Cesar was four years old when a group of men in his tiny hometown killed his father. He was a teenager when he says the same group of men began to threaten his older brother.
At age 17, tired of hiding in his house, Cesar left the poverty, violence and drug gangs of Guatemala behind and set out for the U.S.
“I wanted to escape all of that,” he said. “You arrive at a point where you can take no more.”
He joined a wave of Central American children crossing the U.S. border that is now overwhelming the federal government. Just four years ago, about 6,000 unaccompanied kids crossed the border annually. The numbers jumped in 2011 and have doubled every year since. More than 47,000 “unaccompanied minors” -- kids traveling alone or with other youths -- have been apprehended along the Southwestern border since October, and the number is projected to rise to 10,000 a month by fall. Many are now crowded into holding areas along the border, since U.S. law doesn’t allow unaccompanied minors from Central America to be deported immediately.
Earlier this month, the White House called the influx a humanitarian crisis fueled by increasing violence and instability in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, which have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Widespread poverty, and increasingly unstable states are also fueling migration from the region, some say.
“This crisis to us is like the refugee crisis from Europe after WWII,” said Nancy Langer, interim vice president for mission advancement at Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, an advocacy group that works with migrants. “They cannot go back to their homeland for fear of death, persecution.”
Others say rumors and lax enforcement are driving the growing numbers. An internal report from Customs and Border Protection, recently made public by Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, cited interviews with 230 immigrants detained at the border in May. According to the memo, detainees said they migrated because of a “new” U.S. “law” giving a “free pass” to unaccompanied children and mothers with children.
"To reject out of hand the notion that perception of lax enforcement is not a motivator is naive at best and destructive at worst," said Sen. Jeff Flake, R.-Arizona.
But in a 2011 report prepared by researchers at the U.N.’s refugee agency, the unaccompanied minors gave their own menu of reasons for leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The study noted only one instance in 404 interviews in which a child specifically mentioned the possibility of benefitting from U.S. immigration reform.
Many kids cited the dissolution of family networks, or a desire to reunite with family in the U.S., but violence was a recurrent theme. Many young girls reported being victims of sexual violence, including rape and assault by gang members. Both boys and girls talked of forced recruitment by street gangs and transnational drug cartels, and some had witnessed murders of family members, friends and classmates. The violence has spread from urban centers like Guatemala City to rural villages. Cesar said he “barely left the house” despite living far out in the countryside.
“I’ve had parents, and even some of the children tell me, ‘There is no childhood here,’” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright scholar who is currently researching the causes of child migration in Central America. “There’s not any calculated attempt to game the system. There’s just one last attempt to survive, and try to have some quality of life.”
In order to survive, however, the kids head north, and their escape is fraught with its own dangers.
'There's No Future in Honduras'
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Ruby, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, left western Honduras less than a year ago, but her eyes still go wide as she recounts her 1,600 mile journey. The 15-year-old says she and one of her sisters slept in the brush, walked through deserts, were captured by kidnappers and held in a trailer, and eventually picked up the U.S. Border Patrol in Texas.
“You have to risk yourself,” said Ruby. “There’s no future in Honduras.”
Ruby was barely school age when her father abandoned their family. Her older sister, Ana, left soon after for the U.S. For about 10 years, as violence escalated in Honduras and work became increasingly illusive, Ana supported the family by cleaning houses in the U.S. and sending money home. But it wasn’t enough.
Ruby was pregnant when she left, and hoped that the U.S. might mean a better life for her unborn baby.
“There’s a lot of crime, a lot of narcotraffickers [in Honduras],” she said. “They kidnap people. Adults and children, old people, to get money. People who have nothing. It doesn’t matter to them. The police do nothing.”
A country of just 8 million, Honduras boasts the world’s highest per capita homicide rate, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people, according to U.N. figures. An estimated 270 Honduran children were killed within the first three months of 2014 according to Casa Alianza, a nonprofit that works with children across Latin America. Experts on the region say this helps explain why an estimated 8,000 children flee the country unaccompanied each year.
“The police are overwhelmingly corrupt, as is the judicial system and prosecutors,” said Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has written widely on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras. “There's near complete impunity, which means anybody can kill anybody they want, and nothing will happen to them.”
