El Salvador targets smugglers who transport children

To join parents working in the US, more Central American children make the dangerous trip north accompanied only by hired - and often abusive - 'coyotes.'

Edgar Garcia thinks the United States is a big city in El Salvador. His mom and dad are in the US, and he misses them.

The parents, too, want to be reunited, but are fearful of leaving the US and being unable to return. So last July they asked Edgar's grandmother to put the 7-year-old and his brother, Daniel, who wasn't yet two, in the care of total strangers who could bring them north.

Edgar says he took good care of his brother on the trip, comforting him when he was scared. "I told him not to cry, and that soon we would be with Mommy and Daddy," says Edgar.

The boys are two of the tiniest and most vulnerable members of El Salvador's growing wave of undocumented child emigrants. In the past year, Salvadoran authorities apprehended some 175 minors - including the Garcia brothers, who hadn't even made it across the Guatemalan border - trying to join parents who have emigrated to the US. Most of the children were found in the care of smugglers called "coyotes," who are paid $5,000 to $10,000 to transport the children hundreds of miles.

The use of coyotes to smuggle kids sans parents is a relatively new phenomenon. "In the past, it was a revolving door - parents would come to the States and then go back out again to bring their kids back with them," says Oscar Lujan, deputy district director for Latin America and the Caribbean for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).

But as the US tightens its borders, and encourages its southern neighbors to do the same, parents are afraid to attempt the trip home and back. So more are hiring coyotes to help their children make the long and dangerous journey. But as many children suffer and even die at the hands of the coyotes, government officials are stepping up their response.

"The relatives turn these kids over to coyotes as if they were animals," says Santos Juarez, a lawyer in El Salvador's attorney general's office. "We are looking to defend the best interest of the kids, but there is a legal void here because we cannot prosecute the people who turn their kids over to the coyotes. That's why we are fighting for this legislation."

The legislation that the attorney general's office may propose would bring sanctions such as fines or jail time against the relative who turns the minors over to coyotes.

Even though Daniel and Edgar made it back to their grandmother's house safely, others haven't been so fortunate. Coyotes have been known to abandon the children they are transporting when they fear authorities are hot on their trail; to deprive children of food or water so they won't ask to go to the bathroom; and to physically and sexually abuse them. Some children have died along the way.

Pamela Ponce, Edgar and Daniel's grandmother, says the decision to give her grandchildren to coyotes wasn't easy. "I couldn't eat or sleep in the days that they were gone," says Mrs. Ponce. "They went off with strangers, and strangers aren't going to give them the care that a grandmother does. But it was their parents' dream to have their kids with them, and I couldn't refuse them. They are their parents, and they wanted the best for them," she says, crying.

Migrant advocates say the relatives often have no say in the matter. What's more, they argue, the attorney general's proposal could put behind bars the only caregivers the children have left in El Salvador.

"If there was a real interest on the part of the government for these children's well being, they'd do something so that parents don't have to entrust children to coyotes in the first place," says Jesus Aguilar, director of the Salvadoran migrant-advocacy group, Carecen. "If we want to confront this problem, we need to negotiate with the US government to find legal alternatives to facilitate family reunification."

Just last month, in light of a number of high-profile apprehensions, foreign-ministry officials asked the US to speed up the family reunification process for Salvadorans living in the US. But Aguilar says that just speeding up the process is not enough; they want the programs expanded.

Only those immigrants with legal US residency are eligible for family-reunification programs, which allow them to bring their children to the US. Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans live and work legally in the US - under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) or Temporary Protection Status (TPS) programs - but don't have residency and thus aren't entitled to family reunification processes.

Aguilar says that the best solution to the problem would be for the Salvadoran government to negotiate with the US so that those with NACARA or TPS status can also apply for family-reunification programs.

Daniel sometimes still gets scared at night and yells to his grandmother that the bus is coming to take him away. When Edgar talks on the phone to his father, he begs him to come home. His father has been in the US for two years, his mother for one. "It is a sad thing to live far away from your parents," Edgar says, playing with a teddy bear his father sent him. "My dad tells me that he wants to send for me again, but I don't want to go anymore, because I'm scared."

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