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Crossing the Border as an Unaccompanied Child

For unaccompanied migrant children, the only thing harder than crossing the border is the journey back home.
A migrant child watches behind the main door of a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, where he's taken a rest during his attempt to reach the border between Mexico and the United States.

A migrant child watches behind the main door of a shelter in Tapachula, Mexico, where he's taken a rest during his attempt to reach the border between Mexico and the United States.

Hernan is 14, the eldest of five children in a family from Veracruz, one of Mexico's poorest states. His mom runs the house, his dad works the farm, but "sometimes the crops just don't grow," he says. His parents struggle to buy enough rice and beans to sustain the family day to day. "We don't have an economy," he says. "We barely have anything."

That's why Hernan made his plan: He would travel 1,500 miles north and cross the United States border, where he planned to meet his uncle, who works for a restaurant in North Carolina. The hope was to get a job, earn some money, and send it back home. "It was my idea," Hernan says. "I wanted to come."

But Hernan's plan didn't work out. After several days of broken buses and cold, wet nights camping in the rain, U.S. Border Patrol caught Hernan in the Arizona desert in mid-January. He was deported and sent to Camino a Casa, a Mexican government-funded shelter in Nogales, Sonora, that temporarily houses migrant and refugee children. "Our goal is to reunite them with their family," says shelter coordinator Alfredo Mora Barrientos. Unless the child faces danger or abuse, it's the best option for kids, he says. "We talk to them about the fact that there's really no better place that they could be than next to their families in their places of origin."

Every day, dozens, even hundreds, of children like Hernan cross the U.S. border without a parent or guardian beside them. The Department of Homeland Security deems them "unaccompanied children." Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, Mexican children caught at the border are screened within 48 hours. If they face no credible risks against life or limb, they are promptly returned to Mexico. Kids from non-contiguous countries—say, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador—are referred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, where they are screened and subsequently placed in "the least restrictive setting possible"—a relative's home, foster care, or an ORR shelter. For months, even years, they navigate the long legal process that will determine whether they can stay in the U.S.

"I've been an attorney for 30 years, and I still get nervous walking into a courtroom in front of a judge I don't know. So you can only imagine how difficult it is for these kids."

From October of 2016 through February of 2017, Border Patrol apprehended 27,591 unaccompanied children—an average of nearly 200 children per day. Since Donald Trump took office, however, those apprehensions have dropped markedly. Many migrants from Mexico have said they are now wary about crossing into the U.S., citing changes in American immigration policy under Trump; some said they were instead considering an attempt to enter Canada.

Meanwhile, Trump wants to overhaul the whole American immigration system, and it could become a lot tougher for children to steer through U.S. immigration law.

Many children who have a parent somewhere on American soil could lose their "unaccompanied" designation if Trump's executive orders on border security are implemented. This means children could be sent into immigration courtrooms that DHS deems "adversarial" and "defensive." Or they might face expedited removal, which could put them briefly in DHS custody until they are sent home without even minimal investigation as to whether that home is safe, says Maria Woltjen, executive director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children's Rights.

In March, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly told CNN that he was considering separating children from their parents at the border. Kelly's proposal immediately rankled child advocates who said his assertions ran contrary to children's best interests. "We are deeply concerned that the separation of children from their parents is being considered," Unicef USA President and CEO Caryl Stern said in a statement. "We implore U.S. leadership to consider the safety and well-being of all children."

The DHS later said it would not routinely separate families except under extenuating circumstances such as illness or injury, says David Lapan, acting deputy assistant secretary of DHS public affairs. DHS aims to discourage migrants from even beginning the perilous trek to the border, Lapan says. "The journey north is dangerous, and children risk exploitation, abuse, and even death."

Still, Woltjen worries that child migrants and their parents could be separated in individual cases. That has happened in the past for various reasons, she says, and the Young Center has been appointed as a "Child Advocate" to represent those children. The separation from family compounds the trauma they faced in their homeland. "They are absolutely tragic cases. The kids are devastated," she says.

Currently, unaccompanied minors who are placed in ORR shelters receive health care, three meals a day, some education on site, and legal guidance. They also have the chance to talk with asylum officers trained to interview children. "The kids get a chance to tell their stories," Woltjen says. Children are also given time to decompress while shelter personnel work to determine whether the children have family in the U.S. who can care for them.

If Trump's orders are implemented, children who lose their "unaccompanied" status would face much harsher legal proceedings. They could still apply for asylum, "but now it's in front of an immigration judge who sits on a dais in a very formal courtroom," Woltjen says, "and they are opposed by an attorney for [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]."

