The hopes and lies driving migrant children to the US

Children from Central America continue to cross the US border in large numbers. They're coming because they're being misinformed about American law. But, for many, those lies are coming true.

Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor
Julianni and her mother Elena rest after flagging down the Border Patrol in McAllen, Texas.

Perhaps no issue divides Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump more sharply than what to do about illegal immigration. Part 2 of a five-part series on the view from the US-Mexico border.

McALLEN, TEXAS – When she stepped off the smuggler’s raft on the north shore of the Rio Grande and took her first tentative steps into the United States, Carolina didn’t quite know what to expect. 

There was no guide to lead her beyond the river’s edge. The coyote pointed up the steep bank and then pushed off to paddle the empty raft back across the river to Mexico.

The 46-year-old grandmother made the perilous month-long journey from El Salvador with her 28-year-old daughter, Elena, and her 3-year-old granddaughter, Julianni.

They had traveled more than a thousand miles from Central America, eluding capture by Mexican authorities, and surrendering $14,500 to thieves and smugglers.

Now, in a dusty no-man’s-land at the southern edge of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, came their moment of truth.

When Carolina and Elena spot a Border Patrol truck a few hundred yards away, they do not run for cover to try to avoid being caught and sent home. Instead, they shout and wave their hands above their heads to attract the agents’ attention.

They are not alone in using this counterintuitive tactic. It has become a reliable method to gain entry to the United States for more than 137,000 unauthorized migrants this year from troubled parts of Central America.

Reporter's notebook: Photographs of Central American parents and children after crossing the Rio Grande

In an election year dominated by harsh talk about illegal immigration and criminals flooding across the Mexican border, the scene on the north bank of the Rio Grande is far different than one might expect.

Instead of rapists and drug traffickers, these new arrivals are babies and toddlers, boys and girls, and young teens. They are moms and dads, and even the occasional grandmother.

The vast majority of them are coming by raft across the Rio Grande in south Texas – more than 200 a day, every day from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Many of them are children arriving unaccompanied, some as young as two.

Once inside the US, virtually all of them are turning themselves in.

This tactic reached unsustainable proportions in 2014, overwhelming the Border Patrol’s ability to handle the crush of humanity. It fell off a bit in 2015, but this year the numbers rose sharply again, matching levels of the 2014 crisis.

“It is crazy. It has gotten to the point where we are running out of Border Patrol agents,” says Christopher Cabrera, an agent based in the Rio Grande Valley and vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union.

“They are turning themselves in to deputy sheriffs, to the constables; there have even been a couple of cases where they turned themselves in to the grounds crew cutting the grass at a state park.”

Some analysts argue that President Obama’s unilateral executive action offering special legal status to millions of children of unauthorized immigrants already living in the US has sent a strong signal encouraging would-be immigrants from Central America to try to gain the same benefits for their own children.

Others say the rising tide of migrants from Central America is driven by the intense threat from violent criminal gangs and widespread corruption in that region. People are fleeing out of desperation in the face of extortion rackets and soaring murder rates.

Still other analysts point to lies made by smugglers in Central America promising wonderful benefits for any child who makes it to the US.

“Flat-out lies, that’s what’s bringing people by the trainload into the United States,” says Juanita Molina, a migrant rights activist in Arizona.  “It is not that we [in the US] are creating opportunities for them or we are taking them in,” she says. “People are being lied to and exploited.”

The Obama administration has tried to create a credible deterrent to this illicit trafficking by detaining and deporting some families and children. But the glacial pace of the US immigration system seems incapable of sending a single unified message of deterrence.

While some migrants are being sent home, others are winning their cases in immigration court and being allowed to stay.

Perhaps most important from the migrants’ perspective, once they arrive in the US and are processed by the Border Patrol, they are being released and permitted to travel in the US pending a formal removal hearing before an immigration judge. Such hearings can take years, analysts say. In the meantime, the children and parents are safe in the US.

The paradox here is that the lies told by the smugglers appear to have come true, at least for some migrants.

“What the smugglers will do is say, you pay me $5,000 and I’ll take your kid to the border,” says Jason De Leon, a University of Michigan anthropology professor studying Central American smugglers. “They’ll go into detention and then they’ll get released to a family member – which oftentimes is actually what happens.”

 •  •  •

The legs of Carolina’s pants below the knees are still damp from her watery arrival in the US. After spotting the two women with the toddler, the responding Border Patrol agents hand them bottles of ice-cold water from their personal cooler, rather than from the case of unchilled water in the back of the truck.

