It's the most potent image in the current immigration crisis: Tens of thousands of Central American children on a dangerous solo exodus out of their countries. But from what I've seen reporting on this issue from the U.S. border and in Honduras, it is also somewhat misleading.
The term "Unaccompanied Alien Children," or UACs, as used by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, refers to people up to age 17 who are traveling without a parent or legal guardian. It does not mean they are traveling alone.
In migrant shelters in Mexico and Honduras, talking to both children and adults who are making these journeys, or have been deported after failing to reach the United States, the most common scenario seems to be children who are traveling in groups that include adult relatives, neighbors, smugglers or others. Often the children migrating already have one or more parents living in the United States, and they are considered "unaccompanied," even if traveling with other adult relatives.
This is not to diminish the desperate circumstances these children are leaving behind, the dangers of the journey, or the strain this is causing on the Border Patrol and immigration infrastructure in the United States. Just that the term is somewhat of a misnomer.
In a government-run shelter for families and child migrants in San Pedro Sula, Honduras -- the city that has sent more of these children north than any other -- buses arrive three days a week with hundreds of migrants who got picked up along the way in Mexico and deported home. In interviews there recently, the children were with aunts, neighbors, grandparents, cousins, parents. One 13-year-old boy I interviewed, whose parents were both in prison, had attempted the journey with a neighbor's family. "His mom's a good friend of mine," the neighbor told me. "That's why I took the risk."
From Honduras, there are various ways these groups of migrants, including the children, reach the United States. Those with the most money to spend (several thousand dollars per person) can hire smugglers to drive them in private cars across Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border. Cheaper options, but often still paying a smuggler, means going by bus or riding on top of Mexican trains.
The numbers of children making these journeys have been spiking dramatically. From October 2013 through June 2014, 57,525 of these children have been taken into custody along the southern border, more than twice as many as in the same period a year earlier. Most of those children have come from Honduras (16,546), followed by Guatemala (14,086), El Salvador (13,301) and Mexico (12,614). The majority (73 percent) are crossing into the United States through South Texas, in the Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley sector.
Some of the kids who end up alone caught in limbo in the immigration system started out with others. At a church-run migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, one 14-year-old Honduran boy who was there alone, had set off with his 25-year-old brother before they got into an argument and parted ways. He continued the rest of the way through Mexico by hitchhiking. A teenage girl from El Salvador awaiting deportation from a government-run shelter in Reynosa said she had been separated from her group of travelers, which included a smuggler, when she got too tired. She had nearly reached the Rio Grande when she was found on the side of the road and taken into custody.
Amid the tens of thousands of kids making this journey, there are surely some doing it completely alone, but that seems to be the exception.