
She tells NPR's Robert Siegel that many of them are desperate.
"These are the most dangerous places in the world," Kennedy says. "The only place that has a higher murder rate than Honduras is Syria."
Of the 322 interviews she's analyzed, Kennedy says 109 interviewees "received direct threats that they could either join a gang or be killed."
In most cases, Kennedy says, kids and teenagers leave Central America to avoid climbing levels of gang violence, extortion and drug trafficking. Sometimes, it's to find their families. Ninety percent of the young people she's interviewed have relatives in the U.S.; 50 percent have one or both parents there.
The Mexican government has recently announced a new initiative to step up control of its southern border. Kennedy says El Salvador is feeling the effects. The migrant return center where she works has gone from receiving one or two buses of children twice a week to receiving more than six a week.
But, Kennedy says, those kids will try again. She interviewed a 12-year-old boy who returned to El Salvador barefoot; he had been robbed of everything he owned.
"I asked him if he was going to try again," says Kennedy, "and he just burst into tears and said, 'What would you do if you were me? I haven't seen my mom or my dad in 10 years ... and no one here loves me.' "
If the children have family in the U.S., they can often afford to pay a smuggler to get them across the border. If a family is too poor to afford a coyote, however, the child will often try to ride on a network of trains that run the length of Mexico, known as "La Bestia" — The Beast.
Deborah Bonello, a freelance video journalist in Mexico, says that riding The Beast is dangerous. Because it's a cargo train, not a passenger train, migrants have to jump on while the train is moving and climb onto the roof. Many have lost limbs; others have lost their lives.
And there are other dangers.
"Criminal groups are charging a tax now to migrants who want to ride the train, and if you can't pay, you basically get thrown off," Bonello says. "And it's half a day, a day on the train, so if the train doesn't stop, they have no access to food."
Migrants riding La Bestia often have to rely on charity. Bonello says that groups like the women who call themselves "Las Patronas" throw food to migrants as the trains go by.
If they make it to the U.S.-Mexico border, children are readily giving themselves up to U.S. agents, crossing the Rio Grande on inner tubes and tires. They will be encountering even more patrols in the coming weeks; Texas Gov. Rick Perry has announced that he's sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border.
These children hope their long journey will end here, when they surrender to U.S. officials — but as they head to crowded detention centers to await immigration court hearings, it may be just beginning.
Writing and research was contributed by Caroline Batten and Nicole Narea.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Now, a perilous journey more than 1,000 miles that ends in a very mixed reception. Young Central Americans crossing the border from Mexico unaccompanied may find a hostile reception, as they did in Murrieta, California earlier this month. Or as also happened in Murrieta, those undocumented immigrants may find a counter-protest of welcome.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSONS: (Chanting) Immigrants are welcome here. No papers, no fear.
SIEGEL: But whatever their reception, the children keep coming North - from El Salvador - from Guatemala - from Honduras. Why are they coming? And what is their journey like? Well, we'll start where they do. Elizabeth Kennedy is a Fulbright scholar El Salvador. She's interviewed hundreds of young people as part of her research.
ELIZABETH KENNEDY: They are desperate. Tens of children are killed every month in these nations. And the violence that's rampant - these the most dangerous places in the world. The only place that has a higher murder rate than Honduras is Syria.
SIEGEL: Kennedy has analyzed the data from interviews with 322 kids who had tried to get to the U.S. and returned back.
KENNEDY: 109 received direct threats that they could either join the gang or be killed. So that is 109 people who were potentially eligible for asylum in the United States. They are being persecuted by a transnational criminal actor who is targeting them based upon a number of factors.
SIEGEL: Those kids were not turned back by U.S. immigration. They will return to El Salvador from Mexico - the Mexican government has stepped up enforcement of its border. Last week Mexican Interior Minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, announced a new system for protecting these children and sending them home.
MIGUEL ANGEL OSORIO CHONG: Spanish spoken.
SIEGEL: He spoke of stronger actions against crime - that a regional collaboration aimed at protecting those who crossed the border into Mexico. For the practical results of Mexican policy are palpable to Elizabeth Kennedy and San Salvador.
KENNEDY: When I began doing interviews in January at the migrant return centers, we received between one and two buses of children twice a week. And there was one period last week where we received six buses of just children. You know we think the deportation and detention will serve as a deterrent, but many Central Americans who reached United States have already been detained or deported from Mexico usually a number of times.
SIEGEL: In her interviews, Kennedy hears their reasons for wanting to get the U.S. In most cases, the main reason is to escape the violence. Many want to find their family. 90 percent have relatives in the states. 50 percent have parents here. Until recently she says, the benign treatment of unaccompanied minors in the U.S. didn't even register as a reason. And she hears this from the kids who had been caught and sent home - they will try again.
KENNEDY: So I will just tell you the story of 12-year-old boy who came to us with no shoes. Because he had been robbed, he had been beaten. You know, everything had been taken from him. I sat down next to him and I said, are you going to try again? And he just burst into tears and he said what would you do if you were me? I haven't seen my mom or my dad in 10 years. I've got a little sister I've never met and no one here loves me. For a child like that he's going to try again.