Honduran authorities in the U.S. did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The route north is well known, as are its perils. Families in both Central America and the U.S. pay thousands of dollars to smugglers, known as “coyotes,” who promise to help individuals cross the border. Those promises are often broken. Young women are at great risk for assault or sex trafficking. Children can be robbed, assaulted or murdered. Gang networks have come to see these migrants as a source of income. They kidnap the migrants and extort their families for money, threatening harm or death to those whose loved ones cannot pay.
Ruby left her hometown in western Honduras last fall with her sister, Maira, a cousin and the cousin’s two small children. They got as far as Mexico, then were detained and returned to Honduras.
On their second try, Ruby and her companions reached the Mexican side of the Texas border. A group of people befriended them and offered to help them cross the Rio Grande river. Ruby and the other girls got into a small boat, as two cars waited on the opposite bank.
Suddenly the mood changed, recalled Ruby. The people roughly ordered Ruby and the others into the cars. “They forced us to climb in,” Ruby remembered. “They were very angry. Acting really ugly.” The kidnappers took them to a trailer behind a house in southern Texas, and ordered Ruby to call her sister Ana in Maryland and ask for $4,000.
Said Ruby, “They dialed the number for me to tell her to send the money or else they would kill me.”
Ruby reached her sister Ana in Maryland, but could barely deliver her plea for help.
“I was so afraid all I could do was cry,” Ruby said.
Ruby says she and the others spent two weeks locked in the trailer as the kidnappers tried to extract money from her family. They were able to run away during a moment when their captors weren’t paying attention. They reached a bus station, and called Ana, who told them to ask for help. Border Patrol officers came and took Ruby and the other girls into custody.
Cesar says he also found kidnappers waiting near the border. He’d already been robbed on the way north from Guatemala, and had no ransom to offer, but the kidnappers held him for three days until he was able to run away.
Like Ruby, he wound up in the hands of U.S. authorities, and then entered their system for processing minors. Once Immigration and Customs Enforcement realized he was under 18 -- which took a month -- ICE transferred him to the arm of the Department of Health and Human Services charged with caring for the flood of young migrants.
'We Are Good People'
While children from Mexico or Canada can be returned to their own countries immediately, children from other nations must go through a more elaborate immigration process before they are either deported or granted some sort of relief from deportation.
By law, within 72 hours children must be moved into a shelter system that extends from Texas to Oregon to New York City and is managed by an arm of the Department of Health and Human Services. Within a few weeks, authorities work to find a sponsor, often a family member or friend, or a foster parent, who they live with as they go through immigration proceedings, which can take months or years.
Most of the shelters are run by non-profits and private agencies, but as the tide of underage migrants has grown the government has scrambled to open additional emergency facilities in Texas, California and Oklahoma, even appropriating a shuttered military base.
Cesar, who arrived in the U.S. in 2011, was transferred to the custody of an uncle in Maryland while his deportation case moved through the system. On his own initiative, he then contacted an organization called Kids in Need of Defense, which connected him with a pro bono lawyer at the D.C. law firm Kirkland & Ellis. He applied for, and was granted, a special kind of relief available to children who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned by a parent. He is now in the process of applying for a “green card” -- official permanent residency.
After staying in a shelter, Ruby moved in with a foster family, and then traveled to Maryland to join her sister Ana. Ana is now Ruby’s sponsor as she goes through proceedings. She has an attorney, and is petitioning for deportation relief.
Ruby gave birth to a baby girl in April, and she and her infant now live in a small white house outside Baltimore with Ana and her family.
Ana knows that families like hers are at the center of a national debate about immigration.
“We don’t ask for anything, just to work,” Ana said. “We are good people. We don’t mean harm to anyone.”
Cesar is now 20 and in high school, seeking to finish by 2015. Because his education ended early he spoke poor Spanish, and had a lot of reading, writing, and grammar to learn. Now he's learning English too. His dream is to go to college.
Said Cesar, "To live again like I lived before, that would be horrible. If you've escaped where you are, you don't want to go back. You need to go forward."
"I'm fighting. I'm fighting for an important goal."
Lisa Riordan Seville
Lisa Riordan Seville is a reporter and producer with the NBC News Investigative Unit.
Rappleye is a reporter with the Investigative Unit at NBC News, covering immigration, criminal justice and human rights issues.