August 18, 2014 · 6:15 PM EDT
More than 50,000 underage migrants, mostly from Central America, have been caught trying to cross the US southern border since the fall of 2013.
They face tremendous risks, just getting to that point. Some jump onto a freight train known as “The Beast,” where one wrong move could mean a lost limb — or worse. Some are kidnapped by drug cartels. So why, given all the risks, would any parent put their children through the journey?
Pablo and Maria, who asked that their last name be withheld to protect their identity, are just such parents. They have two boys — the oldest is 11, the youngest is 9.
“They’ve been strong,”Maria said, referring to her boys as “my little bugs.” But she has been very worried about them.
“It’s not the same to say ‘Son, I love you’ from far away,” Maria said.
But that’s what they’ve been doing for years. Pablo and Maria are undocumented immigrants from El Salvador, living in the suburbs of Baltimore. Like so many others, they left their kids behind to find work in the US. But El Salvador has become increasingly dangerous, especially the neighborhood where the boys live, near a town in the north of the country.
“Sometimes, they have to take off running for the house because you can be caught in a gunfight there,” Pablo said.
Stray bullets have hit neighbors. Gang members saunter into the boys’ elementary school in the middle of the day. It’s risky just sending them gifts.
Pablo said even an old-school pair of Nikes is off limits; the gangs go after anyone who wears them.
“You have to be especially careful when you buy shoes,” Pablo said. “You can’t buy just any shoes because you can lose your life for them.”
Rafts along a river between Guatemala and Mexico. Migrants from Central America often cross into Mexico near Tapachula. Juan, 11, and his brother PabloJr., 9, crossed using an inflatable raft this summer and are now reunited with their parents in Maryland.
The boys took refuge at home. But that wasn’t entirely safe either. Maria and Pablo left the boys with an aunt who they thought would protect them. But she and other relatives turned on the boys, beat them with belts, yelled insults at them and then abandoned them. Finally, they were passed off to a 22-year-old cousin who has two children of her own.
“We are to blame for leaving them alone and not realizing they would suffer so many things,” Maria said.
It’s hard to understand why two parents would leave their kids behind, but Pablo tries to explain. He said when his youngest son — his namesake, Pablo Jr. — was born, he took one look at the baby and wondered how in the world he was going to feed his family.
“The truth is, everything I earned in the whole day wasn’t enough to buy tomatoes, potatoes, the ingredients [for a family meal],” Pablo said.
In El Salvador, minimum wage can be as low as $4 a day, and living costs are high.
“If you want to buy a chicken, you’ll pay $6,” he said.
Pablo considered the $50 a week he made in El Salvador and the $500 he could earn in the US and packed his backpack. Maria stayed behind in El Salvador to raise the boys. Pablo landed in a city on the east coast, where he now works cleaning apartment buildings. He earns $9 an hour, eight to 12 hours a day.
Piling trash bags night after night, Pablo saved enough money to first bring his wife north. That was nearly two years ago. Maria and Pablo had been apart for seven years at that point. They hoped to bring the boys along eventually, but when they found out their kids were in danger, they worked longer days and saved more.
“We’re spending almost $10,000,” Pablo said.
Pablo negotiated the route with a coyote, a human smuggler. There would be no death train; the boys would take cars and buses the whole way, and stay in hotels. The $10,000 pays for three attempts to get the boys across the US border.
“If you don’t make it in three tries, you lose the money,” Pablo said.
In early May, the boys left on their first try.
“There are many dangers in the journey,” Pablo said. “It’s incredibly dangerous to cross the border right now.”
It’s also difficult. Just an hour after crossing into Mexico, Pablo said, the boys were caught. For three weeks they were detained in Mexico in a high-security facility that houses mostly adult migrants. There, they had to wash their own clothes and barely had enough to eat.
Then they were flown back to El Salvador where they went to live with their cousin again. For the boys, their main lifeline to their parents is a poor Internet connection. Pablo is a Facebook dad.
“The first time [we] bought a computer, I saw him on it,” Pablo Jr. said. The father and his 9-year-old namesake are the spitting image of each other.
“He’s really chubby — just like me,” Pablo Jr. added.
The boys barely leave their cousin’s house in El Salvador because of the gangs. They play soccer, but indoors. They could use the lawn, but it’s full of trash. There’s nothing to keep them here, and yet the 11-year-old, Juan, said thinking about a second journey north was tough.
“My brother said he didn’t want to go,” Juan said, but he told his parents that he was willing to give it another try.
In June, the boys set off for the second time. Barely a week into the journey, Pablo and Maria received a phone call from another family traveling with the boys who told them men in Mexican police uniforms were holding the boys and their group hostage in their hotel and demanding money.
