HOUSTON — She was thin, vivacious, and lost, looking for her mother in a city she couldn't even locate on a map. The girl from Chiapas was headed to Topeka, Kan., where her mother - an illegal immigrant - was working. But she found herself instead at the Mexican consulate in the dusty border town of Douglas, Ariz., as one of a growing number of children crossing the border alone.
"I asked her if she knew where Topeka was, says Michael Escobar Valdez, the Mexican consul general in Douglas. "She responded, 'Not exactly.' But that didn't matter, she said, because she was going to reach that place somehow."
It's the most emotional part of his job, he says, and every time his cellphone rings, he worries.
The main reason for the increase, say experts like Escobar, is family reunification. As the United States has beefed up security since Sept. 11, illegal immigrants have felt less free to move back and forth across the border.
That disruption of traditional migratory patterns has meant illegal immigrants are staying put in the US instead of risking trips home to see family and friends. But many who left their children behind are now sending for them.
It's one of the unintended consequences of border-enforcement buildup, says Wayne Cornelius director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.
"There has been a dramatic decline in circular migration between Mexico and the US as a direct result of this strategy," he says. "Undocumented migrants are staying longer in the US and more of them are settling permanently because we have sharply increased the physical risks and financial cost of coming and going across the southwestern border."
Ironically, Dr. Cornelius adds, the buildup hasn't created an effective deterrent to new entries, but it has given immigrants a strong incentive to do things like send for their children - despite the considerable risks.
While the number of apprehended juveniles (those under age 18) has remained steady at about 85,000 for several years, the number of unaccompanied minors is climbing. Mexican figures show that hundreds more unaccompanied minors were repatriated in 2003 than in 2002 along the 2,000 mile US-Mexican border. In the first five months of 2004, says Escobar, the number of repatriated minors in the Douglas area rose about 27 percent over a similar period last year.
"This is a very scary trend that we have seen over the past several years where unaccompanied minors will be crossing with a group of undocumented immigrants," says Mario Villarreal, spokesman for the US Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in Washington. "These children have no relatives with them. They don't have any indication of where they are going. But their parents have placed their lives in the smugglers' hands."
And that's not a good place to be, he continues. "The smuggler is the lowest form of human being, preying on his or her own people by deserting them, robbing them, and even, in some cases, raping them."
But others say countless immigrants are crossing successfully with the help of smugglers, who now charge between $1,500 and $2,000 a person.
"The fact is, smugglers would not be in business unless, for the most part, they delivered," says Peter Andreas, a political science and international studies professor at Brown University and author of "Border Games: Policing the U.S.-Mexico Divide."
"On the one hand, they are greedy and sometimes abusive, but on the other hand, they are providing an essential service," says Dr. Andreas. "They are in the business of family reunification, and there are plenty of customers willing to pay them hard-earned money to make that possible."
It may take several tries, but many illegal immigrants say the idea of reuniting with their children is worth the risk - and cost.
Still, lawmakers in states along the border have been pushing for increased penalties for human smugglers, especially those who smuggle children. The issue is becoming increasingly important as the numbers rise, they say.
"My concern is that parents who are involved in this activity do not understand the true risks that their children face when they smuggle them across the border," says Paul Charlton, US attorney in Phoenix, who supports stiffer penalties for child smugglers. "It's dangerous enough for an adult crossing the border in Arizona. That danger is geometrically greater when you're talking about a child."
He says that 10 years ago, when the sentencing guidelines were written, the world was a different place. Today, human smuggling rivals drug smuggling in terms of violence and greed.
But, says Mr. Charlton, the argument that the US has compounded the problem by tightening borders misplaces the blame. The real responsibility lies in the hands of the smugglers - and, through ignorance, the parents.
From his vantage point in Douglas, Ariz., Escobar says a good way to cut down on the number of unaccompanied children crossing the border would be to accept the reality of the push and pull factors of 'la migracion."
There are partial solutions that should be seriously considered, he says: guest-worker programs, for instance, an increase in the number of temporary working visas, or regularization of undocumented immigrants already working in the US. "A good beginning would be to reach a consensus," he continues, "an accord between both nations in order to handle the immigration phenomenon in a more rational, reasonable, intelligent, and humanitarian way."