SIEGEL: Elizabeth Kennedy says some families can afford to pay a smuggler, a coyote - that could cost as little as $3,000 or as much as $8,000. The price covers three chances - a fourth and a fifth chance come with a discount. If a family is too poor to afford a coyote child will take La Bestia - The Beast.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SIEGEL: That's what they call the network of trains that migrants hop and ride the length of Mexico. This recording of La Bestia was made by Deborah Bonello, she's a freelance video journalist based in Mexico City.
DEBORAH BONELLO: That train journey is very dangerous. I mean, first of all La Bestia is a huge freight train not designed for passengers so migrants have to ride the roof. And often have to run and jump on the train when it's already moving which means they can fall off or get bounced off as they're trying to get on the train. People have lost arms, legs, if not their lives. But the other danger that increasingly migrants are facing is a that of organized crime - you know, criminal groups like Los Zetas charging attacks now and if you can't pay, you basically get thrown off.
SIEGEL: And it's not just the criminals demanding money of migrants, she says corruption is notorious on Mexico's immigration authorities and police forces. And if all those perils can be negotiated, that train ride is often marked by hunger and thirst.
BONELLO: A lot of migrants climb up there thinking a few hours and it's - it's half a day - a day that they're on the train and if the train doesn't stop, they have no access to food.
SIEGEL: Often they rely on the charity of strangers. Bonello filmed this example for the online news service, Global Post.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
SIEGEL: Women in Veracruz, in southern Mexico, bag rice and toss it up to migrants riding the beast when the train comes through. It's become routine. Shouts of gracias from migrants as the train pulls away.
REPORTER: It's something that Las Patronas as they're called, have been doing for decades also. It used to be just young men and grown men who made that journey and now they see women with their you know, their young babies on the train - very young children climbing up on the train. But yes it's absolutely something that they do out of the goodness of their hearts.
SIEGEL: Let's say after all the dangers of riding La Bestia, a young immigrant arrives undocumented at the U.S. border. Say, someplace near McAllen, Texas. That's is were NPR's John Burnett joins us from Anzalduas Park . John, what happens to these kids when they get to the U.S. border?
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hi Robert. There's a couple of options. One is that they just cross a regular port of entry. They walk across the bridge and they give themselves up to the border patrol where they are processed and then detained for a while, and then they're sort of fed into the immigration court system. What we also see is when they cross the river - we're standing on the northern bank of the Rio Grande - and they cross in inner tubes, they cross in even children's - inflatable pools. They cross in homemade boats. And then they'll walk across this picnic area into Hidalgo County, Texas with there is quite a force of border patrol waiting for them.
SIEGEL: And essentially, they present themselves to - to the border guards?
BURNETT: They do that because they know that they won't be deported immediately like kids from Mexico will be. That they'll be sent to the border patrol station, and then sent to a shelter farther inland, and then ultimately they'll be able to reunify with a family member. And so they're all wise to this, and so they are giving themselves up.
SIEGEL: We know of course that the number of kids doing this over the past several months rose rapidly. What are the most recent trends of crossings and apprehensions along the border?
BURNETT: Actually Robert, IN the last two weeks we're hearing down here that the number of apprehensions of the border patrol has dropped from about 1,300 a week in the entire Rio Grande Valley of Texas, down to about 800. So why? Well, it's speculation that perhaps Mexico is enforcing its immigration laws more stringently on the southern border with Guatemala. They're pulling more immigrants of the train and sending them back - we've been hearing that. It's really, really hot. It's 100 degrees and plus every down here. To this tends to be kind of a slow period for crossing. It's brutal you know, doing much walking in this kind of heat. And then, of course the White House says that their public service announcements in Central America saying don't come to the U.S., is also dissuading people.
SIEGEL: John, earlier this week Governor Rick Perry of Texas announced he's sending 1,000 National Guard troops down to the border. What's the point of that?
BURNETT: Well, I'm talking to you from sort of ground zero of the governor's own sort of Navy and his own border force that he's created down here in order to - he says, help out the U.S. Border Patrol -which is being distracted by all of these unaccompanied kids who have to have special care, have to be processed, and so the governor says he's sending his people down here to help out and - I mean, we just saw two gunboats fitted with 50 caliber machine guns. They are now patrolling this section of the river. There's a state trooper helicopter here. It's a pretty impressive show firepower and of course people are asking, is this what you really need when you have you know, eight and 11-year-old kids coming across?
SIEGEL: And from there once these unaccompanied minors present themselves, where do they go? What happens to them?
BURNETT: Most of them are going to meet family members who already live in the United States and in fact, pay their passage with these human smugglers to get them up from Central America. So they're going into U.S. cities - to Dallas, to Atlanta, to Baltimore, to Los Angeles and they're enrolling in public schools and they're living with their moms or dads who they haven't seen in 7, 8, 9, 10 years and some of them are going to try to pursue their cases in immigration court and some of them will just disappear into the Spanish-speaking communities.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's John Burnett speaking to us from Anzalduas Park, overlooking the Rio Grande that's just south of McAllen, Texas. John, Thank you.
BURNETT: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.