Immigrants share their journey, fears and aspirations with USA TODAY
FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — For 15 years after sneaking into the United States, Miguel dreamed of seeing his daughter Stephanie again. But he couldn't imagine putting her through the harrowing trip he had endured after leaving her and her mother in Honduras. So he played the role of father from afar, sending money, messages and gifts.
More than 2,500 miles away, Stephanie's mom, Maria, faced a different reality. As Honduras spiraled into lawlessness — since 2010, it has had the world's highest murder rate — gangsters took over the family's town. As Stephanie moved into her teens, Maria feared desperately for her safety. This winter, a local thug began harassing the girl on her way to school; when Maria confronted him, he threatened her with a gun, vowing to do as he pleased with her daughter.
In May, with the rainy season pressing in, Maria sat Stephanie down and told her they were going to flee to the United States so she could live with her father. They would leave the next day.
"I was so scared, I was in a very lonely place," recalls Maria, who declined to give her last name, citing her immigration status, as did Miguel. "I knew the trip was very dangerous; I never thought I would put my daughter through that. But a mother will do everything to protect her children."
Their odyssey would be a 1,000-mile blur of perilous bus rides across the back roads of Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. There would be tense border crossings, seedy encounters with smugglers and local police, long stretches without food or sleep, bribes and payments that ate up a lifetime of savings. At the Texas border, they would join the throng of immigrants that have crossed the Rio Grande River in recent months — tens of thousands of children, many with their mothers, many more alone, each with their own story, each with an uncertain fate still to be decided by immigration authorities.
The ten-fold increase in the number of Central American children crossing the border — from 4,000 in all of 2011 to nearly 40,000 just since last fall — has reshaped the immigration debate and put new strains on a detention and adjudication system geared fundamentally to dealing with adults. Like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala rank in the world's top five murder rates, and the continuing violence is unlikely to fade anytime soon, leading parents like Maria to send their children to the U.S. to escape the risks of keeping them at home.
Stephanie spent her last day in Honduras saying goodbye to her friends, to the half-brother and half-sister who would stay behind, to the grandmother who had shared her home and helped raise her.
At Maria's instruction, she brought only what she could fit in a small backpack: extra sneakers, three pairs of pants, two extra shirts, and a blue hoodie her father had sent her. Her cherished electronics — the cellphone she used to chat with her dad twice a week, the laptop he had sent her so they could communicate on Facebook — could attract thieves, her mother said, so they had to be left behind.
"I had a lot of emotions, mixed emotions," says Stephanie, a soft-spoken 17-year-old with long, dark hair and a shy smile. "I was excited to meet my father, but it was very sad leaving my family and friends. I was scared."
On May 16 at 5 a.m., Stephanie and Maria boarded a bus from their home in southern Honduras to the border city of San Pedro Sula, where they would cross into Guatemala. Maria, who scratched out a living selling tortillas, had about $50 for the trip.
Half a continent away, Miguel slept, unaware. He and Maria had divorced several years after he came to the U.S., but they remained close and she knew he would oppose the trip vehemently. So she hadn't told him she and Stephanie were coming.
Mother and daughter were on their own.
RUNNING WITH 'COYOTES'
After reaching Guatemala — Maria told border guards there that she and her daughter were just coming in for a day to shop — the two bought spots on a small bus carrying other immigrants north. It was full of kids, some with a parent, some without. The few men were mostly coyotes, which are smugglers hired by families to shepherd them or their kids to the U.S. typically for thousands of dollars per person.
They sat next to three children, 3, 6 and 7, who were traveling on their own with a young coyote who paid them little attention. Later, during a stop, Maria was changing a diaper on the youngest when men identifying themselves as immigration authorities demanded that she produce the children's birth certificates. When she couldn't, they pulled her outside.
"They said I was trafficking children and they would take me to jail if I didn't pay them," she says. "I told them I had no money, I am not a trafficker, I was crying. They were going to take me."
Just then, the coyote appeared — he had been getting food — and took the officers aside. When they returned, Maria was allowed to re-board. "I think he gave them money," she says. "The coyotes, they have links to the police (and) the cartels. It is very dangerous to go without them."
