Heidy Cabrera said she was finishing her shift at a supermarket checkout counter in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, when her mother called to deliver the news. Her boyfriend, Diego, had been killed on the way home from his construction job -- shot in the head 40 times.
Seven months later, with his murder unsolved, Cabrera, 22, got on a bus and left Honduras. She had her eight-year-old son Eduardo in tow and was pregnant with Diego’s child, who was born after she crossed into Mexico.
“I no longer felt safe living in my neighborhood,” Cabrera said, sitting on a bed at a shelter for migrants in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula while cradling 16-day-old Cristopher in her arms earlier this month. “My friends have also had family members killed. These kind of things happen all the time. I want a good life for my children in the U.S., one without crime.”
Cabrera and her sons represent one of the biggest shifts in immigration to the U.S., one that has been overlooked in a debate about the arrival of unaccompanied children. The number of families apprehended at the southwest border, the primary point of entry for immigrants from Central America, surged sixfold this year, almost exceeding the number of unaccompanied minors, which doubled.
The Senate yesterday advanced legislation to provide $2.7 billion in emergency spending to cope with the surge in child migrants, less than the $3.7 billion President Barack Obama requested. Republican leaders in the House of Representatives today canceled a scheduled vote on a $659 million measure due to lack of support from party members.
The House bill contained a provision sought by Republicans which would change a 2008 law, enacted to prevent sex trafficking, by making it easier to send children back to their native countries. Senate Democrats oppose such a change. Congress is poised to leave for its five-week recess tomorrow without an agreement.
Honduras has been the biggest source of immigrant families picked up at the U.S. border this year, exceeding the combined total of the next three largest countries -- El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Fueled by street gangs that extort businesses and have connections to drug cartels, murders in Honduras reached 6,757 in 2013, or about 19 per day in a country of 8.4 million people. New York City, with a similar population, recorded less than one murder per day last year.
“Three or four years ago, you would have one member of the family leaving, saying ‘I can’t stay in my country because there’s no work and I hear there’s a lot of violence,’” said Diego Lorente, director of the Fray Matias Human Rights Center in Tapachula, which helps immigrants seeking asylum in Mexico. “Now you have complete families coming, directly affected, saying ‘The gang came, they killed two family members, and we all had to flee.’”
The number of families apprehended at the southwest border with the U.S. rose to 55,420 in the nine months through June, from 9,350 a year earlier, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The number of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border more than doubled over the same period to 57,525.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency within the Department of Homeland Security, last month converted a law enforcement housing facility in Artesia, New Mexico to accommodate families in order to process their cases faster. Another facility near San Antonio is being converted for women and children. Previously the only facility for families, with a capacity for 97 people, was in Pennsylvania.
Under the 2008 law designed to counter sex trafficking, unaccompanied children picked up at the U.S. border are entitled to a legal hearing to determine whether they can stay in the country. That process can take more than a year. Families are usually deported more quickly since an adult relative is with the child, said Wendy Feliz, director of communications at the American Immigration Council, which advocates on behalf of immigrants.
“The kids have a protection in place,” she said in a phone interview from Washington. “Those are more careful processes than what we have for families.”
Jose Quintanilla, 16, said he left his home in the coffee-growing state of Lempira in western Honduras three months ago after a gang shot and killed a boy he knew for refusing to join them. After spending his 16th birthday at the Buen Pastor shelter for migrants in Tapachula, Quintanilla said he’s ready to move on to the U.S.
“My parents were upset because they thought I could be kidnapped or something would happen to me on the way,” said Quintanilla. “I had already decided, live or die, whatever might happen, I was going to leave.”
For Heidy Cabrera, the journey out of Honduras began with a two-day bus trip through Guatemala, where she feared she or her elder son Eduardo would be assaulted. After arriving at the Mexican border, she paid to cross a 50-meter (164-foot) stretch of the Suchiate River aboard a raft.
Friends were waiting for her on the other side. In contrast to the six-meter-tall fence that awaits immigrants along stretches of the Mexican border with the U.S., there were no barriers or guards to ask her for paperwork.
A visit last week to a spot near Ciudad Hidalgo, close to where Cabrera crossed, found no security personnel on either side of the river, which could be crossed on rafts made of plywood attached to two inflated inner tubes for a fee of 20 pesos ($1.52). In drier winter months, the water level recedes, and the river can be crossed on foot.
When local and state police do show up, it’s usually to charge travelers, including immigrants, a bribe for crossing, said one of the raft captains, who called himself Peluco.
