NOGALES, Mexico—Jorge Nicolas Carmona put on a brave face and described how a hired smuggler led him and a cousin from Mexico into the harsh Arizona desert at night. But his tough-guy act quickly bowed to emotions as Jorge, all of 12 years old, buried his face in his lap and sobbed. Then, his 9-year-old cousin, Vicente Vega, began to bawl.
"I want my mother," Jorge answered to every question from a reporter at a Mexican office that repatriates children apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol. Shell-shocked Vicente simply answered, "No se," Spanish for "I don't know," to everything he was asked.
Jorge last saw his mother eight years ago, when she left Acapulco and snuck into the United States, settling in Chicago. She sent money home for his care and more recently for the attempt to smuggle him into the United States to join her. Vicente can't say when he last saw his mother or even with whom he spent last Christmas.
Tougher enforcement by the U.S. Border Patrol has meant that many illegal immigrants no longer risk returning home for visits. Instead, they send money to have their children smuggled across the border in a desperate bid to reunite with them. It's a daily reality that's often overlooked in the heated national debate about walls, stricter enforcement and amnesty.
Between Oct. 1, 2005, and April 30, 2006, Border Patrol agents apprehended 59,397 Mexican children ages 17 and under and 9,738 children of other nationalities. Almost all of those apprehensions occurred along the southern border with Mexico. Most of the apprehensions were in the Tucson sector.
In the 2005 fiscal year, the Border Patrol apprehended 93,995 Mexicans under the age of 17 and 20,574 children of other nationalities, almost all along the southern border. That's far more children than could be squeezed into Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, Miami's Dolphin Stadium, Minnesota's Metrodome, Philadelphia's Lincoln Financial Field or Texas Stadium in Dallas.
As border security beefed up after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Border Patrol apprehensions of children dipped, to 81,346 in fiscal 2002 and 78,739 in fiscal 2003. Since then, however, the number of children apprehended has exceeded 90,000 annually, and it could approach 100,000 in the current fiscal year that ends on Sept. 30.
The issue of smuggled children briefly made headlines in mid-May when a 3-year-old boy died of dehydration in the Arizona desert not far from the Mexican border. A smuggler had abandoned mother and child to their fate after they failed to keep up with the group. The boy was one of 82 illegal immigrants to die since Oct. 31 in the Tucson sector, which covers most of Arizona's southern border with Mexico.
Supporters of tougher enforcement say such tragedies could be prevented by deploying greater manpower to seal the porous border. Critics of the tough-border approach counter that walls and stepped-up patrolling would drive would-be illegal immigrants even farther into remote desert areas to take even greater risks in their pursuit of the American dream and family reunification.
"I think that's a main reason" for the higher number of children being apprehended, said Fernando Guerrero, who runs a repatriation center in the Mexican border city of Nogales that tries to get children back to their hometowns in Mexico. "What they're (the families) trying to do is bring families back together."
Along the Arizona-Mexico border, coyotes—the name given to those at the top of the smuggling food chain—routinely charge $1,000 to $1,500 per person to get across Mexico, to the Arizona border and on to the U.S. interior. They can charge twice that or more to sneak young children across.
"I paid $2,000," acknowledged Bernabe Giron Vasquez, 17, from the town of Ocosingo in Mexico's poor and southernmost state of Chiapas. After first crossing Mexico, he walked five days and nights before being apprehended in Arizona.
On both sides of the Arizona-Mexico border, you don't have to look far to find evidence of children being smuggled.
On May 22, a Knight Ridder reporter and photographer accompanied three smugglers as they snuck a group of 16 illegal immigrants, including a mother and her preschool-aged daughter, into Nogales, Ariz. The woman, from Puebla, shielded her daughter from the camera and refused to comment. The smugglers kept the girl at the front of the line, giving her preference, and one smuggler frequently picked her up and ran with her to keep the group moving along.
Just across the border in the Mexican town of Sasabe, a group of University of Minnesota-Minneapolis students talked with Knight Ridder about the makeshift campsites they'd come across in the Arizona desert where illegal immigrants had rested. There, they'd found fresh diapers.
"That was pretty intense," said senior Lindsey McMeen. "I can't fathom how hard this is."
Professor Kathleen Ganley, who was leading her students on a trip along both sides of the border, said she sympathized with families willing to risk so much to work in the United States.
"I'm a mother. If I were desperate, I'd do anything I have to so that my daughter has some future," she said.
On the Tohono O'odham reservation southwest of Tucson, where the native people have lived since before the creation of both Mexico and the United States, a grandmother said that desperate immigrants traveling with children routinely snatched children's clothes off clotheslines.
The woman asked not to be identified, saying Border Patrol agents could accuse her of assisting illegal immigration. She said she gives immigrants water and recently gave a Mexican mother and child a pair of her grandchildren's shoes.
At the repatriation center in Nogales, Mexico, teenagers often reflect on their attempts to join family or friends in the United States.
"The desert scared me a lot. We were dying of thirst," said Santos Lopez Diaz, 17. He and others waved down a Border Patrol helicopter and surrendered after the third night. He said he doesn't intend to sneak across the border again. He'd spent 20 days at the center while the government tried to find his family in Chiapas, in southern Mexico.
Isias Vera Gomez, a lanky 17-year-old from Veracruz state, dreamed of construction work in Atlanta. But he doesn't want to repeat the three grueling days in the desert. Vera's group of 31 people surrendered because they never saw the kites that were supposed to mark a smuggler's pick-up point.
Gustavo Angeles Aguilar, 15, tried to reach his father, who works in Florida's tomato fields. The boy, from the central state of Queretaro, said he plans to try to cross the border again as soon as a relative frees him from the center.
Children and teenagers in Border Patrol custody rarely stay at a processing center for longer than a day. They're fingerprinted and photographed and held in cage-like holding pens that separate them from adult detainees.
Unlike the adults, who are bused to the middle of a bridge that crosses the border into Nogales, juveniles are released into the custody of Mexican repatriation officials who try to return them to family members.
Dr. Claudia Urrea is a medic who attends to the children at their first point of entry into Mexico. She soothes their blistered, swollen feet while a psychologist tends to their emotional needs.
Urrea doubts that more walls and tougher enforcement will discourage poor families from southern Mexico and Central America who have little to lose and everything to gain from sneaking into the United States.
"The whole country (of Mexico) dreams of the American dream. It will never change," she said.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IMMIGRATION-CHILDREN
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060601 IMMIGRATION
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