Claudia Sanchez crouched on a grassy slope alongside the railroad tracks, breast-feeding her 10-month-old daughter, Heather.
It had already been a long journey from Honduras to central Mexico, clinging with her baby to the top of a rickety train. They still had a thousand or so miles to go to reach the U.S. border.
Her 3-year-old boy, Jonah, ran up and down the empty rails with Ethan, also 3, who was traveling with his single dad, Kenny Rodriguez, from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. Ethan’s mom abandoned them long ago.
Amid cactus pads and pepper trees, they were waiting for the next arrival of La Bestia (The Beast), one of several so-named freight trains that thousands of mostly Central American migrants ride hobo-style northward, facing murder, rape, extortion and other dangers.
Asked why they would take such risks, the answers from Sanchez and others are nearly uniform: gang violence at home, poverty, no jobs.
But press a little more deeply and many acknowledge having been told — by friends, relatives, even aid workers and, of course, the coyotes, or smugglers — that it can be easier these days to cross into the United States and stay, especially if you are carting kids.
Some minors go it alone, although it seems that most have at least a protector — often the paid coyote, as dubious as such protection might be.
“I am going to turn myself in” at the U.S. border “and pray,” said Eralinda Aguilar, 30, a single mother seated on a rock, her 2-year-old daughter, Ixel, on her lap. Ixel played with a blue stuffed dog and looked sickly, dark circles under her eyes.
“I have faith in God,” Aguilar said.
God and the Americans, it seems.
“We’ve heard that it’s easier now, but it’s not 100% guaranteed,” said Juan Artiaga of the Honduran island of Roatan, two children at his side.
“The Americans treat us fine,” said another Honduran, Genaro Solis, making the trek with his 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, and his wife, Vanessa Flores. “The problem now is the Mexicans.”
The phenomenon of unaccompanied minors, children with a single parent or lone women making the perilous crossing through Mexico from Central America to the United States is at least two decades old. But suddenly it is garnering U.S. headlines, in part because the numbers have shot up and the issue has been politicized in Washington.
In recent days, the Obama administration has recognized it as an “urgent humanitarian issue,” while Republican opponents blame the president for attracting the crowds in the first place by loosening border-crossing restrictions.
On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden, visiting Central America, sought to discourage the word-of-mouth exodus, and the government announced a crackdown on detentions and deportations.
But for those already on the rails, there’s no turning back.
Amalia Diaz, 22, her 5-month-old daughter bundled in a pink hoodie and strapped to her waist (so her hands were free to grab onto the train), said she had an aunt in Houston who had offered her a place to live.
Fourteen-year-old Moises Albarenga, with a mouth full of bright white teeth and a large blue cross around his neck, put on a brave face, insisting that he was not afraid, even as the train he was on moved through the night and he heard screams. He was migrating from Santa Rosa, Honduras, with his mother, Maria, a nurse in her 30s.
“Sometimes I protect her and sometimes she protects me,” Moises said.
Javier Lopez Pacheco, 17 and traveling solo, said a friend had telephoned him to say that minors were being allowed to enter the U.S. for study or work. A bricklayer’s assistant from Copan, Honduras, Lopez said he jumped at the chance. So far he’d been beaten up twice on the train.
Honduran migrants, a group that grew exponentially after the 2009 coup there, travel about 3,000 miles to reach the U.S. border; Salvadorans, roughly the same; Guatemalans, a little less.
The trip can take weeks or months; some get off the train along the way to beg or work, and those with children stop to rest and maybe pick up donated diapers or food before hopping another train.
They ride on the roof, holding on for dear life, the luckier ones wedging themselves between jostling cars. Almost every one of them has had to pay bribes, either to Mexican police, immigration officials or gangs.
In a twist, along some segments of the route, the notorious Zetas drug and extortion paramilitary force has been replaced by members of the equally ruthless Mara Salvatrucha gang, originally from Los Angeles and El Salvador, migrants said. They charge the migrants $100 at each stop, Honduran Jose Eduardo Calix said.
“If you don’t pay, they try to throw you off the train,” Calix, 30, said, adding that he had seen five people shot to death because they didn’t have the money. He was making a return trip north, having been deported 31/2 weeks ago after four years in Sacramento, where he lived with his wife and three children and worked for a veterinarian.
Hoping to stem the flow, Obama spoke by telephone Thursday to his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Peña Nieto, urging him to “target the criminals that lure families to send children on the dangerous journey,” according to a White House statement. In addition, Obama asked Peña Nieto to alert migrants of the “likelihood that they will be returned to Central America,” the White House said.
Mexican officials have been schizophrenic on the issue, sometimes ignoring the migrants and at others abusing them or rounding them up for deportation. Despite receiving substantial U.S. money to toughen its notoriously porous southern frontier, American officials say, Mexico has been reluctant to emulate the kind of U.S.-border crackdown it prefers has frequently criticized.
Many Central Americans detained by Mexican authorities are held in limbo for weeks or months in dank detention facilities, where they say they have been beaten, forced to pay for food and tortured.
As the migration of women and children increases, said the Rev. Alejandro Solalinde, “what is Mexico going to do? Detain them, send them back to their origins so they are exposed and killed?”
Solalinde, a Roman Catholic priest based in Oaxaca and well-known for his work with migrants, has filmed alleged victims of torture or beatings from the detention centers, which are called “migratory stations” by Mexican officials.
“The migratory stations have become maximum-security prisons where migrants are treated like members of organized crime,” Solalinde said this week during several appearances in Mexico City.
Along the difficult route through Mexico, migrants rely on help from priests like Solalinde, church-run shelters and the occasional good Samaritan, such as Adrian Rodriguez.
For the last decade, Rodriguez has been making almost daily trips to the tracks near his home here in Tequixquiac, hauling coffee and bread in the morning and rice and beans around lunchtime. He has fed thousands, including quite a few repeat riders, giving out medicines and donated clothing when he has them.
The other day he ran across a 5-year-old Salvadoran in a Sesame Street T-shirt who had been abandoned by his father, apparently while fleeing a round-up by police. The boy, Fernando, was continuing on alone. Meeting Rodriguez, he begged to use a phone. He had the telephone number of a relative in Atlanta sewn into the waistband of his shorts. He made the call, Rodriguez said, and a few days later hopped a northbound train.
“Sometimes I’m sad to see the train go and never know the fate of those aboard,” Rodriguez said.
He was handing out bread to the two toddlers, Ethan and Jonah, who continued to romp along the tracks.
Then, in the barely formed words of 3-year-olds, they shouted: “The train! The train!”
It was actually just the roar of a distant truck. There would be hours to wait for the train.