Carolina and her daughter immediately start drinking. The fear and apprehension on their faces begins to melt away. Elena even manages a brief, slight smile. 

Carolina is asked what she and her daughter were thinking upon arriving in the US. “We knew that they would not kill us,” she says, referring to the Border Patrol agents. “The United States has always been supportive and protective of rights.”

Elena says they paid $9,000 to a smuggler who abandoned them in Mexico. They paid a second smuggler $4,500. “It was our life savings,” she says. “We sold our house and everything.”

For Carolina, the trip to the US has a double objective. She says it is aimed at improving her daughter’s life and saving Julianni’s.

The criminal gangs in El Salvador begin recruiting at age 10 or 12, she says. But they had already started demanding money.

Carolina, Elena, and Julianni weren’t the only new arrivals in the Rio Grande Valley that morning. About three hundred yards away and around a corner, other Border Patrol agents were busy with a different group of 23, also from El Salvador.

Oscar, 30, stands in the shade with his 7-year-old son, Daniel. He says he paid the smugglers $4,000 for him and $1,000 for his son. They’d been on the road 28 days.

Asked why he came to the US, Oscar says simply: “The future of my child.”

Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor
Danel (left) and Oscar crossed the US border near McAllen, Texas, with a group of 23 unauthorized immigrants from El Salvador.

The trip was necessary, he says, because a criminal gang had killed his two brothers. Afterward, gang members  came to him and demanded $5,000, he says.

Instead of paying the gang, he decided to pay smugglers. “The risk is much higher to stay there than to come here,” he says.

And your wife, he is asked. Where is she? He does not answer. He is unable to speak the words. His eyes have filled with tears.

“She stayed behind,” he finally says.

“I will work here as much as I can,” Oscar says, “and send money back [to her].”

What happens next for the newly arrived has become an established routine.

After turning themselves in, the unauthorized migrants are interviewed by Border Patrol agents who must verify their identities. They check to make sure she or he isn’t on a terror watch list or have a criminal record. Then they are interviewed by other federal agents. When that review is complete, most are given a notice to appear before an immigration judge. It is in that hearing that they must prove why they should not be deported.

Most unauthorized migrants from Central America are seeking refugee status.

Mr. Cabrera says Border Patrol agents recognize a familiar pattern among new arrivals from Central America. He says they appear to have been coached on how to make a claim for asylum. To do so, they must demonstrate they have a credible fear of persecution or severe mistreatment if returned to their home country.

“They’ll tell you three or four times their story and all their stories are cookie-cutter stories,” he says. “I’m sure there are quite a few bona fide asylum cases, but when you hear the same story 100 times a day word-for-word exactly the same way, you start to doubt it after a while.”

Cabrera says the smugglers and their clients are exploiting a loophole in US immigration policy. He calls it a new version of “catch and release.”

“If someone comes in and claims a credible fear, we give them [a notice to appear in immigration court], and now they are free to move about the country for an indefinite period of time until their case can be adjudicated,” he says.

The agent says that years ago it took six months to convene that hearing. Now it can take years because of a shortage of immigration judges and a growing backlog of immigration cases – even when Central American cases are supposed to be expedited.

In the meantime, the migrant is living and working in the US. In effect, the so-called unauthorized immigrant is nonetheless authorized to remain in the country – pending her deportation.

•  •  •

Some walk through that open door with no intention of ever showing up for their court hearing or complying with a removal order, analysts say. Given the government’s priority of focusing on noncitizen criminals for deportation, they are unlikely to face serious consequences for gaming the immigration system in this way provided they are not convicted of committing a serious crime, these analysts say.

“The single biggest factor driving our illegal immigration right now is our catch and release program,” Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told a Senate panel in May.

He said once a notice to appear for an immigration hearing is issued to an individual, other legal constraints fall away.  “If you are an unaccompanied minor we will not only release you, but will escort you to your final destination,” he said.

“If you are a family unit, we will release you. If you claim credible fear, we will release you,” he added.

It is not merely a policy preference. Under a longstanding federal court order, this release process must be expedited when migrant children are involved.

The government is not without tools to force compliance with immigration laws. In some cases, officials are requiring unauthorized migrants to wear a tracking device on their ankle to guarantee court appearances and, if necessary, departure from the country.

Nonetheless, critics say inconsistent US policies are sustaining a lucrative black market in the smuggling of children.

It is the policy of the US government to help a child who arrives alone at the border to reunite with a parent in the US, even if that parent does not have legal authorization to live or work in the US.

