These children have crossed the U.S. border, but their journeys are far from over
You ask a boy of 10 whether he carried a favorite toy with him, a stuffed animal, something to keep him company on the trip. He stares at you blankly. His mother explains: Arriving with only the clothes on your back is not just a phrase.
Nearly 63,000 unaccompanied children have been detained at the Mexican border this year. Some 5,898 from Central America have been reunited with parents or guardians in the District, Maryland and Virginia, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The statistics stagger the politicians and ignite the populace with opposite reactions: compassion, repulsion. The stories behind the statistics are as different as the faces of the children.
Once reunited, many of the families seek help from groups such as CASA of Maryland, which provides legal advice and assistance integrating. All the children will have dates in court, when immigration judges will decide whether they qualify as refugees. Both the White House and legal advocates have predicted that most may be deported.
Tania Latin, 13
Before she left Guatemala, Tania received a gift from the woman taking care of her: a pendant depicting the “Black Christ” on one side and the Virgin of Guadalupe on the other. “The Virgin will keep you safe on the journey,” the woman promised.
Tania was traveling 2,000 miles with her 9-year-old sister, Erica, and adults she scarcely knew. She had not seen her father in nine years, nor her mother in three. The parents were living, separately, in the Washington area.
The girls had to make the trek because a series of improvised living arrangements had finally broken down. A friend of Tania’s ex-brother-in-law was in trouble with the law, and the woman who had been in charge of the children didn’t want to remain involved with the family.
“There was no one to take charge of me and my siblings,” Tania says. “We were alone in the house.”
It was decided that her two brothers would move in with a married sister, and Tania and Erica would catch a bus north.
“Part of me was sad, because I was going to leave my school and everything,” Tania says. “But in one part I was happy, because I was going to see my mom and my dad, whom I hadn’t seen for a long time.”
A “coyote” put the girls in the care of a woman traveling with the group. The ride into Mexico was easy; Tania didn’t even notice when they crossed that border.
The plan was for the group to split up and take different routes, and periodically meet along the way. They traveled in pickup trucks with tarps covering the riders in the back; taxis; private cars; and vans with removable stickers advertising coffee, stationery and energy drinks. Sometimes they slept in hotels or houses, sometimes on the ground on desolate hillsides. On those long nights outside, Tania and Erica felt so cold.
One day, Mexican law enforcement officers suddenly boarded a bus they were on. They seized the adults but ignored the children. The girls were left alone with no idea where they were going.
“At first I wanted to cry. But then I saw my sister had started to cry. So I didn’t cry.”
“At first I wanted to cry,” Tania says. “But then I saw my sister had started to cry. So I didn’t cry.”
A man not connected with their group was sitting nearby. He didn’t look trustworthy. In back were two women. By coincidence, they were Mexicans also heading for the United States.
One of the women called Tania’s brother in Guatemala, who called their mother in the Washington area, who contacted the coyote group, which sent someone to pick up Tania and Erica.
Finally they reached the Arizona border. Tania went first, on foot, with an adult they met. The girl had been given a story to tell, claiming to be someone else, but U.S. border guards saw through it. They handcuffed her.
After nearly four months in a shelter in the Phoenix area, Tania was sent to Washington. She lives with her father and her stepmother, tenant activist and Mount Pleasant advisory neighborhood commissioner Yasmin Romero-Latin. Erica crossed later and is in the care of other family.
Tania watches a lot of television, and paints. One of her favorite shows, on Saturday mornings, is an arts and crafts show in Spanish. She made a picture of the last house the family owned, before the kids moved into a rented place and life became unstable.
In her art, she keeps returning to a favorite subject: the Virgin of Guadalupe. One of her paintings is above her parents’ bed in the living room, where they moved so she could have the bedroom. Another hangs in the dining area, with Tania’s name and that of her father inscribed on either side of the holy woman who kept young travelers safe on their journey.
Humberto Vasilio, 8 Abner Dionisio, 10
After their father was found dead in the road from a blow to his head, his pockets emptied of what little cash they contained, their mother, Hortencia, made her way from Guatemala to the Washington area in 2009 to find work and send money home. Their grandfather was supposed to take care of the brothers.
He put the boys to work, carrying wood from hills. The wood was used for cooking fires in their community, where most of the families speak Mam, a Mayan language. One day Abner broke his arm doing the work. Even though Hortencia sent money for clothes, she learned that the boys walked barefoot and didn’t have enough to eat.
Distraught over reports she was getting, Hortencia returned for her children. They were picked up almost immediately by the U.S. Border Patrol near McAllen, Texas. They proceeded to Langley Park, where they live with Hortencia’s sister.
Because Abner and Humberto traveled with their mother, their legal situation is different from that of unaccompanied youngsters. But their story springs from the same widespread determination that children are no longer safe in their countries. Hortencia is unusual in that she went back for her kids, rather than sending for them.
Gangs are moving into her community in Guatemela, she says: “They pressure children as young as 12 to commit crimes.” And it was impossible to keep her boys properly fed. Hortencia says she could earn about $6 a day weaving huipiles — colorful Mayan tunics for women — or planting potatoes, but most days there wasn’t work. Here, she might earn as much in an hour cleaning offices or washing dishes, and the money goes even further because meat and fruit are cheaper here, she says.
Abner and Humberto look like a handful. They race around the playground outside CASA’s headquarters. When they pause from ping-ponging over the climbing equipment, Humberto reaches out to hold Abner’s hand.
In Spanish, Abner pronounces life here “happy” and life in Guatemala “sad.” Switching to Mam, which Hortencia translates, he says, “I am a little mischievous. I hope I behave well” in the United States.
Daniel’s mother, Reyna, arrived in Langley Park from El Salvador in January, her husband several months before that. They figured Daniel could stay with one of his grandfathers. The plan had always been to summon Daniel well before he turned 12, but the boy missed his parents too terribly.
After wading across the Rio Grande into Texas a couple of months ago, with his cousins ages 9 and 17, Daniel is about to enter first grade.
“You’re better off just keeping quiet. You swallow everything, because if you complain they aren’t going to murder just me, but the entire family.”
—Reyna, Daniel's mother
“Twelve is when the gangs obligate children to join, to live with them,” Reyna says. “They make them extort money, sell drugs. That is the task of the children. They don’t go to school after that.”
Their house in El Salvador was in a zone controlled by one gang. To cross into another zone to go to work or go shopping, they had to pay a weekly sum. More than once, they had seen gangs covet a neighbor’s house and give the family hours to get out, or else.
“People lose their house; people even lose their children,” Reyna says. “The gangs take them somewhere else, and you don’t know where they are. Whether they are buried, dead, alive, no one knows.
“And you can’t complain, because even the police are involved. You’re better off keeping quiet. You swallow everything, because if you complain they aren’t going to murder just me, but the entire family.”
Despite being reunited, Daniel is not feeling good on a recent morning. Two nights before, he was rushed to the hospital with breathing problems. Doctors said he has high cholesterol, an inflamed liver and tonsillitis.
Now, sitting beside his mother in a library as she recounts the troubles the family left behind, he turns the pages of a book of dinosaurs and says nothing.
Brandon Terriquez, 15
He called his mother in Springfield and asked her to send $50. He didn’t tell her that the money would fund his odyssey from Guatemala. In April, he and five companions caught a bus — one was a friend from Facebook; the others he didn’t know. Two were adults.
Saying goodbye to his grandparents broke Brandon’s heart. They had been raising him since his father and mother left for the United States 11 and eight years ago, respectively. He knew he might never see them again. Yet farm life was meager, and he was afraid of the drunks and drug addicts in the streets.
“My grandparents were getting older and sicker,” Brandon says. “They couldn’t take care of me. And I wanted to know my father and mother.”
“He said, ‘Where’d you get those blisters?’ I said, ‘I got them crossing the border from Guatemala to Mexico.’”
The boy had kept in regular telephone contact with his parents. They had always said that one day he would join them in Virginia. The grandparents kept Brandon’s secret that he planned the reunion sooner than his parents expected.
Homesickness set in as soon as the bus took off. He tried to fend off tears. He could not be the boy who cried on the road.