Back on the bus, the young man warned Maria that she and Stephanie would not reach the U.S. without his help. He offered to guide them, for $3,500 each. He was pleased that Maria was looking after the younger children, and he said she could arrange to pay him once they got to Mexico.
In Mexico, the coyote switched the group through a succession of vans, sometimes every few hours. Other riders dropped in and out, as did other coyotes. "One of them asked to be with my daughter, he tried to get next to her," Maria says. "I would not let him."
They took back roads, stopping occasionally for food and police checkpoints. The officers sometimes insisted on patting down the mother and daughter — "they put their hands everywhere," Maria says — before stepping aside with the coyotes to negotiate the group's passage. They stopped twice at motels, which offered the only showers Maria and Stephanie got on their week-long journey.
At the first stop, Maria called a brother in Pennsylvania, who wired her $1,500 as a down payment for the coyote. At the second, she called Miguel.
"I am in Mexico with Stephanie and I need your help, I need money," she said. He was quiet for a moment, then asked where they were and whether they were safe.
"I need to talk to the coyote," he said. "I need to make arrangements with him, man to man."
That afternoon, Miguel wired $1,500; he'd send additional payments as the trip progressed.
A few days later, the van reached Reynosa, a city on the Texas-Mexico border, and dropped Maria, Stephanie and the children at a rundown warehouse filled with migrants waiting to cross into the U.S. The coyote told Maria that she and Stephanie would stay there until Miguel's final payment arrived. He gave her a phone to call him.
They spent two nights in the warehouse, sleeping under dirty blankets on a concrete floor teeming with roaches. One day, a man brought food; the next, nothing.
"I was scared, crying," Stephanie says. "I didn't want to stay there. I was hungry."
Though Maria did her best to calm Stephanie and the three younger children, she was worried. Some of the other migrants had been in the warehouse for weeks.
But the coyote returned the next afternoon and said it was time to go. He told them to leave their bags and take only what they could wear, so Stephanie and her mom layered on as much clothing as they could fit, climbed into a van with the younger children and headed for the border.
THE BORDER SECURITY CHALLENGE
The U.S. has been trying to lock down the Mexican border for decades.
From 1993 to 2013, the number of Border Patrol agents assigned to the southwest border has grown from fewer than 4,000 agents to more than 18,000. There are also teams from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other local, state and federal agencies. More than 750 miles of fencing has been put up, and the region bristles with radar stations, motion sensors and surveillance drones.
The security measures, increased successively by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, have helped slow the flow of illegal immigrants: Border Patrol agents now catch fewer than 500,000 a year, down from more than 1 million annually through the 1990s and most of the 2000s.
In an emergency budget request sent Monday to Congress, Obama asked for $433 million to pay for overtime and other costs for increased border patrols.
But there's no challenge to catching the wave of children now pouring in from Central America: they aren't even trying to elude Border Patrol agents; they're just walking up to officers to give themselves up.
A QUICK PADDLE — AND U.S. SOIL
The van pulled up to a remote section of the Rio Grande around 5 p.m. and the coyote handed Maria, Stephanie and the children off to another man, along with a handful of cash. Immigrants were everywhere. A woman with an infant was kneeling at the water's edge, praying before she set off across the river. Several groups of children milled around.
Their new guide pointed to a path leading up the opposite bank.
"After we cross, follow that path until you come to a road," he said. "Then turn left and walk. The Border Patrol will find you."
They piled into a raft and were across in moments. As they scrambled up the bank, the guide crossed back. They were on U.S. soil, and they were far from alone.
They followed the guide's instructions and quickly ran across other groups of immigrants, many of them children. As he had promised, a Border Patrol truck arrived in minutes, then a string of vans. The travelers were shuttled to the Patrol's McAllen Station, a 68,000-square-foot holding facility in South Texas.
"They took everything — belts, shoelaces," Stephanie says. "They said, 'Why do you have all those clothes on? They took my sweatshirt."
