A barefoot 16-year-old boy fidgets as he recounts how he and two fellow Honduran companions tried to sneak into the United States but instead landed in a Guatemalan shelter for migrants and refugees.
The day before, police rescued Emilio and the other two from a man who bought them from a smuggler and locked them in a house in Guatemala City. He then threatened to kill them, they say, unless their families back in Honduras paid him $2,000 each.
Emilio says he's still determined to get to the United States, but he looks worried when he's asked why he would set out on such a dangerous journey through Mexico. Emilio whips his head toward the Rev. Juan Luis Carbajal, the Catholic priest who runs the Guatemala City shelter.
"The road is dangerous?" Emilio asks him.
Emilio is as clueless as he and his 18-year-old companions are desperate to escape Honduras and get to the United States. Intent on escaping the grinding poverty and out-of-control gangs at home, thousands of migrant children from Central America are running headlong into the risk of assault and kidnapping a long way to perceived freedom.
Still, the promise of reaching the United States is so intense that it's driving a shocking surge in migration north by children unaccompanied by their parents. Their exodus has become a full-blown humanitarian crisis for Congress and the Obama administration to deal with this summer, and it could force some deal-making if lawmakers want to avoid hurting kids.
President Obama last week asked Congress for emergency supplemental spending of $3.7 billion to cope with a wave of an estimated 52,000 children who have crossed the border. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the extra money was an "absolute necessity," as agencies in his department will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year. "Doing nothing is not an option," Johnson told the committee.
The request immediately became mired in a partisan debate over the nation's immigration policy and border security, although a few Republicans from border states appear interested in approving some additional spending.
There is no dispute, however, about the magnitude of the migration or the dangers that children face on the journey. Gangs kidnap, assault or threaten thousands of migrants every year in Mexico — others are simply killed or disappear — and federal and state authorities are frequently implicated in abuses, too, according to Amnesty International. The extortion attempt Emilio and his companions describe is commonplace in Mexico.
The freight trains that migrants frequently ride atop in crossing Mexico to reach the Texas border are notoriously dangerous, too. Many migrants fall off. Just last week, one such cargo train carrying 1,300 migrants derailed in southern Mexico, although no injuries were reported.
But like the other teenagers, Emilio, a fifth-grade dropout, had no job back in Honduras, and he says he often went hungry.
"Being in Honduras, because we don't have jobs, it occurred to us that it was easier to just mug someone," he says, speaking through an interpreter. Emilio — not his real name — adds that he didn't steal, just that it was the only alternative he and other young Hondurans have. "When we were hungry, we endured it. ... Some days, you would eat. Other days, you wouldn't."
At the shelter in Guatemala City, Carbajal has seen about 70 to 80 such migrants already this year, more than all of last year. A native of Mexico who studied at a Chicago seminary and once ministered to farm workers in Canada, Carbajal says immigrants in the United States have been spreading the word "that there is easy access to the U.S." and that minors are now treated more leniently than adults, or, as Carbajal puts it, there is a more "lawful" immigration process for minors than for adults.
"Somehow they shared the news with their places of origin, and this woke up a wave," Carbajal says. "People felt they should just go because it was easier."
Carbajal's account appears to bolster complaints by Obama's critics that the administration's immigration policies, including the practice of reuniting captured migrant children with relatives in the United States while they await deportation proceedings, have helped fuel the surge of migrants. Administration officials insist that they are following a 2008 sex-trafficking law — signed by President George W. Bush — that gives additional legal protections against immediate deportation to child migrants who aren't from Mexico or Canada.
The U.S. Border Patrol has captured more than 52,000 unaccompanied young migrants since last October, double the number apprehended in the same period a year earlier. The data include Mexican citizens, but the increase has come entirely from three Central American countries: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Carbajal, who calls the situation a "forced migration," insists that the broader immigration problem stems from pervasive violence, deep poverty and economic inequality that plagues Central America, which matches the reasons the administration and many Democrats cite for the influx.
"It's not fun or tourism. It's a way to survive and to find in other lands what they can't find here," Carbajal says, adding that "militarizing" the U.S. border won't solve the problem. "We need projects for development to actually relieve this situation."
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, nearly five times that of Mexico and twice that of Detroit. The Department of State's travel warning for the country says that even the national police are known to commit murder and homicide. More than half of the citizens of Honduras and Guatemala live on less than $4 a day, and Guatemala has one of the world's worst malnutrition problems: About half of all Guatemalans suffer from moderately or severely stunted growth.