"[It's] incredibly intimidating and traumatizing," she says. "I've been an attorney for 30 years, and I still get nervous walking into a courtroom in front of a judge I don't know. So you can only imagine how difficult it is for these kids."

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When I meet Hernan, he's been at Camino a Casa for nearly a week. He's made a bevy of friends who play soccer in the shelter's courtyard. Hernan failed his attempt at a new life north of the border, but he's lucky. He never set foot in a courtroom. He's safe, he has a home, and his parents await him. He called his mom and dad on their shared neighborhood phone and they told Hernan: "Don't worry, you know we will get you back here. We will get you to Veracruz."

Was the journey worth the risk? "No," Hernan says. "It was really tough."

He bought a bus ticket to Nogales, but the bus broke down three times. So he got another ticket for another bus but that one broke down too. It took three days to reach Nogales, where he finally met his "smuggler" who would guide him across the border. He waited four days in a hotel with seven other men until a car came.

The group drove 20 minutes down a freeway, then turned down a dirt road. It was dark, around midnight. They parked and walked 500 meters, then slept near the border overnight. "The following day," Hernan says, "we had to spend the entire day in the desert because there was Border Patrol on the line." Night came, and the group slept again. At nine or 10 the next morning, the migrants moved. They were somewhere on the far edge of Nogales, up in the hills, where the fence is only barbed wire. The guys—they were all adults except Hernan—walked 200 meters on the U.S. side until they spotted Border Patrol in the distance and turned the other way. At 6 p.m., the group slept. All the next day, they hiked until they found big rocks to huddle beneath, protected from a steady rain.

"We were all wet, soaked," Hernan says. But they filled their bottles in the downpour, and their staccato journey—hike, rest, hike again—continued another day.

"We were about to reach the road, the freeway," Hernan says, but everyone was tired. Their sweat turned cold, and their feet ached inside soggy socks. They stopped to eat high on a hill where they could see Border Patrol coming their way. The guide went ahead up another hill and told Hernan and his companions to wait. But 20 minutes later, Hernan learned the truth: The guide had abandoned the group, leaving them on their own. He didn't know what to do. "We saw immigration coming. We didn't do anything. We just stayed there, and we waited. We were not going to carry on, on our own, because we didn't know the path. And they caught us."

Border Patrol took Hernan and the others into a van and drove 20 minutes or so to "somewhere"—he didn't know where. "They say: Take out everything you have in your backpack.... Throw away whatever you don't want. They just left us with a shirt and our pants." They patted him down, sent him to an office, then gave him a thermal blanket, a burrito, cookies, and juice. After 20 or 30 minutes an officer called Hernan's name and took his picture. "I said: 'I have a question: When are you going to take me to Mexico? And, you know, when will I be able to talk to my parents?'" They told him it would be a couple of hours. "Then a man came over and gave me papers to sign, to be deported."

"Some of them, they have wounds on their feet, blisters. Others present some symptoms of dehydration."

The officers returned his backpack and belongings, wrote a receipt, then "put me in a car and drove me all the way over here, to Nogales." Hernan was taken to Mexican immigration authorities who fed him a burger and juice, then swiftly sent him to Camino a Casa.

The shelter, equipped for 100 kids, takes in at least one new child every day, Barrientos says, but he's anticipating changes under Trump. At first, he thinks deportations might decrease because fear will initially deter kids from migrating. But in time, "the deportations could increase," and the Mexican government is preparing for day-to-day fluctuations. One key step is to expedite the paperwork for processing children and reuniting them with their families.

I ask Barrientos about the children's state of health when they arrive. "It will depend on how long they walk," he says. "Some of them, they have wounds on their feet, blisters. Others present some symptoms of dehydration." The shelter provides 24-hour access to medical care. But the bigger problems are often psychological, he says, because the kids are migrating "with a mentality, that idea that they're going to make it. They have the dream, they imagine, they see themselves already: They are getting a job, sending money back home, reuniting with their family. And when that ends, that's a big psychological damage for them."

Hernan says he will return to Veracruz, where he'll study and play soccer with his friends. He's been thinking about his family's land, 22 acres, and maybe they could "buy some animals and, you know, work with that." He seems optimistic. And he's done with the desert—he has no desire to attempt another crossing. All he wants to do is go home, get back to school, and hit the soccer field in Veracruz.

But every day, dozens of other kids set foot on the journey of a lifetime, toting little more than a backpack and a bottle of water as they step into the expansive desert that separates the stories they leave behind from the dreams they dare to chase.

The International Women's Media Foundation supported the reporting for this story.