This was the year three words entered the national immigration debate — "unaccompanied minors" and "surge." It also was the year of an appropriately brutal name — "La Bestia" or "the Beast." Together, they captured the drama of thousands of migrants crossing the Southwest border, and the dilemma facing U.S. officials struggling to stem the tide. As the months passed, some migrant families were reunited, some were separated, and the chances of Congress passing an immigration bill were dead before the end of summer.
June 14, 2014 - Mission, Texas
Larisa Lara of Honduras holds her 6-month-old daughter, Annie, as she boards a bus in McAllen, Texas. She spent 10 days crossing Mexico and was planning to join her father in Dallas. Many of the recent migrants are young women with children fleeing unrest back home. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
"Hottest spot in nation for crossings"
By May of this fiscal year, 47,000 unaccompanied children, many traveling solo, had been apprehended after illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. By the year’s end, officials estimated, the total could reach 90,000. The epicenter for much of the migration was Texas’ Rio Grande Valley. "This is the hottest spot in the nation for crossings," a Texas lawman said.
July 3, 2014 - Horcones, Guatemala
A raft carrying immigrants bound for the U.S. crosses the Suchiate River from Guatemala into Mexico. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
Driven by rumors, desperation
Although illegal immigration has declined in recent years, the recent surge of immigration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador was driven by inescapable poverty, lack of opportunity and gang violence. A rumor played a key role as well. The rumor, which was running rampant throughout Central America, held that U.S. government would give families with children and minors traveling solo "permisos," permission to stay in the United States indefinitely.
July 5 - Murietta, Calif.
Crowds of protesters gather in front of the U.S. Border Patrol station in Murrieta (Photo: David Kadlubowski / The Arizona Republic / AP )
"USA!" versus "Shame on you!"
By July more than 52,000 children had surrendered to or been caught by the Border Patrol. The surge touched off political debates in Washington, with some blaming Obama administration policies for the influx. In Murietta in Southern California, hundreds of people blocked three bus ferrying mostly Central American detainees to an immigration processing facility. The next day protesters from both sides of the immigration debate squared off. "U.S.A.!" some chanted. "Shame on you!" came the response.
July 9 - Ocotepeque, Honduras
Miguel Martinez Madrid speaks with a mother who was pulled off a Guatemala-bound bus at a roadblock near Ocotepeque, Honduras, in July. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Operation Rescue Angels
About 2,000 miles south of Murietta, an elite unit of the Honduran national police usually focused on drug and arms interdiction had a new quarry: children. The unit, trained and funded by the United States, was now trying to intercept youngsters from crossing into Guatemala as part of the long journey north. The effort’s name: Operation Rescue Angels. "These are little angels," the coordinator of the unit said. "They are not conscious of the risks they are taking."
July 14 - San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Abigail Galvez, 6, leans on her mother, Angelica, 31, during an interview in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. She said she and her daughter took the northbound freight train through Mexico in a bid to reunite with her brother in Dallas. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
Deportation flights begin
The surge in immigration was fueled by mothers with children as well as minors traveling alone. In July a chartered plane touched down in San Pedro Sula, repatriating 38 Honduran mothers and children who had been held at a detention facility in Artesia, N.M. It was the first such flight, and U.S. authorities promised many more would follow.
July 16 - McAllen, Texas
Immigrants wait to be processed at the U.S. Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas. More than 350 detainees - men and women, infants and children - were being held there Tuesday. (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)
Cramped and fetid conditions
In June the Border Patrol was catching about 1,200 migrants a day crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. By July the flow had slowed but was still formidable — about 900 migrants a day — and authorities struggled to house and care for the migrants. Cells at a Border Patrol station in McAllen were overflowing, with migrants sleeping shoulder to shoulder across the floors.
Aug. 2 - Tapachula, Mexico
Anderson Daniel, 7, of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, sits exhausted on a hot street in Tapachula, Mexico. He stays at a shelter for migrant children in the city. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
"You run the risk of death"
By now more than 57,000 youths had crossed into the U.S. unaccompanied. But many others never made it out of Mexico. Some Central American migrants ended up in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southernmost tip, out of money and unable to continue traveling north. At a shelter run by a church, walls were covered with warnings about unscrupulous coyotes, or smugglers: "Brother migrant, don't trust people who arrive here and offer to accompany you.... There are gangs waiting to take the little you have, and you run the risk of death."
Aug. 16 - San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Behind the wall of his fortified house in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Isaias Sosa, 19, holds the Bible he carried while traveling north to try to enter the U.S. He was deported twice from Texas but hopes to make the journey again. (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)
"Everywhere here is dangerous"
Honduras’ overall homicide rate was 90 per 100,000 in 2012, the highest in the world. Much of the killing was fueled by gangs and drug-traffickers. In San Pedro Sula, a boy caught almost immediately after crossing the Rio Grande dreamed of attempting the journey north again. "Everywhere here is dangerous," he said, explaining that gangs try to enlist young people into their ranks. "It's a sin to be young in Honduras."
Sept. 5 - Los Angeles, Calif.
Silvia Padilla and daughters Dayana, left, and Katheryn, right, wait for help at El Rescate, an L.A. legal aid clinic for immigrants. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
Reuniting a family
Marvin Varela traveled from Honduras to Los Angeles in 2004 and his wife, Silvia, joined him three years later. They left their two young daughters in Tegucigalpa, promising to return to their homeland after they saved enough money to build a house and open a store. But last year, as conditions deteriorated in Honduras, they hatched a new plan: They wired $8,000 to a stranger to smuggle their daughters north.
Sept. 7 - San Ramon, Mexico
Migrants wait to board "La Bestia" outside Arriaga. Mexico has deported more than 60,000 Central American migrants in its crackdown this year, perhaps half of those in recent months, officials say. (Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)
"We are being hunted down"
Under U.S. pressure, Mexico launched a crackdown on migrants, including raids on the freight trains known as "La Bestia." Migrants have long hopped on the trains and they could be seen clinging to the sides or riding atop rail cars. After the crackdown, the trains were virtually empty and Mexico had deported more than 60,000 migrants. "We are being hunted down," a Guatemalan migrant said. The flow into the United States also slowed. By Oct. 1, the end of the fiscal year, about66,000 unaccompanied children had been apprehended on the Southwest border. The number was well below the 90,000 predicted in the spring, but the surge had sparked alarm along the U.S. border, overwhelmed social service agencies and forced the Obama administration to recalibrate its plans for immigration reform.
Oct. 3 - Los Angeles, Calif.
"Take care of them for me"
Two mothers who migrated from Central America recount how harrowing journeys to the United States and the challenges of building lives for themselves and their children in Los Angeles. “Take care of them for me,” one mother said before leaving El Salvador. “I promise I’ll be back in seven years.” It actually took longer for the mother and her daughter to be reunited.