These three teenagers, all 17 years old, traveled from Honduras through El Salvador and Guatemala before crossing into Mexico. Our Observer Larry Trent met them at a shelter on the Mexican border. He doesn't know what happened to them.
The US government has recorded a surge in the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the southern US border from Central America. Our Observers at the border are seeing more children try to make the dangerous crossing into the US through the Sonoran desert. These children, younger than ever before, say that they are fleeing for their lives.
Last year, US Customs and Border Protection apprehended 21,537 unaccompanied children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. While the number of adult apprehensions is down, the number of children has more than doubled every year for the past three years, according to UNHCR’s report, “Children on the Run.” Experts say that the number could reach 60,000 in 2014.
“There’s an assumption that kids are coming because they are being drawn by the promise of the US, but what we found is that they are running from something,” said Michelle Brané of the Women’s Refugee Commission, which reported on the trend in “Forced from Home.”
That “something” is violence. Drug cartels and gangs are terrorizing the populations of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Domestic violence is also rising, which experts tie to societal breakdown.
The US, Panama, Costa Rica and Mexico have all reported a dramatic increase in asylum requests from people of all ages fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. But the average age is dropping. “We are now seeing 10 and 11-year-olds travelling alone regularly,” Brané said. “The kids tell us that the gangs are targeting younger and younger kids.”
Border officials say they don’t have the resources or training to deal with this influx of often traumatized children. “Agents tell us that they buy foods for the kids with their own money,” said Brané. “It’s nice but it’s ridiculous. Our police officers are becoming babysitters.”
Children’s shoes abandoned by migrants on the desert trail.

“They are decent young kids who don’t want to be part of the gang life”

Larry Trent lives in southern Arizona. For the past four years, he has been going to Mexico to volunteer at the “comedor”, a soup kitchen for migrants preparing to cross the desert into the US.
I go to the comedor twice a week, and that means allowing my heart to be broken over and over. Yesterday, we fed about 70 people, but some days we’ve fed twice that number. You meet folks and you hear their stories.
When I first started, I don’t remember there being that many 16-year-olds or families with young kids. Last week, we had at least five kids, unaccompanied, who were going to try and cross the desert into the United States. The reason that they come can be expressed in one word: desperation. It’s poverty and violence all woven together.
The cartels have such a hold on people’s lives in Honduras, which is where most of the young folks come from. They are decent young kids who don’t want to be part of the gang life. The pressure to join the gang is overwhelming. There’s no choice. You have to get involved… or leave.
I met a 17-year-old boy back in November. He did what some youngsters do and walked over to the border and turned himself in, asking customs people for asylum literally at the border. These minors are taken to Phoenix, Arizona for processing. What then happens to these kids, I don’t know.
Larry took this photo the day that these two young men, both 18, tried to cross into the US, were picked up by Border Patrol and were deported back to Mexico.
There’s a children’s shelter in Nogales, run by the Mexican government for minors deported from the United States. There was this 17-year-old boy there who spoke English. I was chatting with him and I asked if he was going to try and cross again. He told me, “I’m going to try however many times it takes until I turn 18.” What it boils down to is that until he’s 18, he can enter a juvenile system instead of going to jail, which is what happens to adults caught attempting to cross multiple times. So that kid was going to keep trying until he made it.
We also have families come through each week. I met one really young couple. The father was 16, the mother was 14 and the baby was 6 months old. They were from southern Mexico. It was extremely cold that day. I had some hats and gloves in my car and I gave it to them for the baby. We mostly don’t interfere with people’s choice to cross or not to cross. But with this young couple, we were all telling them: “You can’t do this. You are all going to die. It’s too cold. You are too young.” Often these kids feel invincible. They think they are young and strong, that they’ll make it through the desert. But they have no idea.
This father, age 16, and son were preparing to cross the Sonoran desert into the United States.
I don’t know what their final decision was. I talked to the 16-year-old for a little while. He was insistent that they had to go. They had nothing. They had no plan. They didn’t even know where they were going. They were just desperate. And so young.
Grave of Josseline, a 14-year-old girl who died in the Sonoran desert. Her 10-year-old brother survived the journey. The children were travelling alone.
The Sonoran Desert.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph.