Youths, Families See U.S. as Only Hope, Swell Alien Arrests

Times Staff Writer

In many ways, Arsides Arevalo is like a lot of other undocumented immigrants attempting to enter the United States. Last month, he left his native El Salvador in search of work and some peace from the unrest of that war-ravaged nation, where much of his family remains. After a trip of more than 2,000 miles, he slipped into the United States from Tijuana. Within days, he was arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego.

Despite the familiar profile, Arsides Arevalo breaks the stereotype in one major way: He is but 14 years old.

“I don’t want to go back to El Salvador,” said the youth, his wide, chocolate-colored eyes clouding with tears as he sat on a bed in a detention facility where he awaits his deportation hearing. “My mother wanted me to leave because of the danger. There was always shooting between the army and the guerrillas. . . . Many others from my very neighborhood have come to the United States. I don’t want to go back.”


Arsides is one of a growing number of youths who are being arrested by immigration officials--from California to Texas--after crossing into the United States illegally from Mexico.

Their presence underscores the increasing number of family groups who are crossing the border, dispelling the stereotype of undocumented workers as adult men who come to the United States for temporary jobs in farms and factories, sending money home before returning south. Each day, U.S. officials say, hundreds of families are arriving in Mexican border cities with the eventual goal of crossing into the United States.

“Whole families are abandoning Mexico and coming here to stay,” said Harold Ezell, western regional commissioner for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. “The movement is here on a permanent basis.”

Duke Austin, an INS spokesman in Washington, added: “We’re definitely experiencing more families than we ever have before.”

Although most of the children are accompanied by adults, many have traveled thousands of miles on their own, sleeping in bus and train stations, in the streets or in country fields, acquiring the necessary expertise in dodging thieves, deceiving immigration officials and finding guides and coyotes, as smugglers of aliens are known along the border . For many of the youths, this is the first trip outside of their native villages in Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala.

Their motivation is no different from that of the thousands of other undocumented aliens: To escape the poverty of their homelands and seek a better life in the United States.


In many cases, the youths are attempting to join family members, sometimes parents, who have already come to the United States and are living here without visas. On occasion, the parents have saved their money to bring their children north.

“My mother didn’t want me to be drafted into the army,” explained a 15-year-old Salvadoran now being held in San Diego.

Their methods of transportation vary, the routes spread by word of mouth by relatives and neighbors who have made the trek and returned. Many take inexpensive local buses and trains through Central America and Mexico. Others have enough money to fly on scheduled airlines.

Their destination is always the same: Mexican border cities like Tijuana, where they can easily cross into the United States along with hundreds of other illegal aliens. Thereafter, they attempt to join their families, or to blend in to immigrant communities scattered from California to New York.

Sometimes, the youths have become separated from their parents or adult relatives along the way. Many end up in U.S. border states, penniless and alone in a strange nation where they do not even speak the language.

“Some of them do have emotional problems,” said Susan Torres, a foster care official for Catholic Community Services in San Diego who has worked extensively with undocumented juveniles. “Some cry out for their families, their countries. It is a traumatic experience. . . . But I would say the majority of them adjust very well and don’t seem to be emotionally scarred by this.”


Some youths remain stranded in Tijuana, a sprawling hustler’s town whose population is continually expanded by the arrival of impoverished migrants from the Mexican interior. In one Tijuana orphanage, many index cards bearing the names of former juvenile residents bear the notation: “Left for the United States.”

In the first six months of fiscal 1986, the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego, the busiest crossing point for illegal aliens along the 1,900-mile border, apprehended 8,121 undocumented aliens from Mexico who were 17 or younger--a 74% increase compared to the first six months of fiscal 1985. (The numbers are only broken down for Mexican nationals, who represent the great majority of those arrested, but officials say the increase also applies to youths from other nations.) Last month, the Border Patrol arrested an average of 67 undocumented Mexican juveniles each day.

Adult men still constitute more than 80% of those arrested along the border in California. However, the increase in juvenile apprehensions is substantially more than the 48% increase in the overall number of alien arrests. And U.S. officials are clearly worried about the trend.

“We’re now finding juveniles who are being brought in by smugglers, whose parents are already here,” said Alan Eliason, chief patrol agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego. “We’re no longer just encountering the illegal entrant from Mexico coming just to pick our tomatoes and our strawberries. . . . We’re seeing whole families who are, in essence, just abandoning Mexico.”

In southern Texas, immigration officials say family groups now account for almost 20% of all Mexican aliens apprehended, compared to about 11% a few years ago.

“It’s definitely a trend,” said Silvestre Reyes, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol in McAllen, Tex.


The situation has posed some special difficulties for U.S. immigration authorities already besieged by a record number of illegal immigrants. The INS holds children and family groups separate from adults; on occasion, a lack of space has forced authorities to place them in motels. Officials acknowledge that such conditions are far from ideal.

