Originally Published: March 9, 2005 12:10 a.m.
PHOENIX (AP) — Tighter security on the U.S. border is making it riskier for Central American migrants to go back for their children, prompting thousands of the youths to try the dangerous journey north alone, Mexican officials say.
The number of unaccompanied minors caught in Mexico on their way to the United States shot from 697 in 2003 to 3,722 in 2004, according to figures released in Jaunary by the National Immigration Institute.
But at least part of the wave appears to have reached the United States. The number of minors held in U.S. migrant shelters, most of them Central Americans, rose from 5,000 in 2003 to 6,200 last year, said Wendy Young, director of exterior relations for the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children, an activist group.
Most of the Central American youths are caught long before they reach the U.S. border, either because they run out of cash or because smugglers take their money and abandon them, said Gabriela CoutiIno, a spokeswoman at the migrant detention center in Tapachula, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border.
"This place is starting to look like a kindergarten," CoutiIno said.
Most Central American migrants caught in Mexico are sent to Tapachula, where they are put on buses for home.
The journey to the United States is risky. It requires at least three illegal border crossings, surviving the violent gangs along the Mexican railways and bargaining with ruthless immigrant smugglers.
Hugo Alberto Reyes, 14, of El Carmen, El Salvador, said he was trying to join his mother, a migrant in New York.
He and a 13-year-old traveling companion were caught by Mexican authorities in a train yard soon after crossing Mexico's southern border from Guatemala.
"I thought it would be easier," he said as he shared a package of cookies with other teenagers at the Tapachula detention center. "We didn't really know what we were doing. But my mom sent for me, so I had to go."
Mexican authorities say his case is typical. Almost all the minors they detain come from four countries: Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"There are a lot of cases where the children are trying to join their families," said Mauricio Juarez, a spokesman for the National Immigration Institute, Mexico's immigration agency.
Parents may not be going back themselves because it has become increasingly difficult to cross the U.S. border, he said.
In the past year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has poured millions of dollars into border enforcement, from unmanned planes to longer fences. In Arizona's busy Tucson sector, the U.S. Border Patrol has gotten 200 new agents, 110 agents on loan from other areas, four new helicopters, 28 new Humvees and $1 million in new cameras and sensors.
Smugglers usually charge more for taking children across, said Andy Adame, a spokesman for the Tucson sector.
Because they can't walk as far, most of the youngsters cross closer to cities.
"They're a lot more hassle for the smugglers," Adame said. "When you have to walk five days through the desert, the kids kind of become a liability."
Because of that, the number of kids detained in the dry, barren Tucson sector has remained fairly constant, he said.
In 2003 minors made up 3.7 percent of the 347,263 people detained in the sector. In 2004 they were 3.9 percent of the total, and since October, the start of the new fiscal year, they have been about 5 percent.
But other places have seen a rise.
In what it called "a disturbing trend," the Border Patrol in San Diego reported in January that the number of undocumented children caught on the California-Mexico border rose to 6,478 in fiscal 2004, up 17 percent over the year before.
Meanwhile, more people from Guatemala and Honduras are settling in Arizona, and the Guatemalan government has announced plans to open a consulate in Phoenix.
As the Central American population grows in the United States, Mexican officials say they expect the flood of youths to continue over their southern border.
"These people are desperate," Coutilno said. "It's the economy. Things down there are even worse than here."