HARLINGEN, Texas — They come from Central America with slips of paper sewn into their pockets bearing names they are sometimes too young to spell. Parents send them with Bibles, rosaries and small wooden crosses in their backpacks.
The flood of undocumented immigrants has slowed compared to five years ago — likely due to tighter border enforcement and the economic downturn in the U.S. — but in its place is a new immigration surge even more confounding: children and teenagers traveling through the rugged border lands into south Texas, lured by the promise of safety. Up to 120 unaccompanied youths are arriving each day, officials say, a number that has tripled over the last five years and that by some estimates could soon reach 60,000 a year.
The southeastern edge of Texas has become the busiest border crossing in the country for these wandering youths, most of whom are adolescents, though some are as young as 5 or 6. Last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended more than 21,000 minors traveling without families on a roughly 315-mile stretch of the Rio Grande that runs west from Harlingen to the south of Laredo. That was more than half the total of 38,833 detained nationwide.
Changes in U.S. policy to expand legal residence opportunities in the U.S. for undocumented youth, along with job prospects, may have led some families to send younger family members on the journey north.
But immigrant advocates say most are fleeing in fear. More than 90% of the youngsters detained are from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — countries where violence, particularly drug cartel and gang violence, has spurred an exodus for all ages.
Relatives may pay smugglers to bring the children north at a cost of $3,000 to $10,000, said Aryah Somers, a lawyer who has worked with migrant youth. Some were left behind by parents who immigrated illegally to the U.S. to find work, she said, and their journey often involves traveling by themselves, often atop trains.
The young immigrants tell harrowing stories of being abused before and during their journeys, according to Susan Terrio, an anthropology professor at Georgetown University who interviewed 40 of the youths.
"They witnessed or survived robberies and fell victim to brutal attacks and sexual assaults. They outran or hid from federal police and border patrol agents. They struggled with hunger, illness, and exposure to the elements and saw fellow migrants lose limbs or die while jumping on or off cargo trains," Terrio said.
One Honduran youth she interviewed suffered abuse at the hands of his stepfather before he fled; he lived on the street, then was kidnapped by the Zetas cartel after reaching Mexico, she said. He witnessed gang rapes and assassinations before escaping.
A 13-year-old Salvadoran girl was also kidnapped by a Mexican gang, then trafficked for sex and forced to transport drugs for two years before she escaped across the border. Because she had been drugged and starved in captivity, the girl was disoriented, suffered memory lapses and was only able to tell her story to a clinician after six months in detention, Terrio said.
"It's very clear to us they are coming because of violence and protection issues in their home countries," said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women's Refugee Commission in New York. "It's not about necessarily a pull factor in the U.S."
Brian Portillo Hernandez, 17, was one of several youths who appeared in a courtroom here in the border city of Harlingen earlier this month after being apprehended by U.S. border authorities. The youth said he fled El Salvador last year at the urging of his parents after being threatened by gangs at school. He had been allowed to join his aunt in Independence, Mo., after being detained, but traveled back to court on the advice of the attorney his family hired to handle his immigration case.
"His mother wanted him to come here because she feared for his safety. She wanted him to come here for a better life," said Portillo's aunt, Marguerita Hernandez, 51.
Elizabeth Kennedy, a researcher at San Diego State University who works with migrant youths and their families in El Salvador, said many youths have already tried to flee worsening gang violence at home, switching schools and cities and seeking help from police and other government agencies. Increasingly powerful gangs find them, however, and act with impunity, she said.
Parents tell her they must weigh the risks of sending a child north against the violence at home. "They know it's a dangerous journey, but they also don't want their child to die or not get an education," Kennedy said.
Nearly three-quarters of the youths apprehended are male, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Immigrant advocates say they see more young children crossing, as well as more girls. Last year, 24% of the youths were under age 14.
While the phenomenon of unaccompanied minor immigrants has been going on for years, the surge over the past three years has been so rapid, that U.S. officials have been scrambling to find housing and medical care for the young immigrants. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, has criticized the Obama administration for failing to immediately return them, a policy he says encourages more to cross.
"Aside from being part of an obvious humanitarian crisis, these unaccompanied illegal minors have left the federal government scrambling to triage the results of its failed border security and immigration policies," Perry said in a letter to the White House in 2012.
The number of unaccompanied young migrants nearly doubled in the last three years, overwhelming local shelters and filling local immigration courts.
"The current immigration system was designed for adults. It was never designed with children in mind," said Maria Woltjen, director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights with offices in Chicago and Harlingen.
Officials initially opened a huge makeshift shelter at a San Antonio military base and more than tripled the number of shelter beds.
Now, the process calls for U.S. Customs and Border Protection to turn over unaccompanied youths within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places them in shelters while attempting to locate family or other sponsors with whom they can live while their immigration cases are being adjudicated. (Youths from Mexico are often returned to their home country immediately if they have no credible fear of persecution, are not trafficking risks, and are considered capable of making independent decisions, agency officials said.)
In most cases, officials say, youths are transferred out of shelters and into homes within about a month.
The agency screens all placements, conducting background checks and fingerprinting would-be guardians. It works with Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to conduct home studies for about 10% of youths, those considered most at risk — for instance, a child who is disabled, or who has been abused or trafficked in the past. Such youths also receive some follow-up services, although the agencies involved would like to do more.
To speed placements, last year the Office of Refugee Resettlement stopped fingerprinting certain parents and legal guardians who had no documented safety risks and were not caring for at-risk children. An agency spokesperson said that they have hired additional staff and that the reduced screening only applies to a small subset of cases, and does not include children who raise concerns for case managers, federal field specialists, or third-party reviewers.
But some advocates complain that officials are placing youths in homes without adequate follow-up.
"It's not like they're a foster-care system where there's monitoring after the fact," said Kimi Jackson, project managing attorney at the South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project in Harlingen, which represents many of the youth in immigration court.
Kennedy, the San Diego State researcher, has stayed in touch with several immigrant youths placed with family and sponsors. Two were unable to find English as a second language high school classes, dropped out of school and went to work. Another moved from her guardian's home to stay with her mother, a gang member.
"More follow-up would be good," Kennedy said. "Not just to ensure they're in a good setting, but to ensure they're getting services."