McALLEN, TEXAS — We met Carolina while visiting a “welcome center” for recently-processed immigrants at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, Texas. She emerged from a sweltering relief tent that sheltered a handful of other fatigued travelers, most of whom, like her, had been released by Border Patrol just hours prior. She stood what couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, but her weary eyes hinted at her age. She looked tired, but then, she should: she reportedly had just finished a journey of more than a thousand miles, and still had more to go.
Concern has been growing about the ever-increasing number of children and families — including tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors — crossing the U.S.-Mexico border as they flee violence and poverty in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The humanitarian situation has sparked a range of passionate responses across the country, triggering anti-immigrant protests sponsored by various Tea Party groups and calls for compassion from pro-immigrant advocacy organizations and people of faith. The federal government, for its part, is currently engaged in a heated debate over how to deal with the issue; President Barack Obama is seeking $3.7 billion in emergency funds from Congress to help address the surge, but a rival plan unveiled by House Republicans on July 29 asks for a significantly reduced amount — $659 million. Still others in the Obama administration are discussing the possibility of granting Hondurans — and eventually Guatemalans and Salvadorans — formal refugee status, so people can be evacuated directly to the U.S. without having to make the treacherous northward journey.
But too often lost among the drama of Washington political battles are the stories of the actual people crossing the border — men, women, and especially young children who have risked everything to make the dangerous trek to the U.S. People like Carolina.
Speaking through a translator and using exaggerated hand gestures to emphasize her points, Carolina told ThinkProgress how she came to the U.S. from the La Unión municipality of El Salvador, a coastal region nestled next to the eastern border with Honduras. Her 14-year-old daughter, who we will not name for privacy reasons, stood beside her as she talked, and she mentioned another 5-year-old girl, who she said was “over there somewhere, playing,” that also accompanied them on the journey. It was not immediately clear whether or not the second girl was her own daughter, but Carolina referred to her as part of their family unit. We cannot verify the details of her story, only that the families who come to Sacred Heart Church are reportedly bused there after being processed by Border Patrol, and that stories like Carolina’s are all too typical among those at the welcome center.
Why they left
Carolina was quick to explain that she left El Salvador because of a common concern among those fleeing Central America: gang violence.
“The crime, the gangs, it’s terrible, especially with little girls like her,” she said, pointing to her daughter. “I left because of fear, because of threats — threats to mothers, saying that if you don’t go along with [gang members] they’ll take your daughters from you.”
These kinds of horror stories are increasingly the norm among those crossing the U.S. border. In 2012, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala had a higher homicide rate for civilians than Iraq during the height of the Iraq War, a disturbing trend that is almost entirely attributable to an explosion of gang activity in the region. Two of the largest street gangs — MS18 and MS13 — have founded chapters in cities throughout the “northern triangle,” using increasingly brutal tactics to terrorize local populations as they battle for power and turf. In addition to beating or killing young men who refuse to join their ranks, they are known to use rape as a weapon, pushing sexual violence to all-time highs in El Salvador. They regularly force young women to be their “girlfriends,” subjecting them to frequent rape at the hands of one — or often, multiple — gang members.
Carolina said she had seen the tragic impact of such violence firsthand.
“Usually once they take [the girls] they cut their throats,” she said. “They rape them, then they cut their throats. Or if they don’t rape them [and kill them], they leave them pregnant. And if we try to rat them out or go to the police, they’ll kill us. They put us in plastic bags and leave us on the shore.”
“And they leave them pregnant, little girls of her age,” she said, her voice rising. “She’s fourteen.”
Carolina said the journey — with her 14- and 5-year-olds in tow — took 12 days total; nine from El Salvador to Mexico, three from Mexico to the U.S. border. She told us that travel through Mexico was quicker because they rode buses, but hunger remained a constant issue throughout the trip.
“[There were] long days, some days going 12 hours without stopping,” she said. “We had to put up with a lot of hunger. Lack of food. Because on foot, we’d start around 11 at night and we’d go sometimes until 10 in the morning. The whole way we would have to put up with hunger, because they didn’t sell any food on the buses.”
In addition to starvation and exhaustion, Carolina said their travels were also fraught with dangers. She detailed one especially harrowing incident on the Guatemala-Mexico border.
“[We went up] to the border with Mexico. At that point we stopped at the river to cross the water. The water was up to here,” she said, motioning with her hands at her waist. “They put down some little boats, and we rowed them with our hands.”
