Thousands of Latin American teens fleeing gangs and poverty in
their home nations are being turned away from the United States.
And many of the youths sent back to their homes embark again on the dangerous journey.
Tecun Uman, Guatemala – Heat beats down on Jared Membreño as he
stands by railroad tracks, eyeing northbound boxcars at the
Guatemala-Mexico border. Deported from the United States to
Honduras at age 16, he again is trying to escape his bleak life
selling stolen bananas for $2 a day. Now 19, Membreño scavenges for
food and water, dodges police, and battles gangs that control the
A whistle wails. He hears the creak of iron wheels, which have
killed and maimed many migrants. He spots an empty ladder on a
boxcar, runs, leaps.
“I don’t think, only pray I don’t fall, because if I fall …”
His fingers curl around a rung, muscles straining, feet flailing
for a foothold.
The U.S. government is deporting more and more teenagers like
Membreño who are fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity abroad.
Immigration records show deportations of teenagers increased by 38
percent, from 717 in 2001 to 990 last year.
Thousands more were turned back at the southern border without
hearings and handed over to Mexican authorities, U.S. Immigration
and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Ernestine Fobbs said. The
government can’t give precise figures, she said.
Yet tens of thousands still come, mostly from Mexico and Central
Many teens travel unaccompanied by adults. There are no estimates
for how many make it through to the United States.
What officials do know is that, when teens are turned away, about
40 percent return.
And there isn’t enough space in U.S. detention facilities to hold
more teens in custody.
U.S. officials are supposed to deport each teen according to a
“plan of return” that ensures they are safe, said Wade Horn,
assistant secretary of health and human services.
Immigration agents “are not supposed to be sending kids back to
their country of origin and just dump them off at the airport,”
Horn said. “I don’t think the United States has the resources or
even the obligation to ensure that every child in the world is
cared for well. But the kids we have contact with, we do have an
obligation to them.”
Trouble back home
Central American authorities, however, say teen deportees often
They face “life in the streets, life with angry parents,
prostitution, drug addiction,” said Josefina Arellano, a
Guatemalan government lawyer charged with protecting children.
“When they are returned and don’t have a family, they find
gangs,” she said. “The gangs become their family. If they try to
leave the gangs, they are killed. If this family wants them to
steal, they must steal.”
Nobody has a solution.
Earlier this year, a Colorado case raised an outcry.
It involved Edgar Chocoy, a soccer-loving 16-year-old who fled gang violence in Guatemala City to join
his mother in the United States.
Then he was arrested with a gang. When U.S. authorities in Denver
moved to deport him, he begged for asylum, saying gangs would kill
him if he was sent home.
A judge deported him anyway. Back in Guatemala he was murdered,
shot in the back of the neck.
More often, hopes are crushed quietly.
On his eighth attempt to enter the United States, Franklin Herrera,
16, made it as far as the Rio Grande. His father is dead. His
mother in Honduras didn’t want him to go but couldn’t provide
“I told her, ‘I want to help you,”‘ Herrera said. “And she said,
‘OK. Go try. God bless you.”‘
He was wading ankle-deep in the river on his way to Texas –
thinking of the house and little church he would build for his
mother, he said, when a border guard caught him.
“I could see Los Angeles, I think,” he said.
Membreño is one of those who did make it through.
Before he was deported, he earned $6.50 an hour taking care of
turkeys in Texas at a giant turkey farm – easy money compared with
selling bananas stolen from a U.S.-owned corporate plantation in
He sent home hundreds of dollars a month. It was all working out,
until police responded to a fight between his uncle and aunt – and
checked everybody’s immigration status.
He spent two months in a juvenile detention facility. Then a
magistrate ordered him deported, and he was moved to an adult
facility for two months.
“You find murderers, robbers. Mexicans were fighting against
Chicanos,” he said.
When he was flown back to Honduras, U.S. escorts handed him over to
local officials. That’s standard procedure in formal deportations.
The locals contacted Membreño’s family in their village near San
Pedro Sula and released him.
Money he sent home had helped buy land for a small patch of beans.
“But I saw my family suffering.”
His father earned $1.50 a day when he could find construction
And the boy couldn’t find anything legal. Again, he was stuck.
“My father said, ‘If you want, go away.’ I didn’t think twice.”
Reforms unlikely to pass
Legislation in Congress, the Unaccompanied Alien Child Protection
Act, would improve conditions for migrant teens held in U.S.
custody. It would require legal representation, appropriate
facilities, appointment of guardians, and careful questioning of
detainees to determine whether they faced persecution. Pushed by
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., it is not expected to pass this
But the broader international problem looms: what happens when
governments increasingly turn away teens without detaining them –
and yet more keep fleeing for help.
“We don’t want to do bad things. Our intent is to find a job and
make money,” said Jose Mendes, 16, deported from Texas to
Guatemala, waiting for a northbound train at Hidalgo, Mexico.
“We make such a long trip. We almost get there. We just have to
make another step. And they say, ‘No.’ They don’t know how we feel.
It’s so hard, because you didn’t reach what you wanted.”
If deportees stay home, they face helter-skelter streets and often
are worse off than when they first left.
In the stench of Guatemala City’s central dump, Carlos Giovanne,
15, who was turned back from the United States last year, now picks
through trash collecting cardboard, metal, anything that might be
Around him, street children scavenge for tortillas and chicken,
sniffing 75-cent bottles of solvent. Giovanne labors to pay off
$187 that his mother, Alma, borrowed to fund his failed journey.
“I lost all my money,” Giovanne said.
Some find protection with gangs branching out from U.S. cities.
Governments estimate that across Central America there are more
than 60,000 gang members. Authorities see them as potential allies
for narcotics traffickers and terrorists.
Teens fleeing to the United States sometimes “are trying to leave
the gangs. And they face threats” if turned back, said Marta
Altolaguirre, vice minister of foreign affairs in Guatemala’s newly
U.S. authorities should “maybe make exceptions on the deportation
of these kids, at least until this government has a chance to
provide a secure environment for the kids to be taken care of
properly,” she said.
Warning cries went unheeded
Edgar Chocoy wanted to be an exception.
He was raised by his grandparents in the gang-plagued barrio Villa
Nueva, on the south side of Guatemala City. His father had
abandoned him, and his mother left him as an infant to work in Los
Chocoy loved playing goalie in sandlot soccer games, but sometimes
sniffed glue, said Virgilia Rodriguez, an aunt. He joined a gang at
age 12, court records show.
At 14, when he tried to leave the gang, members threatened him,
Chocoy testified later. He set out by bus to join his mother in Los
And with the gang there, he was caught with guns. Immigration
agents moved him to a lockdown center in Alamosa and pressed to
kick him out of the country.
Deport me, Chocoy told immigration Judge James Vandello in Denver,
and gang members will kill me.
Vandello rejected his case for asylum. On March 10, federal agents
escorted him on an evening flight to Guatemala City, where local
officials released him to the custody of an aunt, Hortencia Guzman,
He stayed indoors, she said, and wore long-sleeve shirts to hide
the “18” on his forearms – a symbol for the 18th Street gang he’d
joined in Los Angeles, rivals of the Mara Salvatrucha gang active
in Villa Nueva. His grandmother died while he was there.
After 17 days, Chocoy asked permission to go out for a soft drink
and to watch Villa Nueva’s Holy Week parade.
While he was parked on his bicycle watching, a gunman approached,
witnesses told the family. Chocoy threw the bike at his feet,
saying, “Take it.” He turned and ran.
The gunman caught Chocoy by a soccer court and shot him in the back
of his neck, said mechanic Carlos Arriola, 27, who was working
across the street. The police never investigated.
An anonymous mound of dirt beyond an unofficial dump covered
A shelter amid horrors
Meanwhile, along Guatemala’s northern border with Mexico, the Rev.
Ademar Barilli is trying to prevent more deaths. Barilli runs the
80-bed Casa de Migrantes shelter. Thousands of teenagers a year
come through, typically hoping to join relatives illegally inside
the United States, Barilli said. The teens, he said, “are looking
for food, work, life.”