This creates a strong incentive for unauthorized migrants in the US to pay smugglers to bring their children across the border illegally, often at great risk to the children. Once the child surrenders to the Border Patrol, the US government helps facilitate the reunion with the parent.

“So for the smugglers all they have to do is drop someone off” on the US side of the border, says Professor De Leon.

It is a money-making machine for Central American smugglers and the Mexican cartels that control the south side of the US-Mexico border, officials say.

It is also an effective way for the cartels to divert Border Patrol resources that might otherwise be in position to intercept illicit narcotics, human trafficking victims, or other unauthorized migrants with criminal records who are still being smuggled into the US, these officials say.

Nonetheless, the US government itself is helping to complete the final stage of child-smuggling operations run by criminals in Central America and Mexico. It is an illicit smuggling operation in which parents themselves are also complicit.

“How could any parent put their child to that risk,” Cabrera asks. “It would have to be pretty dire circumstances at home for me to risk my child’s life. And if I thought such a trip was necessary you can bet I am going with them,” he says. “I am not going to leave them in the care of a stranger.”

“You can’t leave kids in a car alone for 20 minutes in a Wal-Mart parking lot, and yet we are having parents put their kids on top of a train and travel through three countries to get here and then [the US government] is reuniting them with their parents,” he adds.

Cabrera says a US citizen who engaged in similar conduct would lose his or her parental rights. “But here we are giving the child back to that parent who put them in that situation,” he says.

“Are there dire circumstances [in Central America]? Yes, but still you can’t make that child go it alone,” he says. “It is just inconceivable.”

•  •  • 

In April, a 2-year-old girl was deposited on the north bank of the Rio Grande by a smuggler. He had used a Sharpie to write the girl’s name, her mother’s name, and the mother’s US-based telephone number on the girl’s white T-shirt. 

“We have seen kids 2- and 3-years-old, who are by themselves,” says Cabrera. “When you see an 11-year-old or a 6-year-old by themselves, it is scary. But to have a 2-year-old abandoned alone on the riverbank is just insane.”

Border Patrol agents have a responsibility as law enforcement officers to uphold the law. But most of them are parents, too.

“I remember a little girl in downtown Nogales [Arizona], she was maybe 10 years old,” says Border Patrol Agent Felipe Jimenez.

“She was walking up the street towards me. She had a little backpack and I thought she was getting ready to go to school,” he says.

“She knocks on the side window [of the Border Patrol truck]. I rolled down the window. She asked, ‘Can you help me? I’m trying to find my mom.’ ”

The agent says he started to reach for his cellphone to call the Nogales Police Department. But then the girl added: “I think she’s in the Carolinas.”

“I said, ‘Hold on, you think she’s in the Carolinas?’

“Then I asked her, ‘Did you just come across the border illegally?’ ”

“She said, ‘Yeah.’ The girl pointed to a spot down the street in the shadow of the 20-foot rust-colored fence that divides the US side of Nogales from the Mexican side. ‘I spent the night over there in that ditch.’ ”

“I had to actually break away from the situation for a little bit,” to collect his emotions, Agent Jimenez says. The agent’s daughter was about the same age at the time.

“I would have adopted her in a heartbeat.”

Jimenez said he was wondering how she did it, how she could make it all the way from Honduras to Arizona. That’s when she pulled a Bible out of her backpack. 

“Jesus protected me, that’s what she told me,” Jimenez said. “She was 10, and it broke my heart.”

US Border Patrol
A 2-year-old girl was dropped on the American side of the Rio Grande in this T-shirt, which stated her name, her mother's name, and her mother's phone number in the US. (The personal information has been blurred out for the photo.)

Such stories are hardly unusual. Ms. Molina tells of a 19-year-old Honduran woman who crossed the desert in Arizona two years ago in the middle of the summer with her newborn son in her arms.

“I asked her why would she take such a huge risk with her infant son,” Molina says.

The woman told Molina that when she was late in her pregnancy, criminal gang members killed her husband and threatened that the moment she gave birth they would return, kill the child, and force her into sex industry work. “They wanted to make her a sex slave within the cartel,” Molina says.

Desperate, the woman formed an escape plan. “Every day after she gave birth she got up and started walking around and walking around,” Molina says, describing a makeshift training regimen. “About three days after giving birth she felt she was strong enough to make the journey.” And she did.

The young mother told Molina: “I would rather die trying to live than to just sit there [in Honduras] and wait for a horrible fate.”

There are two kinds of smuggling operations involving parents and children from Central America.

