A Set of Borders to Cross

By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

NIXON, Tex. -- Seventeen-year-old Guillermo Antonio Iraheta Hernandez traveled thousands of miles from his native El Salvador only to land in limbo.

Left behind more than a decade ago by his parents, illegal immigrants living in Northern Virginia, Iraheta made part of his trek to the United States hidden in the baggage compartment of a Mexican bus. But soon after surreptitiously crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, he was picked up by the Border Patrol and brought here to a converted nursing home run by the federal government where 136 children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are temporarily housed.

Iraheta is but one drop in a new and fast-growing stream of illegal immigration to the United States, those under 18 who are sneaking into the country without their parents. Authorities say the phenomenon is growing and includes girls traveling alone and even toddlers being carried by older siblings or entrusted to smugglers.

Many of those who are apprehended by the Border Patrol end up in a burgeoning network of shelters set up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There they run up against Washington's paradoxical approach to the problem of children who entered the country illegally without their parents. The government agency that runs the shelters tries to reunite the children with relatives living here, regardless of their legal status. Another federal agency works to deport them -- as well as their parents. Iraheta's mother and father are reluctant to come forward to claim their son, fearing that would lead to being sent back to El Salvador. So are his sisters, who are also in the country illegally. Even uncles who are legal U.S. residents living in Texas have stayed away.

"They're afraid this might not be in their best interest," said Iraheta's sister, Dina. "Nobody wants to help him. Nobody wants to do anything, and that's the problem."

Iraheta, whose father paid a smuggler $6,000 to bring him into the county, said he would like to attend high school and college in the United States, perhaps to study literature.

"Every day I pray that someone in the family will come forward to help advance my case," the teenager said.

The Path of Hope

Last fiscal year, the Border Patrol apprehended 115,000 unaccompanied minors, up from 98,000 in 2001. Almost 7,800 children landed in the federally funded system of shelters last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 2005 -- 25 percent of them girls, 20 percent under 15.

Fueling this immigration is the crackdown on border enforcement and illegal immigrants, authorities and immigration experts say. Adults in the United States without legal papers who used to risk trips to Central America to retrieve children and make the illegal trip back across the Mexican border are hiring smugglers instead. Documented immigrants waiting years for approval from immigration officials to bring their children to the United States legally are also turning to traffickers.

So the children come alone, undertaking arduous journeys, including treks across deserts and rivers, led by smugglers who will not hesitate to abandon those who are sick or weak or cannot keep up. Many of the girls are sexually abused along the way.

Robert Garza, director of operations of the shelter in Nixon, where Iraheta is living, said that when he started his job three years ago, he was taken aback by the young ages of the children brought in by immigration authorities and the youngsters' stories about their journeys.

"I thought, how can a parent send a child on that long journey, not knowing what's going to happen?" Garza said. "But it's the environment they come from. There is no hope, and the only way out of that environment is to come to America. That's how they see the United States -- as hope."

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