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Children Traveling Solo Across U.S. Border Face Dangerous Trip


On the program yesterday, we heard about a shelter for children in San Antonio, Texas. It used to be a place where mostly kids from the community would show up, but now many of the beds at St. PJ's Children's Home are occupied by kids who came across the Mexican border. After arriving, they had nowhere to turn. Beth Green works at the shelter.

BETH GREEN: We are just seeing unprecedented numbers of children coming across without any kind of parents coming across, or guardians coming across with them.

GREENE: U.S. immigration officials say they expect some 60,000 young, unaccompanied migrants to enter the U.S. illegally this year - mostly coming from Central America. Reporter Sonia Nazario won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of this in the Los Angeles Times. She followed some of these children on their difficult journey north.

SONIA NAZARIO: Many of these children set off on their own with very little money. And so they traveled the only way that they could - through Mexico, gripping onto the tops and sides of these freight trains that travel up the length of the country.

They're facing gangs that control the train tops, and they would go from car to car and say your money or your life and strip you of your clothes, look for coins - sometimes throw you to the wheels below. They face bandits alongside the rails that are doing much the same and they face corrupt cops. I counted a dozen police agencies that would rob these children on these trains. And they face getting on and off of these freight trains as they're moving. So it's incredibly dangerous.

GREENE: That's incredible. I mean, it's incredibly painful just hearing about that. And also, if we're talking about these huge numbers - tens of thousands coming into the United States - if that's only a fraction of the young people who are trying, I mean, these numbers are startling.

NAZARIO: The numbers, just in the last three years, have risen 10 fold. And they're expected to rise to 100, 130 by 2015.

GREENE: Why are the numbers going up?

NAZARIO: In the last few years, what's really been a driving factor has been the increased violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These are really the three countries that these children are coming from. And increasingly, these countries are controlled by gangs. And so a lot of these gangs are going to schools and they're saying to very young children - you will join with me to move drugs, to extort people in your neighborhood, to kill people or I will kill you - I will kill your entire family. They are fleeing for their very lives. And that's really what the UN Human Rights Commission recently found, that six in ten of these children are being forcibly displaced from their countries.

GREENE: If we're dealing with this number of children crossing the border of the United States, is it an exaggeration to say that this or could become a refugee crisis?

NAZARIO: No, I think it could be a refugee crisis. Many of these children are being ordered to go to immigration court. The vast majority of these children - they're not entitled to government appointed attorney, they can't afford one. One study showed that 40 percent of these kids are eligible for some kind of relief to stay here in the United States. But they are largely not getting it. They're being deported back to very dangerous situations, where these children could be killed.

GREENE: It is worth noting, I mean, the U.S. government does seem to have begun to take some steps. I mean, we have seen some emergency shelters set up for these kids. Are those some initial first steps that you think are moving in the right direction?

NAZARIO: You know, I think it's good that the government is dealing with these children once they are here on our doorstep. But that's not giving them any kind of broad, legal remedies. We need to consider something like temporary protected status. That would broaden avenues for these children to be able to stay in the United States, at least temporarily legally, until we can deal with a lot of the root causes of the violence in these countries.

We've been doing things like building walls instead of trying to improve the conditions in these countries. And I think if we promoted more microloans that would help women generate more jobs. If we had trade policies that gave clear preference to these countries that send three quarters of the folks that come here illegally, that would help bolster the economies of these places so more and more people don't feel like they have to resort to gangs to be able to survive.

GREENE: I obviously don't want to belittle this problem or the challenges we're talking about in any way, but those sound like some very significant steps if we're talking about the U.S. government trying to bolster the economies of other countries at a moment when the U.S. government is pretty strained when it comes to foreign policy.

NAZARIO: Well, we are spending $18 billion per year on border enforcement. That's a lot of money. And many people who study this say that if we put a fraction of that towards targeted economic development it would slow the flow much more than that 700 mile-long wall would. So I think it's a matter of how you spend your money.

GREENE: Sonia, thanks very much. We appreciate the time.

NAZARIO: OK. Thank you.

GREENE: Sonia Nazario is the author of "Enrique's Journey," the story of one child trying to reach the United States. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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