Deportee Alexander Rivera, left, exchanges Mexican pesos for Guatemalan quetzales on a bus returning him to Guatemala. Food and currency vendors are allowed on the deportee bus at the border. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
Deportee Alexander Rivera, left, exchanges Mexican pesos for Guatemalan quetzales on a bus returning him to Guatemala. Food and currency vendors are allowed on the deportee bus at the border. (Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)

Young Migrants Risk All to Reach U.S.

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By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 28, 2006

QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala -- Across Central America, growing numbers of impoverished children appear to be setting out for the United States on their own, risking robbery, rape and death as they try to sneak illegally through Mexico and across the U.S. border.

Last year, 6,460 underage illegal immigrants from Central America were detained in the United States while traveling without their parents and sent to government shelters, a 35 percent increase over the previous year. Many others likely slipped in undetected.

The higher detention figures may reflect stepped-up enforcement by Mexican and U.S. authorities. But social workers who help such child migrants say the stricter enforcement might actually be causing more children to travel alone. They note that many have parents who are already in the United States illegally and are unwilling to fetch them now that the chances of getting caught have increased.

Many of the youths never make it to the border. Mexico reported deporting 3,772 unaccompanied Central American minors bound for the United States in 2005, compared with fewer than 700 in 2003.

Mexican immigration authorities were catching and deporting so many Guatemalan children trying to sneak through Mexico to the United States that the Guatemalan government opened a 50-bed shelter last year to receive them until they could be picked up by their parents. It was quickly overwhelmed.

"Many nights there were not enough beds for everyone," said Ivone Rivera, director of the shelter, which is in a large, cement-block house in this mountain city about 45 miles from the Mexican border. "We had to lay down extra mattresses across every bit of floor space."

Delia Barrientos, a soft-spoken 15-year-old deportee on a bus taking her from Mexico to the shelter on a recent afternoon, said she had been thrilled when her mother finally agreed to let her head for Atlanta.

"My mother left when I was 4 or 5. . . . I just want to get to know her. Every day I've been asking God for the chance," said Barrientos, who was caught with two older cousins while they waited to stow away on a freight train.

Shelter workers say parents often pay smugglers to take children as young as 4 to the United States. The vast majority of underage migrants, however, appear to be teenage boys like Luis Santos, a short, almond-eyed 16-year-old sitting a few rows behind Barrientos. He said he is the youngest of six siblings and has been working since he was 7 years old.

"My father was a policeman. He was shot to death when he was following a car that was smuggling cocaine," Santos said. "After that, my mother couldn't have supported me even if she'd wanted to. . . . She sells vegetables in the market. She has no money."

For the last five years, Santos had been living and working on a cattle ranch, barely covering expenses with his $66-a-week paycheck and finding it increasingly tough to find time for schoolwork. He was drawn to the United States by the same hopes of higher wages that attract adults.

"I just wanted to finally have something of my own," Santos said as tears began to roll down his cheeks. "To show everyone in my family that I can do this. That I can have things, too."


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