“There’s really no obstacle to people crossing on the rafts,” Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, who visited the border area earlier this year, said in a phone interview. “The Mexican border with Guatemala probably looks almost everywhere the way it does in the very most remote parts of the U.S. border.”
The rafts, floating within 100 meters of a bridge that’s monitored by Mexican authorities, are also used by Guatemalans to come to Mexico, buy products like soda and fuel in bulk and ferry them over to the Guatemalan side for sale, avoiding the scrutiny and taxes faced at the bridge and other official checkpoints.
Mexico has managed to prevent and contain an “important volume” of undocumented migrants heading to the U.S., according to an e-mailed statement from the Interior Ministry’s press office. The government is also working to improve issuance of temporary and worker visas to ensure immigrants are following the law, it said.
The nation returned 38,959 undocumented foreigners to their home countries this year through May, an increase of 7.4 percent from the same period last year. The number of minors returned has more than doubled to 6,227.
A lack of infrastructure on the country’s southern border makes it difficult to fully control the flow of migrants. There are 11 formal points of entry along the 1,149 kilometer southern frontier, and more than 370 “informal” entry points, the ministry said.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong has pledged to stop immigrants from riding “La Bestia,” a cargo train boarded by immigrants heading toward the U.S. border.
Tighter border security would crush the economy of Tapachula, a city of more than 300,000 that depends on Guatemalans crossing the border to make purchases at retailers like Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s Sam’s Club and Organizacion Soriana SAB, Lorente of the human rights center said. The governments of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador need aid from the U.S. and other nations to help root out crime and develop better opportunities for their citizens, he said.
“If we don’t solve the problem of development, people are going to keep coming, no matter what you put in their way,” Fernando Protti Alvarado, the regional representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a phone interview from Panama City. “The poverty, inequality and violence are such that people don’t have other options.”
At Buen Pastor, which means “Good Shepherd” in Spanish, migrants sleep on metal-frame beds lined up in parallel, with pink and polka-dot sheets and pillowcases. The walls of the shelter, founded in 1990 and supported by donations and volunteers, are adorned with pictures of Jesus and the Catholic Virgin of Guadalupe. Immigrants are given meals, a place to wash their laundry and can learn skills like sewing and working with computers.
From the shelter, the travel for migrants heading north can become more perilous. Mexico’s deportation efforts have intensified along Highway 200, which winds north through Chiapas state to the town of Arriaga, where immigrants can board “La Bestia.”
About 30 kilometers northwest of Tapachula along the highway, cars pass through an immigration checkpoint where navy guards are stationed, and a few kilometers later is a smaller roadside checkpoint with Federal Police wearing fatigues and carrying rifles.
Law enforcement efforts along the highway send immigrants into the jungle to bypass the checkpoints, where they can fall prey to criminal gangs, Lorente said. Instead of rounding up immigrants who do use the roads, police often accept bribes to let them continue on, Lorente said.
While Cabrera knows she doesn’t want to return to Honduras, she isn’t sure how she’s going to get to the U.S. With an infant and an eight-year-old son, the risks of taking “La Bestia” or trying to cross the Arizona desert seem too high, she said. Her plan is to apply for asylum in Mexico and then attempt to get a visa for the U.S., she said in an July 21 interview. Three days later, Cabrera and her sons had moved out of Buen Pastor. Staff responding to a reporter’s telephone call said they didn’t know where she had gone.
If immigrants manage to reach northern Mexico, they face new dangers, with drug cartels controlling much of the southern side of the Mexico-U.S. border and frequently extorting immigrants.
“The hardest thing for the children who arrive here is thinking about the next step,” said Ramon Verdugo, 45, who runs the Todos Por Ellos shelter in Tapachula. Only about one-sixth of the people who have arrived at the shelter since he opened it about five years ago have decided to attempt continuing on to the U.S., he said.
“I show them videos about the dangers -- deportation, executions of women and children by the narcos,” Verdugo said.
The immigrants who want to continue tell him they can dodge the hazards.
“They think ‘That kind of thing happens to someone else, not to me,’” Verdugo said.
Quintanilla, who wants to study to be an auto mechanic, said that he’s determined to travel on to the U.S. While he wants to join two high school friends who crossed the border and now work in construction in Los Angeles, he also knows children his age who have been caught and sent back to Honduras.
For now, Quintanilla contemplates his next steps while taking refuge in the garden at Buen Pastor.
“I’m worried that the U.S. will have me returned to Honduras because they don’t want more Central Americans,” he said. “It doesn’t matter. If I get sent back, I’ll try again. There are experiences you have to endure to realize a dream.”