In Central America, child migrants now face perils alone
Youths are increasingly making the risky journey through Mexico to the US without parents.
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That's exactly how Alfredio ended up here. At age 14 he is already working from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. selling balloons on the central plaza here in Tapachula. He studied until sixth grade and knows how to read, but since he was 10 years old, he says, he has wanted to leave Guatemala, where he helped his parents raise animals on their farm. He crossed the river that separates Mexico and Guatemala six months ago, joining two older brothers who left before him.Skip to next paragraph
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"For me, this is more comfortable than working on the farm," he says.
Many kids do head straight to the US border on their own, but many others have ended up in towns like Tapachula. If a child was shepherded by a smuggler who's been caught by authorities, that child often gets left behind without the street smarts to continue north. Other children who've made their way into Mexico stay put for a while because their friends are there.
They often work as "little kangaroos," dubbed such because of the trays of the gum and candy they wear across their fronts. They also wash car windows in traffic, sell balloons, and do other odd jobs.
'Love-hate' relationship with locals
Rodolfo Casillas, an immigration expert at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Mexico City, says residents have a "love-hate" relationship with the migrant children. "The feelings are conflicted about them. On the one hand they ... dynamize the economy," he says. That includes eating at markets and renting rooms that five or 10 might share.
Alfredio, for example, says he earns about $120 a month selling balloons, most of which goes to food and paying his share of the rent.
"But," adds Mr. Casillas, "they have also taken over the public space. And many feel they contribute to crime."
Migrants are more accepted now, say locals. But the perception that young migrants are making the region more violent lingers, says Carmen Fernandez, an immigration expert at the College of the Southern Border in Tapachula.
Of the migrants that the government agency Grupos Beta helps, local coordinator Francisco Aceves says that some 25 percent are children. Many are unruly. Some have escaped abusive situations, or been abused on their journeys. "There are things that come up with the minors that are very strong, very difficult," Mr. Aceves says. There is a shelter for unaccompanied minors caught in the region, for example. "But the boys that are 14 years old ... just escape."
In 2005, Mexico signed treaties with Guatemala and El Salvador to create procedures for repatriating undocumented children traveling alone to their home countries. But often a blind eye is turned, especially in Honduras where a treaty has yet to be signed, says Wier. Honduran children are left at the Guatemala-Honduras border to fend for themselves and walk or hitch a ride to the nearest town, more than 18 miles away, she says.
Mexico's National Commission on Human Rights recently issued a release condemning the migration institute for not protecting unaccompanied minors working in the streets of Tapachula.
But for Ms. Rodriguez, the human rights activist, the repatriation of children is not a viable solution. Whether children cross alone or are left by a smuggler, they often set out on the journey again. "We have to understand their reality," she says. "They work to survive. If you take that away, what can you offer? Because behind each 'little kangaroo' there is a little brother or a home he is supporting."