One facilitates a mother or father traveling with their own child.

In the second, parents already living or working in the US without legal authorization are paying smugglers to transport their child away from that dangerous region and across the US-Mexico border. These children are traveling unaccompanied.

As director of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma Pimentel rejects the suggestion that parents are wrong to put their lives and the lives of their children in the hands of smugglers.

She recalls the biblical story of Moses and what his mother did to save his life, placing him in a floating basket and trusting that the river would carry him to safety.

“I think parents [in Central America] are having no other option than saying this is a death sentence if they stay here. I can only have compassion for a mother or a father who finds themselves with no other option but to send the child into the unknown and danger, and to not know whether he or she will be alive.”

She says that people who doubt this truth should travel to the Rio Grande Valley and witness what is happening.

“They need to see for themselves that mother, that child, that face, and tell them that they wouldn’t help them,” she says.

•  •  •

In the summer of 2014, with thousands of Central American children and families arriving in the US, the Border Patrol was overwhelmed trying to process them all. Some families released into the community were overwhelmed, too.

What they needed was a safe place where they could rest and have a nutritious meal before starting the next phase of their journey.

Seeing that need, Sister Norma “borrowed” the parish hall adjacent to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church and opened the Immigrant Relief and Welcome Center. It is two blocks from the bus station in downtown McAllen.

She put out an invitation on social media to the community for all those who wanted to help. The response was overwhelming.

“Everybody, every denomination, doctors, nurses, students, families, the county government, even the Border Patrol, thought let’s be part of this response,” she says.

The effort was positive and unifying across the community because it focused on helping individuals in need. “We are all about helping that family, that child, that mother – it is a human response to a human crisis,” Sister Norma says.

The families arrive at the center after being released from Border Patrol processing. They have been given a date to appear in immigration court. In addition, they’ve had time to contact a family member or friend in the US to send money to pay for a bus ticket.

They are permitted to spend one night at the immigrant relief center while waiting for their bus. The center serves sandwiches and the Salvation Army provides soup every day. They are also provided sandwiches for their bus trip.

Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor
The shelves of the Immigrant Relief and Welcome Center in McAllen, Texas, hold items donated from members of the community.

The relief center is jammed with tables overflowing with donated clothing sorted by size for children and adults, shoes, baby supplies, and other essentials. Two large, air conditioned tents have been set up outside in the parking lot. Each contains 30 cots. One tent is for men and one for women.

Volunteers at the center say that more than 100 family members pass through the center on an average day. On the day in mid-September when a news reporter visited, the count was 170.

In the past two years, Sister Norma estimates that the Immigrant Relief and Welcome Center has helped 45,000 individuals.

Among them is Jose, a 40-year-old baker from El Salvador, who made the month-long trip to the US with his 16-year-old daughter. They crossed much of Mexico inside the refrigerated trailer of an 18-wheeler. That part of the trip was very difficult, he says. “It was cold.”

After six days in a Border Patrol detention facility, they were dropped off at the immigrant relief center and had tickets for a midnight bus to Oakland, Calif., where Jose’s brother lives. The brother sent money for bus fare.

His plan is to work in Oakland and eventually raise enough money to return to El Salvador to bring the rest of his family – a wife and a daughter, 14, and son, 12 – to the US. “We are not members of a gang, we just want a better life,” he says.

Also part of the plan; his eldest daughter will attend high school in the US – and, hopefully, college. “She would be the first.”

That’s his plan. But there’s a catch.

Warren Richey/The Christian Science Monitor
Jose made the monthlong journey to the US from El Salvador with his 16-year-old daughter. He now has to work off $7,000 in debt.

Jose had to borrow the $7,000 to pay the smuggler. It is an enormous amount of money in El Salvador, and before anything else, he has to pay back that loan or it will fall to his wife and children.

For Jose it is not just getting to America, it is being able to stay in America long enough to work and pay off that debt.

Before being released to travel to Oakland, Jose was instructed that he and his daughter must appear at a future hearing before a US immigration judge to determine if they can remain in the US or be removed immediately to El Salvador.

Asked about this, Jose nods, knowingly. He lifts the cuff of his pants leg. A thick black bracelet with a tracking device encircles his ankle.

•  •  •

Part 1: Trump’s wall on the border: Will it work?
Part 2: The hopes and lies driving children to the US
Part 3: Alejandra, age 7, is facing a judge alone. Is that due process?
Part 4: Nature’s wall: the human toll of crossing the US border
Part 5: A drop of water in the desert, and a flood of migrants

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