Several months ago at a Texas shelter near the U.S.-Mexico border, Jessica Jones met a 16-year-old boy from El Salvador who had lost his entire family to violence in his Central American hometown.
He had left El Salvador in an attempt to avoid the same fate. The teen started the nearly 2,000-miles journey through Mexico in the hopes of reaching the U.S., but he was nabbed by immigration officials before he could make it into Texas.
"His whole family [was] killed by gangs," said Jones, a fellow at the Women's Refugee Commission, a nonprofit organization that advocates for laws, policies, and programs for refugees and other displaced people.
The number of unaccompanied minors — children under the age of 18 who are traveling alone or with strangers, generally illegally, into the U.S. — from Central American countries has risen dramatically since 2010.
"El Salvador has always had really high levels of kids coming out of here," Jones said, noting that the sudden spike of Honduran and Guatemalan youth had advocates scratching their heads.
"What's going on Honduras?" she said. "Those who provide legal services were saying, "˜We actually don't know why they're coming.'"
That's when Jones and her colleagues decided to take a trip to the border region. They visited Texas shelters in the Brownsville-Harlingen area, as well as in Tucson, Ariz., both frequent entry points for some of these youths.
The result of her findings will be released in a study this fall. But on Monday during at the Migration Policy Institute's gathering on unaccompanied children, she gave child advocates and others a glimpse on the condition and reasons the children, some as young as 6, are making the dangerous journey alone. The gathering was to discuss how to better assist these children once they come to the attention of immigration officials.
Journalist Sonia Nazario best documented their plight through Enrique's Journey, her book telling the story of a boy making his way from Honduras to North Carolina to reunite with his mother. Unaccompanied immigrant children risk losing limbs as they jump in and out of freight trains, are in constant danger of getting assaulted by corrupt Mexican police, and are vulnerable to the elements.
Despite the risks, these children continue to come.
In fiscal year 2009, about 6,000 unaccompanied minors came to the attention of immigration officials and were turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the Health and Human Services Department. In fiscal 2010, there were 8,000, Jones said.
During fiscal 2011, the numbers had slightly decreased to about 7,000, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which has been responsible for looking after the minors since 2003.
Most of them, about 77 percent, were males. Of those, 36 percent were from Guatemala; 25 percent from El Salvador; and 20 percent from Honduras, according to the agency that tracks those numbers.
From October through the end of June, the resettlement agency has cared for about 10,000 youths, Jones noted. Generally, children from Mexico apprehended at the border are turned over to Mexican authorities for a speedy return home.
Wendy Young, executive director for Kids in Need of Defense, said these children should have a variety of services once they are released to their families or guardians, which can include being placed in foster care.
Her organization started a pilot program in Guatemala to aid children who have been repatriated. Young said the program is so successful that only four of the 80 children assisted have attempted to return to the U.S.
The surge in immigration of unaccompanied minors has come at a time when the overall undocumented immigration from Mexico has come to a standstill.
Jones said about 77 percent of those she interviewed who were from Central American said they were fleeing gang violence.
"It's a push, rather than a pull factor," Jones said, adding that extreme poverty, including a food crisis in Guatemala, are compounding their reasons to migrate north.
Violence in Central America has reached new levels in recent years. A report by the Council on Foreign Relations found that in the northern triangle of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — the murder rates are among the highest in the world. The average murder rate in some Central American countries is twice that of Mexico. For other countries, it's 16 times the murder rate of New York City.
"It's not just an issue of human tragedy but it's also an issue that crime and insecurity takes a heavy toll, not just on the victims but also on the economic growth," said Jose W. Fernandez, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, during a May event.
Last year, the World Bank calculated that direct cost of crime for El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua exceeded 9 percent annual GDP.
Caught between one of the largest producers of drugs to the south and the biggest consumers of the illegal drugs to the north — the U.S. — this region has become a hotbed for illegal drugs, high-powered weapons, and organized crime, according to the Council's report. About 90 percent of the cocaine arriving to the U.S. travels through the Central American corridor, according to a World Bank report.
Such levels of insecurity discourages business investments, stumps job creation, and leaves young males pressed to find jobs in already impoverished countries.
Young males, particularly, have faced harsh realities as they have become targets of adults and gangs alike. On one hand, business owners view young males with suspicion, fearing they might be part of a gang, Jones said. On the other hand, gangs come after them to either hurt or try to recruit them.
Several of these immigrant children in the shelters lamented their youth. "It's better to be old," they would tell Jones.
"There's a sense of urgency and necessity," Jones said.
This article is part of our Next America: Communities project, which is supported by a grant from Emerson Collective.