Four Years After Teen Crosses Border: "I Have No Regrets"

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Lorena Rodriguez rarely thinks about the harrowing trip from a small village in El Salvador to the Boston suburb she now calls home. She's too excited planning the upcoming party for her 15th birthday or "quinces," a right of passage for many Latinas. "I'm going to celebrate with my whole family," she said.

Four years ago, the then 11-year-old girl left her mother behind and boarded a bus with her older sister Francisca in the middle of the night. Behind they also left the father who verbally and physically abused them and the gangs that threatened to rob and rape them, sometimes knocking on their door, screaming loud threats.

Lorena Rodriguez at 12. She was interviewed by NBC News then after she had crossed the border fleeing violence in El Salvador and had been reunited with an older sister in Massachusetts.Courtesy of Lorena Rodriguez

Lorena recalled sobbing for hours as images of Santa Ana, the town where she grew up, faded in the darkness. The tears stopped when they got to the Guatemala-Mexico border and were told to be quiet and climb into a truck compartment with about 13 people. "I was very nervous," Lorena said. Smugglers known as coyotes dropped off the group at a rural Mexican house Lorena describes as “ugly and dark” to await instructions on the toughest part of the journey, crossing the Rio Grande.

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After almost a month in the stash house, the sisters found themselves in the dark of night holding on to an inner tube as they battled the currents. They made it across and walked wet until they reached Hidalgo, Texas. That's where U.S. border agents detained them and sent then to an immigrant shelter in Brownsville, one of the many crowded South Texas facilities that house thousands of children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied and undocumented every year.

The moment they got permission to make a phone call, Lorena dialed her oldest sister Maria Marisol in Everett, Massachusetts, who had not heard from them since they left El Salvador two months earlier. Lorena had memorized the number knowing that she may not be able to carry even a piece of paper in her journey. Maria Marisol answered relieved. Her sisters had survived the dangerous crossing. “I never lost faith that we would make it,” said Lorena's sister Francisca.

The children's advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense, known as KIND, helped the sisters find an attorney who would help them be reunited. Boston attorney Carlos Maycotte worked on the case pro bono. "These are really good kids and they just deserve a chance," he said.

The sisters were lucky. Advocates say only 50 percent of unaccompanied children who cross find legal representation.

14-year-old Lorena RodriguezCourtesy of Lorena Rodriguez

NBC News interviewed Lorena in 2012 as part of in depth coverage on the more than 13,000 unaccompanied minors crossing the border then. That number has more than tripled this fiscal year, with 38,242 of these children on the run being picked up by border patrol by May 31st.

“We are facing a refugee-like crisis," said Megan McKenna, KIND's Communications Director. "These thousands of children are coming alone to the United States to seek safety from increasing violence in Central America - particularly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador -- which is driven largely by gangs, narco-traffickers, and other criminal groups that prey on these children."

The soon-to-be ninth grader is already making plans for college. "When I grow up I want to be an attorney."

Asked now if her perilous journey was worth risking her life, Lorena says she has no regrets. "I'm growing, doing really well and I will soon be going to high school!," said the excited 14 year old, who lives with Maria Marisol and Francisca in a townhouse. Four years after arriving in Massachusetts, Lorena speaks English fluently. "English is my favorite subject," she said, adding that she loves school.

The soon-to-be ninth grader is already making plans for college. "When I grow up I want to be an attorney."