For Child Migrants, Crossing the Border is Risky – But Staying Home Is Worse

The Rio Grande is no place for kids. Yet they keep coming, many of them swimming from Mexico to Texas to escape far greater threats in their home countries. In Laredo, a Texas border town that’s recorded 33 immigrant drownings in the past nine months, Fusion’s Jorge Ramos saw the dangers of Rio Grande — known in Mexico as the “Rio Bravo,” or Furious River — firsthand.

“It looks calm on top, but underneath there’s a lot of branches with a lot of debris,” said Berin Salas, Supervising Agent for the Border Patrol in Laredo. “If you’re not wearing a flotation device, you could get sucked under and that’s where a lot of people, they end up ultimately paying that sacrifice, drowning or what have you.”

The river runs more than 1,800 miles between Mexico and the United States, right through the areas that have seen the bulk of the unaccompanied minors crossing the border and creating a new immigration crisis. Since October, 57,000 Central American children have entered the United States across the southern border. That’s roughly double the total from last year. And those are just the official numbers. Before migrants arrive at the border, they face starvation, violence, heat, and worse on their journey north.

So why are more children coming than ever before? Most are escaping Latin America’s most dangerous countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Their daily lives are scarred by gangs, drugs, and extreme poverty. Confronted by gangs at a young age, many Central American kids must face a choice early on: a life of crime, or no life at all.

“[Gangs] go to schools, elementary schools, and they tell 10- and 11-year-old boys, ‘You’re going to join with us, and you’re going to help us do all this, or we’re going to kill you, we’re going to kill your family, we’re going to rape your sister,'” said journalist Sonia Nazario, who won a Pulitzer Prize covering this crisis. “So many of them are fleeing for their very lives, they’re fleeing forced gang recruitment.”

More and more, these migrants are being referred to as refugees. Ramos talked to one 15-year-old boy who crossed the Rio Grande after he received just such a gang threat, and after he watched gang members murder a friend for resisting. A mother and two daughters took the same journey for the same reasons.

“When they said they would kill us… it scared me so much,” said the mother, Elizabeth. “And so then I decided I had to go.” Paralyzed by fear, they waited for four days on the Mexican side of the river. Then, they said a prayer and swam across.

There’s another reason why the surge of kids won’t stop: they know the U.S. won’t deport them, at least not right away. President Bush signed a law in 2008 requiring child migrants from Central American countries to be kept in the United States until they’re given a hearing. But the immigration system is so overloaded that thousands of children end up staying here for years — a situation that encourages other children to follow.

Fixes for the immigration mess appear unlikely to come from Washington, where the political debate may be more toxic than the murkiest part of the river. Little is being done to address the roots of the crisis. So the children keep coming.