The Illegal Flow of Young Migrants Continues, Just Not as Fast

In this July 12, 2014, photo, Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico. The number of family units and unaccompanied children arrested by Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley has doubled in the first nine months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)
Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico.

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — The wave of Central American child migrants heading to the United States in recent months, feeding a humanitarian crisis there, is showing some signs of abating.

Bus operators here say they are noticing a decline in the number of unaccompanied children headed to the border. The police have detained fewer young migrants at checkpoints. And the U.S. Border Patrol has reported a dip in the number of children and families apprehended in Texas, where migrants have been arriving in droves for months.

Since October, about 57,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended across the southwest border, double the number during a similar period the previous year.

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It is too soon to say definitively whether the mass migration has relented, but officials are hopeful that it may be slowing as new efforts by the authorities to stop the flow take root and as word spreads about the perils of the journey to the United States, where migrants are unlikely to find legal refuge.

“It has gone down about 30 percent, the number of children we see passing through here,” said Marvin Lopez, a manager of one of the most commonly used bus lines here. “Not nearly as many families.”

At a police substation on the road to the border with Guatemala, which is about a 45-minute ride from the bus station, officers said that they had been detaining 15 to 20 minors a day in recent months, but that in the past couple of weeks it had dropped to two or three.

One night last week, Maria Enriques was one of two women who were detained with their children when officers stopped the truck with Guatemala license plates in which they were traveling to a town on the Honduran side of the border without appropriate documents for the children.

“I was just taking him to his father in Guatemala, but now I guess we just have to go home,” said Enriquez, the mother of a 1-year-old boy. “They are saying nobody can go north unless both parents go, but how can we do this when so many of us are single parents here?”

Honduras, the source of the largest proportion of recent child migrants, has moved to make it harder for children to leave the country without authorization, forbidding the sale to minors of bus tickets to the border and assigning additional police officers including a specially trained unit to patrol bus routes and frequent border crossing points.

Some migrants may be veering off the beaten path to try more remote and perilous routes, traversing rivers and slipping through dense forest and brush where officers patrol less often. They are motivated to flee this city, where gang violence and deep poverty have made it one of the most dangerous in the world, by false rumors that they can get legal papers to reside in the United States.

But many of the potential migrants, who would take a succession of buses and trains north, said recently that they had heard the chances of making it to the United States were decreasing.

Last week, the U.S. Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas, reported decreasing numbers of people in detention. About 500 migrants were being held last week, compared with double that number most days in June.

The Border Patrol chief for the Rio Grande Valley, Kevin W. Oaks, said at a news conference last Thursday that the flow of unaccompanied minors had dropped in the past two weeks from 200 apprehended most days last month to only 80 last Wednesday.

In addition, the United States began a new effort last week to speed deportations of parents with children who had recently crossed, sending 80 people aboard two planes back to Honduras, and other flights to Guatemala and El Salvador.

Many people who are deported vow to try again, and many do, often several times before they reach the United States. But some of the people who traveled recently with children, and the children themselves, said they were surprised by the difficulty and unexpected expenses of the trek.

“I will never do it again,” said Victoria Cordova, 30, who was deported from the United States last week with her 9-year-old daughter. She recalled a harrowing journey that included overcrowded shelters in the United States with little to eat and a confusing stream of paperwork to sign, including a document in English that she did not understand but signed anyway.

After signing the paper in a shelter in New Mexico, she said that she and several other women with children were told they would be boarding a plane back to Honduras, leading many of them to break down into tears.

Cordova has since returned to her home in a dangerous neighborhood in Tegucigalpa. She worries most now about repaying the $6,000 cost for the trip that she borrowed from neighbors, including gang members expecting quick repayment, though she is unemployed.

Other people, children among them, who were sent back from Mexico where the authorities have also stepped up deportations, said they would like to try again to emigrate but had no money and were daunted by the journey.

“I wanted to be with my dad, but the trip is too long and hard,” said Aidan, 13, who left a shelter here with his grandparents after he was deported from Mexico last week.

Orlin Flores, 14, was trying to reunite with his parents in California but was apprehended a few days into his trip and deported from Mexico.

“I’m not sure if I could do it again; it was scary and I didn’t have the money to pay all the cops to let me go,” Orlin said, making reference to the bribes many migrants must pay along their illegal journey.

Mexico has said it will take action to slow the migrant flow, pledging to stop people from stowing away on freight trains, a common tactic to head north, and to increase patrols of its border. It promised steps to reduce corruption of police officers but has not provided details.

Guatemala said it had increased the number of police officers and soldiers at its borders. El Salvador began a public awareness campaign aimed at deterring parents from sending their children north alone, and it is planning to redouble efforts to arrest smugglers.

Still, people who provide services to returning migrants here said they believed that many would find ways around new law enforcement obstacles. Many of the deportees and advocates for them are skeptical that the government will follow through on pledges of scholarship money and jobs to keep people from fleeing.

“They will migrate again unless there is something here for them, jobs and schools and a lack of violence,” said Sor Valdette Willeman, director of the Center for Assistance to Migrants, the nongovernmental organization in Honduras that assists deportees at airports. “I am afraid without those things they will eventually try again.”