“The first day was very bad,” he says. “After leaving your family, you don’t feel good.”
In northern Guatemala, the travelers got off the bus and walked for hours overnight into Mexico. They followed railroad tracks, diving into brush when they saw soldiers, dodging crocodiles in culverts.
The soles of Brandon’s sneakers disintegrated. He developed huge blisters. He wrapped his feet in towels and kept walking.
Finally they reached a bus station, where the plan was to take a bus to the border. Brandon had 100 Mexican pesos, or about $7.60 — all that was left of the $50 from his mother.
The bus cost more than that, with additional expenses to come. A Mexican law enforcement officer demanded 100 more pesos, and threatened Brandon when he couldn’t pay.
Brandon called his mother.
“WHAT!” she said. “Where are you?”
She talked to the Mexican “guide” that Brandon’s companions had secured and wired money.
“In Mexico, no one helps you if you don’t have money,” Brandon says.
They hid in a warehouse in Reynosa, waiting for the right moment to cross. The guide took their cell phones during the delay, for his own security.
“He said, ‘Where’d you get those blisters?’ ” Brandon says. “I said, ‘I got them crossing the border from Guatemala to Mexico. He said, ‘That’s short compared to the desert.’ And then he said, ‘No, you’re not going with me.’ ”
Brandon stayed with the group long enough to cross the Rio Grande on an inflatable raft. U.S. Border Patrol officers swarmed the area. He spent a few sleepless nights in one of the infamous “refrigerators” — detention rooms that felt frigid to the children crammed inside. Then it was two weeks at a shelter in New York. And, finally, a little more than a month after he set out, his parents stood waiting for him at the airport.
“When they saw me, they began to cry,” Brandon says. “Me, too. The three of us were crying. It had been such a long time without seeing each other.”
He met his sister, 6, and brother, 20 months, for the first time. He likes to do push-ups with his brother on his back. He has started to make friends, which eases the homesickness. But his face still lights up talking about Guatemala.
“What I liked was to go horseback riding. That’s how I spent my time. Going out with my cousins…. Herding the cattle, calling the cattle. The cattle know you. You talk to them, and they understand. … They see you, and they come running.”
Mynor Cerros, 18
He grew up at the foot of an old volcano with a cold lake in the crater. One of the days during the annual fiesta week in January is dedicated to the absent residents who have lit out for Maryland. They send back money and stories of success, some of which are not exaggerated. When Mynor was 7, the year his mother died, his father joined the exodus from Guatemala, and the boy lived with his grandmother.
Mynor saw his older friends graduating from high school with degrees “that weren’t good for anything. There was no work.” They joined the tattered legion driving three-wheeled taxis, scrabbling for the scarce paying customers. Or they drifted into delinquency.
Last summer, at 17, Mynor set out in his father’s footsteps. He was part of the wave of 39,000 children last year that caught this nation’s attention. Unlike the young people just arriving, who still seem stunned and disoriented, Mynor has been in the country long enough to get his bearings, even as he awaits another court date that could determine whether his sojourn will be permanent. He’s less homesick, more adjusted and sees more clearly, perhaps, what he might lose and what he might gain.
“When I first came, I didn’t like it,” he says, because he felt trapped inside his father’s home in Baltimore. The city seemed threatening, with all the traffic and street life.
Back home, it was a big deal on a Sunday to make a plan to go into town and spend the day shopping, strolling. In Baltimore, “as soon as you step out your door, you are already in the city,” he says.
Eventually, he realized he liked the bustle. He rides his bike to the Inner Harbor, where he found a summer job as a busboy. He was never able to find a job in Guatemala.
“It’s very beautiful,” he says. “You work, you have your money, you can buy things when you want something.”
He still has to pay back $2,500 in loans from family members and a friend that financed his journey.
He doesn’t work during the school year; he enrolled in high school last fall and attends CASA’s after-school program. He is on track to graduate next June.
He does miss his 12-year-old sister and other relatives and friends back home, but he knows he has already made a mental shift. Should the courts say he doesn’t belong in this country, he doesn’t exactly belong in Guatemala, either.
“If you go there, it’s not going to feel the same,” he says. “You’re going to miss the things from here.”