“Then we were running scared, scared because we could hear gunfire in the distance. One little girl ran out in front, with the rest of us all behind her, all scared. We thought they were going to shoot us from above,” — she waved her hand over her head, mimicking the spin of a helicopter blade — “so we ran out and hid ourselves in the forest. We jumped out of the boats so quickly because we thought the helicopter was going to shoot and maybe even kill us. But the little five-year-old ran ahead of us, [leading us] into the forest.”
Some people who make the journey north enlist the help of so-called “coyotes,” or people paid to guide children and families up through Mexico to the U.S. border. These men can quicken the trip, but at a price: a 2013 report from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lists the average cost of a coyote as somewhere between $5,000-$7,000, or roughly twice the average annual income for a Salvadoran.
(Carolina couldn’t afford a coyote. She couldn’t even afford to bring everyone with her. “I did leave my 12-year-old son in El Salvador … with his father,” she said. “It’s because the money I had…It wasn’t enough to bring him all the way from Mexico to here — we ran out. It’s incredible how much you spend from there to here in Mexico. We spent like 500 dollars!” )
In addition to guidance, travelers who hire coyotes are looking for some modicum of protection from Mexican kidnappers and gangs. These groups — especially Mexico’s infamous Los Zetas drug cartel — are known for extorting, killing, or raping Central American women they capture, and sometimes selling them to sex trafficking rings. But being able to afford a coyote isn’t always a luxury. Many of those who flee from Central America also report that coyotes will sometimes rape the girls they escort, spurring some women to preemptively take contraceptives — often in the form of injections — during their travels as a means of protection.
Carolina said neither she nor her girls had taken contraception, but understood the fear of those who do.
“They do say that when the girls, the young girls, come by those means, that’s when they get raped.”
“It depends on when you come, ” she said. “There are many that do say that they are raped. But we weren’t as afraid of being raped, [because] we came alone. But sometimes when they come with coyotes…”
“They do say that when the girls, the young girls, come by those means, that’s when they get raped.”
Given all these potential dangers, our translator expressed shock that Carolina and her daughters had made the trek by themselves. Carolina shrugged; they had made do by relying on the kindness of strangers, or, as she put it, “Asking, asking, asking.”
What kept Carolina and her girls going in the midst of such hardship? Perhaps it was courage? Raw determination? Maybe religious faith? “The fear,” she said. “The fear of being in El Salvador. The fear. We had to have the courage to come to do this.”
When Carolina and her two young companions finally arrived in Texas, they were quickly apprehended by Border Patrol agents. They were then sent to one of the multiple processing centers along the border, where she and her daughters spent four days in detention with other immigrants. She said her experience with Border Patrol was “more or less good,” although she noted that the food was “really nasty.”
“We slept on the floor,” she said. “It was freezing! And they took all our clothes — everything. The extra clothes we brought. They only left us with the shirts we were wearing. We brought sweaters, caps, but they took everything. We couldn’t change clothes.”
She also corroborated reports of notorious overcrowding at the Border Patrol’s makeshift shelters, where the raw influx of desperate children and families is putting increased strain on federal resources.
“When we got there, there were about 30 [people], but when we left today there were 80,” she said. “It was full! Full! We didn’t fit!”
Carolina’s moment of reflection was powerful, but brief. She and her girls had to catch a bus later that evening, which she said would take them north to stay with a family member before their required court hearing. Someday soon, a judge will decide whether to grant them family asylum as refugees or deport them back to gang-ridden El Salvador. In the meantime, Carolina said she wanted to stay focused on practical matters — although her words seemed tinged with the guilt of leaving behind her son.
“I don’t even want to remember the journey.”
“We’ll see if we can work,” she said. “And we’ll see if we can get our other child back in El Salvador [to come here]. And the girls are going to study.”
When asked whether she would take the journey again, she closed her eyes tightly, pausing for a moment before speaking.
“I don’t even want to remember the journey,” she said sullenly, shaking her head. “When we crossed the border, we were all so afraid, we heard gunshots, and you imagine you’re going to die. It was so awful I don’t want to remember it.”
As we closed the interview, we asked one last question — indirectly — to Carolina’s daughter who stood nearby: what do you want to be when you grow up?
“A teacher,” she said, grinning bashfully and staring at her feet, just like any 14-year-old would.
Few could doubt that this young woman — who has reportedly traveled thousands of miles, endured unspeakable hardships, and learned so many life lessons at such a young age — would have much to teach American students.
But only if she is allowed stay.
Initial translation for this conversation was provided on-site by a volunteer from Sacred Heart Church. Later translation and transcription of the recorded conversation was provided by Arthur Dixon and Alfredo Garcia Mora.