Desperately, Pablo and Maria tried to call the coyote, but they couldn’t get through.
“You have reached a non-working number,” came the recorded reply. “Please check the number and dial again.”
They tried calling back, they tried different numbers. Every time the same response: “You have reached a non-working number.”
It was painfully tense.
“We just have to wait,” Pablo said. “We just have to wait.”
After two days of waiting, Pablo finally got a call: The coyotes paid the ransom.
“They paid $1,000 for each of the boys so they would let them continue,” Pablo said.
A few days and an all-night bus ride later, the boys arrived at the US border — just south of McAllen, Texas. Pablo got a call from the coyotes saying they would try to cross that night.
Then, again, he heard nothing.
“So I begged God that we’d get news of the boys,” he said.
And at the same time, he prayed they wouldn’t show up as a statistic on the nightly news. Every year, hundreds of migrants heading north die in the desert or wash up on the banks of the Rio Grande. Pablo said while they waited for word, his wife Maria became frantic.
“She got really stressed out,” he said. “I had to give her medicine to calm her down.”
During that time, Pablo reached out to advocacy groups and government offices.
“I was calling around to a bunch of organizations to see if they could find the boys or find out what happened,” he said.
After three days, he got a call from US immigration officials telling him that they had his sons — in detention in Texas. The boys were transferred several times. Finally, a week later, Pablo got through to an office set up to unite kids like his with family in the US.
“We got news the boys were in a shelter for kids in Miami,” Pablo said.
Under current US policy, unaccompanied minors from Central America, like Pablo’s sons, are treated as possible trafficking victims. Most are given notices to appear at immigration court; the hearings often happen within a few weeks, in some cases. Many children who do appear arrive without a lawyer. While they wait for their hearings, kids are often reunited with relatives in the US.
In mid-July, Juan and Pablo Jr. were put on a plane from Miami. Maria and Pablo showed up at the local airport. They brought no toys, no candy, not even balloons. They were so afraid the boys wouldn’t appear.
“I was really anxious,” Pablo said. “Would they come? Would there be bad news? Would they not be able to make it?”
Pablo and Maria waited for 40 minutes at the arrivals area, until finally, Juan and Pablo Jr. walked around the corner. Years had passed since Pablo and Maria had seen their boys in the flesh.
“It was a really emotional moment,” Pablo said. “There was a lot of joy, but also a little bit of pain for all that they had gone through and suffered to be with us.”
When they finally reunited, the parents finally got to hear how the boys crossed the Rio Grande — in an inflatable raft in the early morning hours.
“We were walking a long way, and you could see water — like lakes,” Pablo Jr. said. “And we went and …”
“There was a tunnel,” Juan said, finishing his brother’s sentence.
“And then there was the street,” Pablo Jr. said, continuing the story. “We went for the street and the police came.”
Pablo Sr. said the boys still have bad dreams about the crossing and about being held hostage. “The little guy, Pablo Jr., he’s still really anxious.”
But Pablo Jr. said he’s happy to be in Maryland, “because now I’m with my dad and my mom.”
His dad is trying to find a way so that they can stay. He’s planning to hire a lawyer to represent them at their hearing.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a project at Syracuse University that tracks immigration cases, around 50 percent of undocumented kids with attorneys are allowed to stay in the US. That number drops to 10 percent for those who don’t have a lawyer.
Maria’s dream is that the legal system will be kind to them.
“I am just hoping we can stay together like a family,”she said.
For now, they’re enjoying the time they do have together. Maria has been making everyone’s favorite food. “Today, it’s going to be chicken,” Pablo Sr. said.
Maria is seven months pregnant now with the newest member of the family. And Pablo Jr. recently celebrated his birthday with all the trimmings. “Cake, piñata, pizza, chicken,” Pablo Jr. yelled out.
For Pablo Sr., his sons’ happiness is proof that he and Maria made the right choice to bring them here to the US — out of poverty and out of danger back home. Now they can provide for them and care for them.
“No one takes better care of kids than their parents,” he said.
Pablo knows it’s still possible the boys will be deported, and that he and his wife are vulnerable as well. But despite everything they’ve been through, and everything they’ve put their kids through, Pablo said it’s worth it.
“If you were in my shoes,” he said, “what would you do to be together?”
Juan and PabloJr. play in a swimming pool near the home where their parents have been working for the last few years. They recently crossed the US-Mexico border using a coyote.
This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, mentoring the next generation of global journalists. Julia Botero, Eric Lemus and Manuel Ureste contributed to this reporting.