For the next two days, Stephanie and her mother stayed at the McAllen station, waiting with hundreds of other women and children in a giant building so cold that they referred to it as la heladera" for "the icebox." They were given clear plastic sheets to sit on; guards barked instructions in Spanish on megaphones — when to sit, when to stand, where to go.
Around 2 a.m. on the second day, Maria and Stephanie were called out to a bus and driven to another facility. The three children, still with them, were taken elsewhere.
"They were crying, they wanted to stay with us," Maria says. "But I am not their mother, so they could not. There was nothing we could do. I have no idea what happened to them."
She and Stephanie were fingerprinted, photographed and interviewed by a Border Patrol agent.
"Where are you from? Are you married? Is your father here? What year of school have you finished? Do you have a place to stay in the U.S.? They asked many questions," Maria says. She gave them an address for a relative who would put them up in Northern Virginia, near where her former husband Miguel lives. "And then they gave us papers and told us they would let us go and send us a letter with a date to come to court."
At 5 p.m., after 48 hours of virtually no sleep, the two were dropped at a bus depot in Kingsville, Texas, with nothing more than the clothes they had on.
NOWHERE TO PUT THE CHILDREN
With no capacity to house the huge numbers of kids immigrating from Central America — and laws directing that they can't be turned away — the Border Patrol is in a bind.
The few available holding facilities, which never were meant to provide for the special needs of children, are stacked beyond capacity. The Department of Health and Human Services has scoured the country for suitable housing, even using military facilities in Texas, California and Oklahoma. Last week, protesters turned away buses carrying mothers and children to a facility in California; in other states, local politicians have tried to block similar transfers to their communities.
Obama's funding request includes $1.8 billion to help HHS pay for additional housing for those who need it. But the problem isn't just about space or money.
A law passed unanimously by Congress and signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush puts special conditions on the handling of many of the children now coming over the border. Those from Mexico can be returned immediately, but there is no quick deportation mechanism for those from Central America and other "non-contiguous" countries, so their cases typically end up before a judge.
Immigration courts are so backlogged that the process can take years.
Obama has asked Congress for money to hire 40 new judges and a slew of prosecutors and asylum experts to help process cases. He also wants to change the 2008 law so the government can treat children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras just as it treats children from Mexico.
Meanwhile, the Border Patrol has been releasing children who are with a parent and have a safe place to stay, provided they agree to report for an immigration hearing.
A REUNION FILLED WITH UNCERTAINTY
At home in Northern Virginia, Miguel was beside himself.
He hadn't heard from Maria and Stephanie since he had sent the last payment for their coyote. All he could think about was the horrors he had endured on his own trip from Honduras.
"It was so stressful, I felt sick," Miguel says. "There are so many stories about the terrible things that happen to women when they cross the border."
When Maria called from Kingsville, his relief was fleeting. It was too late to wire money for a hotel; she and Stephanie were on the side of the road with nowhere to stay, nothing to eat. Desperate, he reached out through Facebook to an old friend in Dallas, a six-hour drive from Kingsville.
At 2 a.m., Miguel's friend pulled up to the bus depot and Maria and Stephanie were sitting on the side of the road. They drove through the night to get back to his house in Dallas. The next day, they were on a bus to Virginia, where Miguel met them at a station.
"We hugged for a long time," Stephanie says. "It was strange, because I never really met him, but I was happy."
Maria looked on, crying.
All three know the reunion could be short lived; immigration officials could come knocking at any time.
Miguel, an illegal alien for 15 years, is used to life in the shadows. For Maria, it's been hard. Her two younger children, fathered by a man she met long after she and Miguel were divorced, are back in Honduras with her niece, and she misses them terribly. Meanwhile, she's struggled to find work so she can pay back her brother for the money he sent to pay the coyote.
"I know I don't belong here," she says. "When you leave your children, it tears out a piece of your heart. I miss them. I don't know what will happen to me, maybe they will send me back. But my daughter is safe, she is with her father. He is a good man and he will take care of her."
She could have sent Stephanie alone, as so many parents have. But her journey has left her even more convinced that it would have been a mistake.
"What I would tell people (back home) is that they should not send their children alone," she says. "It is too dangerous. Nothing is safe for those kids. There is only suffering."