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eyes on the U.S.

At U.S.-Mexico Border, Children's Lives On The Line

Human rights protesters pray for women and children stopped from entering the Border Patrol facility in Murrieta, CA, on July 1.
Human rights protesters pray for women and children stopped from entering the Border Patrol facility in Murrieta, CA, on July 1.
Paolo Mastrolilli

LA JOYA — Juan Castro is trying to keep it together as he tells me this story, but the tears well up in his eyes.

"There was this 11-year-old girl from Guatemala who had been raped. I had to ask her how, where, by whom, why and every single detail that could help build her case to stay in America," he recalled. "As I brought up all the terrible memories with my questions, I looked into her eyes in search of any ounce of hope or a sign that her life hadn’t been broken."

Juan is the director of legal services for Catholic Charities, San Antonio’s Caritas. His job is to visit the detention centers that house the minors who come to America alone, and help look for a way to keep them in the country.

Since the beginning of this year, 52,000 children have arrived, with a total of 90,000 forecast by December — and more than 120,000 expected for next year. Many of them arrive sick, with at least two confirmed cases of swine flu, scabies, lice, and some are now even saying AIDS. This is a humanitarian emergency which has now prompted President Barack Obama to ask for nearly $4 billion from Congress to try and contain it.

"They come for two reasons," says Antonio Fernandez, head of Catholic Charities. "The first is that they are escaping violence in their countries, and the second is that they think the U.S. immigration laws have changed and they will be allowed to stay. It’s a wrong perception, because Obama signed the DACA amnesty bill, which prohibits the expulsion of those who have resided in the States since they were young children — not those who come today."

And Castro notes the major change in the recent wave of arrivals is how few are Mexico natives, because the U.S. has an agreement with the Mexican government to quickly expel those illegals. Instead, these immigrants are coming from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru. Their families entrust them to the so-called coyotes — the traffickers — paying around $8,000 for their trips, usually knowing that they have relatives already living in the U.S. The coyotes get half of the money straight away, and the second half when they get to their destination.

"For these poor families, $8,000 is a fortune — years and years of hard work," Castro notes. "If they can't afford this amount, the children are obliged to pay their way in one of two ways: sex or drug trafficking."

And Castro adds a grim statistic: "We know that the same number of boys and girls leave, but 75% of boys arrive, and 25% of girls."

Along the road

What skews these figures? "Many don’t make it and they die. For the girls, however, they can end up in the hands of traffickers who get offered up to $20,000 for them — a lot more than the $4,000 that the child’s family has given them before they set out. Unfortunately these girls then get sold to the highest bidder and end up in prostitution."

Then there's the story of Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez, an 11-year-old boy who fled from Guatemala to reach his brother in Chicago so that he could earn enough money to send back to his mother for epilepsy medicine. On June 15, U.S. Border Patrol agents found his body near La Joya, a Texan town of 3,303 inhabitants and just three kilometers from the Rio Grande — the river that divides the U.S. and Mexico.

Wearing leather boots, a pair of Angry Birds jeans and a set of white rosary beads around his neck, Gilberto lost his way and died of thirst in the heat that can often top 40° Celsius (104° F). In this case, there are indications that Border Patrol agents caught him after he got across the river but then let him go.

"They look the other way because they don’t know what to do anymore," says Fernandez. "On June 23 they stopped 346 children, in just one day, who came across the border. In theory they have to bring them to detention centers, where they can stay for up to 72 hours; then they can spend the next 120 days in Welcome Centers while relatives in the States are looked for. But they don’t do this anymore: There are too many kids arriving and too few agents, so they close their eyes."

Out of control

At La Joya police station, Detective David Ortiz confirms that the situation is beyond control. He says it is the narco gangs, like Los Zetas, who are calling the shots. "Often the coyotes leave the children on one side of the river to let the Border Patrol agents be distracted and not notice the drugs being smuggled somewhere else. One evening I saw a suspicious-looking van so I began to follow it. Two other cars quickly arrived and sandwiched me in, trying to force my car off the road. They were trying to make me stop them for a ticket so I would let the van drive off. I ignored them though, and ended up finding 80 kilograms of marijuana in the van."

But the postscript to the story is that Ortiz couldn't prosecute the suspects. "Drug and human trafficking fall under federal jurisdiction. Our local prosecutor tried to open a case but we just don’t have the resources," he explained. "So I am here talking to you, waiting for the government to give me permission to arrest a criminal."

The shortage of public resources is one of the reasons Chris Davis organized a vigilante patrol. He is commander of the Patriots militia in southern Texas. "The Obama administration has a political agenda," says Davis. "They want to open the borders and give amnesty, but only to please the huge Hispanic electorate."

Davis says 70% of the limited number of agents on the border were given orders to help the kids who arrive. "They change diapers instead of patrolling the area. So we’re doing what they should be and let them know when we see someone crossing the river," he says.

Working for Caritas, Fernandez sees things differently. "My job is to ask questions but it is clear that the U.S., like many European countries, has come to a crossroads," he says. "We have to decide to either invest in border control or in immigration reforms. The first would mean putting up a huge wall across the borders and having an agent every hundred meters all day and all night. The second asks for recognition that developed countries need immigrants, so they would have to go legally to these countries, taking coyotes out of the equation."

Gang violence

Rina Guaimaca doesn't have time to wait for political reform. "In Honduras, the gangs were extorting us. We didn’t earn much in the first place, but we had to give half of that to them. I have a 7-year-old son, Fernando, and I didn’t want him to grow up like that. So, I decided to escape and join my mother who works in Oregon."

I met Rina in the Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, which has now been transformed into a welcome center for immigrants. They are brought here by Border Patrol after spending their 72 hours in the detention center, waiting to be reunited with their relatives.

There are cots, showers, doctors, meals, and clean shoes and clothes for their often long onward journeys. There’s even a corner filled with toys where the children play, draw and laugh, blissfully unaware of their fate. Fernando looks at his yogurt while his mother is talking.

"My uncle told me about a coyote that he trusted," she says. "I paid $7,000 and we left. It took us 15 days to get to Reynosa, the Mexican city on the other side of the border. We waited there, hiding on a ranch, until one evening around 10 p.m. when they called us. They brought us to a little boat on the river and four of us got on, waiting for the agent to walk past, and then we got through. There was no violence — our coyote was a nice old man."

If you go to the bridge that connects McAllen to Reynosa they won’t check your passport — who would want to emigrate to Mexico anyway? Paying the $2 fee is enough. On the other bank, where the American Rio Grande becomes the Mexican Río Bravo, there is a monument dedicated to the emigrants who lost their lives: a white cross, for those cut down while walking towards their dreams.

Nearby, there’s a sign that warns about alligators in the river and another for the strong currents. With instructions that Rina gave me, it’s not difficult to find someone who works in the business. "You’re looking for a coyote? We’re all coyotes here."

The man I’m asking looks at me deadpan and shakes his head: "There are plenty of gangs and drug dealers around, but I just have a little boat that I can take five desperate people at a time. Do I earn from it? Sure, but it is a dangerous profession."

He turns around one more time before he leaves. "Is it terrible? Maybe. But what these people are escaping from is worse than any coyote."

Back at McAllen’s Sacred Heart Church it’s the 4th of July — Independence Day. Rina comes out to greet me with a yellow envelope in her hand that reads, "I’m going to Oregon, I don’t speak English, please can you show me which bus I need to take." She smiles and kisses Fernando and says next stop is grandma. "Let’s go, we’re taking a bus to see your abuela."

Just a few more days on the road until the nightmare she left behind might just give way to her American dream.

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