Aggressive recruiting by smugglers, known as "coyotes," also feeds the increased migration. A leader in Guatemala's western highlands — a coffee-growing region near the Mexican border that was hit hard by a decades-long civil war and is now a major source of U.S. immigrants — blames smugglers for the current increase. The smugglers openly advertise over the radio and also hand out cards to prospective clients. But the rate the coyotes charge is so high — nearly $6,500 per person — that parents can't afford to go with a child, says Pedro Raymundo Cobo, the mayor of Nebaj, a municipality that includes the city of Nebaj and two dozen nearby communities.
"We have children from 12 to 14 years of age that are going," the mayor says. "The parents cannot go with them."
What neither the mayor nor the priest mentions is that migration brings a huge economic benefit to governments, communities and families throughout Central America because of the money, or remittances, that immigrants send home once they find jobs in the United States.
The impact is evident in areas such as Nebaj, where U.S. officials point out the larger, sturdier concrete houses that dot the region. Those are typically built with remittances the families have received, they note.
Guatemala received an estimated $5.4 billion in remittances last year, El Salvador $4.2 billion, and Honduras $3.2 billion, according to World Bank data. The contribution to the local economies is huge. In 2012, remittances accounted for 16.5 percent of El Salvador's gross domestic product, 15.7 percent of Honduras' and 10 percent of Guatemala's.
The remittances dwarf the $172 million that the U.S. Agency for International Development spends annually in the region, primarily for nutrition and health assistance and agricultural development.
Obama's request for $3.7 billion in fiscal 2014 supplemental spending includes $295 million for repatriating deportees in Central America and $5 million for media campaigns designed to discourage the migration. The overall package has run into opposition from congressional Republicans, in part because the spending, they say, needs to be offset by cuts in other areas of the budget.
Governments in the region could do a lot more to help their own people, too, but are held back by corruption and lack of resources. Tax collections in Guatemala, for example, amount to 10 percent of gross domestic product, about the same amount as U.S. remittances in 2012. In the United States, taxes are about half of GDP. The Obama administration has been lobbying the Guatemalan government to boost taxes, but it has had little success so far because of opposition from corporate elites, according to U.S. officials.
Guatemala's president, Otto Perez Molina, has adopted a "zero hunger" policy — the name is borrowed from the plan that transformed Brazil through heavy spending on welfare and nutrition assistance — but he is relying a great deal on USAID and U.S. Department of Agriculture programs.
Seeking a 'Healthy' Place
It's clear in talking to Emilio, the youngest of seven children, that being able to help his family the way so many other Central American migrants have been able to help theirs was on his mind when he set out alone three days before he landed in the Guatemala City shelter.
His ultimate goal, he says, is "to find a good job to help the family. In Honduras, there are only poor people. People take the risk to leave in order to help the country."
He and his companions, whom he met up with later, didn't find a smuggler until they reached the Guatemalan border town of Esquipulas. The smuggler promised to take them all the way to the United States with no up-front payment, but instead he turned them over to the man who later held them hostage. One of Emilio's companions says the smuggler initially told them it would be "easy" to get into the United States but later hedged.
Emilio is headed for Kansas City, where he has a cousin, his only relative in the United States, he says.
Carbajal, the priest, says he warns migrants who come through the shelter about the dangers that lie ahead. Maps pinned to the lunchroom wall show the areas in Guatemala and Mexico where migrants are subject to being attacked by police, gangs and even taxi drivers. Carbajal says he can't prevent migrants from continuing that trip. Young migrants like Emilio have "no idea" what they face or even how far the United States is from Guatemala, he adds.
"This is not a well-thought-out migration," he says. "Everyone just flees."
U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced a "Danger Awareness Campaign" to try to discourage more kids from making the trip. The campaign will include media events in U.S. cities with concentrations of Central Americans, including Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York and Miami. There will be billboards, and public service announcements will run through Sept. 7 in the three countries.
"Children, especially, are easy prey for coyotes and transnational criminal organizations, and they can be subjected to robbery, violence, sexual assault, sex trafficking or forced labor," CBP Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske said in announcing the campaign. On a visit to Guatemala last week, Jeh Johnson repeated a warning that the United State plans to deport new migrants arriving illegally, regardless of age.
Whether such messages will be enough to stop future Emilios is another question, given what they believe lies ahead for them in the United States.
This is what Emilio says he envisions life will be like: "It's healthy. There's not too much violence, that we're going to find a good job. And I think there are not as many people smoking marijuana on the streets and in gangs. I think it's a healthier environment.
"I imagine that you can have a good home, and you can help your family."
Migration and Refugees