Most adult Mexican nationals agree to voluntarily return to Mexico within a few hours of their capture. However, youths cannot be simply sent back to the streets of Tijuana or Ciudad Juarez. First, they are interviewed by the offices of the consul general of their home nations. Teen-agers from Mexico are quickly placed in the custody of social service authorities across the border. Other foreign nationals must await deportation hearings or other procedures before being returned home.

“They have all kinds of motivations” for coming to the United States, said Javier Escobar, Mexico’s consul general in San Diego, whose office daily interviews unaccompanied Mexican youths arrested by the Border Patrol. “Some want to get together with relatives. Some want to work. Some may just come over to get a hamburger, and they get caught.”

It is not unusual for U.S. immigration authorities to receive telephone calls from frantic Mexican parents who have arrived safely in Los Angeles or elsewhere without their children; youths are occasionally stranded during the journey, perhaps while dodging the Border Patrol during a night crossing of the rugged border canyons.

“They want to be reunited with their children, even at the cost of turning themselves in,” said Gene Smithburg, a supervisory Border Patrol agent in San Diego.

In San Diego County, which borders Mexico for 66 miles, many unaccompanied immigrant juveniles are detained for a time at Casa de San Juan in North Park, a state-licensed care center operated by the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego under contract with the U.S. Marshals Service. Other youths are sent to approved foster homes.


At the center, some youths are being held as material witnesses against suspected smugglers; others are just awaiting deportation proceedings and haven’t been able to post bond. Most are Central Americans; the great majority of Mexican youths are quickly returned to Tijuana after being interviewed by the Mexican consul general’s office.

Whatever their immigration status, the youths say the home-like atmosphere of the Casa is a welcome alternative to INS detention facilities.

The two-story Casa de San Juan, which can house 16 youths, is in the midst of a residential neighborhood. Each room is shared by two youths. Classes in English and other subjects are provided daily; a small exercise yard with basketball courts is next door.

“We like to think of it as a school,” said Joe Molina, the home’s director.

Upstairs, 14-year-old Arsides Arevalo, dressed in Casa-issued shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, was explaining how he came to the United States last month from his home in Sesuntepeque, El Salvador. He said his mother saved money for his air fare and sent him north with a group of other Salvadorans; he planned to meet with relatives near San Francisco. He and another youth became separated from the group and were arrested at a drop house in San Diego, he said.

“My mother wanted me to be away from the war,” said Arevalo, who couldn’t hold back his tears when he spoke about his home.

Other youths displayed less vulnerability; most said they had relatives in the United States. An American visitor was struck by the almost blase attitude displayed by these teen-agers when recounting their often-arduous journeys.


“Some of these kids have been on their own quite a while,” said Molina. “They know how to get around.”

Jorge Luis Camacho, a strapping 17-year-old from Mexico’s Ciudad Obregon, said he came to the United States looking for work in the construction business. He said he followed the route previously taken by his older brother: He took a bus to Tijuana and then slipped across the border at night with the help of a smuggler.

“I planned to earn enough money to help my family and then return home,” said Camacho, adding that he will probably attempt to return to the United States after being sent back to Mexico.

Rudy Elmer Barrera, also 17, recounted his weeklong trip overland from Ilopango, El Salvador, to San Diego, through Guatemala and Mexico. He was hoping to rejoin his mother, a factory worker who has been living in Los Angeles for 10 years. Three years ago, he said, he left Los Angeles to return to El Salvador to visit a sick aunt. He said his mother had sent him about $100 for the trip back.

“I mostly slept in buses and bus stations,” said Barrera, who retains much of the streetwise sense--and even some English--initially learned in Los Angeles. “I kept to myself and didn’t talk to anybody. If anyone asked me, I said I was from Oaxaca (a state in southern Mexico) . . . I ran out of money in Mexico City and had to spend three days in a hotel until my mother could send me some more.”

On three occasions, Barrera said, he had to pay bribes of about $10 to Mexican immigration officials; he was also undocumented in Mexico. He said he followed a group of aliens into Tijuana, arriving in the United States virtually penniless. Shortly after crossing last month, he said, the Border Patrol arrested him on a bus heading north. He is hoping his family will raise the $2,000 bail that was set, pending deportation proceedings.


Once arrested, Barrera, like many other Central Americans, tried to convince U.S. authorities that he was a Mexican citizen. He hoped to be simply sent back to Mexico, which would enable him to quickly re-enter the United States, rather than be deported to El Salvador.

“I told them I was from Oaxaca,” Barrera recounted with a smile, “but they started asking me all kinds of questions about the place. They asked me who was the governor? What were the colors of the Mexican flag? I had no idea. . . .

“To me, the thought of going all the way back to El Salvador is horrible. There’s no work there; my family’s here. I’d have a chance to live much better in the United States.”

Many others agree. In the hillside settlements of Tijuana, many families are awaiting their opportunity to cross into the United States. Most have come from Mexico’s interior states.

“We plan to cross over very soon,” said Mario Rivera Sandoval, a 14-year-old child in a family of five, who was trying to earn some money by using a greasy rag to wash car windows in Tijuana. “My mother is just waiting to save enough money to pay the coyote.