Tattooed thugs lurk outside the shelter along banks of the Suchiate
River between Guatemala and Mexico. Girls face rape if caught, or
are forced into prostitution.
Salvadoran maid Mirna Portillo, 18, said she considered
prostitution. Instead, on a recent night, she left the shelter,
silently crossing the Suchiate on a raft with her half brother
Santos Aragon, 34. Their mother in El Salvador was going blind,
unable to work, and the family needed help.
Then in Mexico, Portillo and Aragon crept toward the train tracks
in Hidalgo, trying to avoid Mexican police. They slept in tall
grass, anticipating a sunrise departure. Instead, dawn brought
thugs with knives and pistols.
Portillo and Aragon ran, escaping through a market, then back
across the river. They pounded on the blue metal doors at Barilli’s
shelter until someone let them in.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe this is the end,”‘ Portillo said. “At
first I regretted leaving. But then, I think, I have a purpose
because there is nobody to help us there in El Salvador. The only
ones who could help our family are my brother and me.”
For deportees trying to head north again, days are devoted to
begging for food and money on dusty market streets and at bus
“People see me on the street, and I am humiliated,” said Jayson
Hernandez, 19, deported last year by airplane to Tegucigalpa,
Denver was among the cities where Hernandez said he worked. He
recalled sleeping near the central bus station, where a police
officer told him he was too young to smoke. Now in Tecun Uman, he
was preparing “to take the train to Tijuana” and hitch to Denver
“In 20 days, I will be at the border of the United States. I don’t
care about sleeping; I don’t care about hunger,” he said. “I have
friends in Denver. The United States is a good country to work in.
We must take advantage of it.”
“You want to cry”
The worst, migrants say, is getting caught.
Elmer Rodriguez, 15, left La Cruz Morazan, Honduras, sleeping out,
enduring mosquitoes, washing in rivers, climbing aboard trains,
raiding farm fields for mangos.
After weeks, authorities caught up with him near Tapachula, Mexico,
and tossed him into a concrete-floor holding facility.
“You want to cry. You will never reach your dreams. It’s so hard
to get so far, and then get caught,” Rodriguez said.
Slumped beside him, Ever Deras, 15, told of his work on a farm near
Copan, Honduras. The owner’s granddaughters passed him once and
were “happy, friendly. They used to tell me hello. I was nice with
them. Then the people who were in charge of me said, ‘Go work,’ and
they made me work until 9 o’clock. I felt very tired to be working
so late for a miserable wage.”
“We never had anybody help us. I feel that nobody knows me.”
In that detention center, there are no beds, let alone books. And
some children wait for days while authorities try to locate
Parents inside the United States illegally, who call for their
children to come north, are largely to blame, said Gabriela
Coutiño, spokeswoman for the Mexican immigration agency. Then
again, those parents often can’t support their children at home,
And “there isn’t even a conversation” between governments about
how to deal with the growing numbers of teens in transit.
Some, such as Guatemalan villager Mauricio Martinez, 17, are maimed
by the wheels of trains.
Martinez fell while trying to catch a train in January. The wheels
severed his legs.
Now he sits on a bed in a red soccer jersey with other amputee
migrants at a house run by a nun in Chiapas, Mexico.
In a notepad, he sketches a woman.
“I want to go on,” he said, “but I can’t.”
Clinging to the ladder as his boxcar rolls north from the
Mexico border, Membreño figures he has as good a chance as any to
make it back into Texas.
He’d eluded U.S. authorities before, hiking through arid
borderlands, and the trek seemed less daunting this time around.
He knew the risks. His cousin Danny had fallen from the top of a
boxcar and was “killed in four pieces” on his first trip north,
Membreño says. “I cried.”
Now the challenge is dealing with thugs. He and fellow migrants
describe themselves as a family, bonded by the dream of returning
to the United States. They had fought off one group of toughs by
throwing rocks. They would acquire machetes if necessary, Membreño
He tightens his grip and holds on.
Staff writer Bruce Finley can be reached at 303.954.1700 or