By Manny Fernandez and Miriam Jordan
The 3-year-old boy was alone, and crying.
Early on Tuesday morning, Border Patrol agents at the Fort Brown station in South Texas found the boy in a cornfield. He had his name and a phone number written on his shoes. Agents said the boy was abandoned by smugglers, who fled back toward Mexico when the Border Patrol approached.
The lone child crossing the border was not an anomaly — more than 8,900 unaccompanied children were apprehended by the Border Patrol in March, nearly twice the number seen in October.
Many were teenagers, but for years, children younger than 12 have been among those making the journey across America’s southern border without their parents or other relatives, often traveling with groups of strangers. Theirs is a harrowing, complex and dislocating saga, as children as young as 3, 4 or 5 are passed from migrant group to migrant group for days, often eventually abandoned in the deserts of Arizona or in the brush of South Texas.
Like the boy found near Brownsville, Texas, this week, the children generally have phone numbers of relatives in the United States written on their clothes or on slips of paper they carry in their pockets.
“These cases can be heartbreaking, because of how small the children are and because they are often very confused and scared by the entire ordeal,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders Law Center in Los Angeles, which provides legal services to unaccompanied children.
How children end up on their own in the chaotic environment of the southwest border often follows a familiar pattern. Parents flee poverty and violence in countries like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. They leave one or more of their children behind with relatives. Later, after settling in the United States, the parents send for the children they left behind, and those children make the journey with a relative or with strangers. After crossing the border, the children are often abandoned by smugglers and other migrants who believe the children will be rescued by the Border Patrol.
It is a tremendous gamble: Agents have, over the years, saved children’s lives in these situations.
One evening in June at the Arizona border, Border Patrol agents discovered a 6-year-old boy on a border road at a time when the temperature was more than 100 degrees. The abandoned boy was from Costa Rica, and told the agents that his uncle had dropped him off and had told him that the Border Patrol would pick him up. The boy said he was on his way to see his mother in the United States.
In July, agents in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector came upon an 8-year-old boy, alone, by a river road. Agents were only able to learn his name and his age as they took him in for processing — he spoke only a regional dialect they did not understand.
The number of unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1, 2018, is on track to reach the peak achieved in the 2014 fiscal year, when more than 68,500 migrant children were intercepted. In the first half of the current fiscal year, agents apprehended 35,898 unaccompanied children, compared with 50,036 during the entire 2018 fiscal year.
“I’ve been in the Border Patrol going on 24 years,” said John R. Morris, the acting deputy chief patrol agent in the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, which includes the Fort Brown station. “In my early days, a child would never be abandoned.”
Now, the phenomenon is “on the increase” as children are left to the care of smugglers who see them as “cargo,” he said. “We just recently had a 2-year-old girl who was literally left at the riverbank with her name and a phone number written on a T-shirt — a 2-year-old girl.”
Those who work along the border say the unaccompanied children traveling without parents or relatives are sometimes even as young as infants. In recent weeks, several infants were being held at the Border Patrol’s Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas — all of them had crossed the border without their families, were apprehended as part of larger migrant groups and were expected to join relatives already living in the United States.
“We’ve seen that plenty of times,” said Jorge Gonzalez, the patrol agent in charge of the Border Patrol’s Brownsville Station and a 19-year veteran of the agency.“It’s a child that doesn’t belong to really, truly, anybody within the group, and they’re to get turned over to their parents that have already made their way into the United States.”
In one case, a 2-year-old girl was found with a group of migrants in November just north of the border near Campo, California She was not related to anyone in the group, and was strapped to the chest of a 17-year-old boy in a makeshift cloth baby carrier.
The girl had been traveling with her mother, but the mother became tired and asked if one of the other migrants could carry her daughter. The 17-year-old boy agreed. But the group of migrants later separated, and the boy was unable to locate the girl’s mother. When he crossed into the United States with the girl still strapped to his chest, he had still not located the mother, according to the Border Patrol. After he and the girl were apprehended, the girl was placed in custody as officials worked on reuniting her with her mother.
In the case of the 3-year-old boy found Tuesday in the cornfield, federal officials were working on reuniting the boy with his family. Pictures released on Twitter by the Border Patrol’s parent agency, Customs and Border Protection, show the boy sitting at a desk in a Border Patrol office, watching “Paw Patrol” on an official’s computer. The boy is from Mexico, but he does not speak well enough to communicate.
After the agents discovered him in the cornfield, he was transported to a hospital, found to be in good condition and released back to the Border Patrol.
At the Fort Brown station, the agents’ attempts to contact the child’s family were unsuccessful. One agent bought the boy some clothing before he was transferred to the Border Patrol’s main processing center in McAllen. He remained there on Wednesday, being cared for by contracted child-care workers assigned to the center, officials said.
Theoretically, the boy, because laws pertaining to Mexicans allow for swifter deportations, could be quickly sent home. However, since he is very young and was found alone, this is unlikely to happen: American authorities cannot easily ascertain whether the child has a fear of returning to his home country or was a victim of trafficking.
Children who arrive in the country alone pose a number of challenges to federal officials and to the agencies and contractors responsible for caring for them while they are detained. When children are too young to talk, basic communication is difficult. Many of these children can act out or withdraw, out of confusion and frustration with their situation.
“We have run into kids who are so young they can’t express what they want,” said Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities Community Services in New York, which represents more than 700 unaccompanied minors who are in the process of being deported. “When you get into situations when you have a child who isn’t verbal yet and doesn’t have the capacity to comprehend the situation and make an informed decision, we have an ethical dilemma.”
Many of the families who send for their children appear not to understand, or they ignore, the dangers of the treacherous journey they are forcing the children to take, said some of those who work with migrant families. Boys and girls alike are at risk of being sexually exploited and abused by smugglers, of becoming seriously ill, or of dying from heat, cold or dehydration in the harsh, vast terrain on the southwest border. It is unknown how many cases of very young children traveling alone end in tragedy.
“I think desperation is definitely part of it,” Gonzalez said. “I guess the situations that they currently reside in kind of dictate the manner in which they’ll try anything to get their family home again. I think that’s just the human condition. Everybody wants to be with their family, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to do that.”