Five Honduran youngsters play and study in a room decorated with their own artwork, paintings by little ones that bear hints of their missing families.
“ Te Amo Mami [I love you Mommy],” reads one painting. On another wall are works showing Central American flags and stories of their journeys.
The biographies belong to children, typically ages 5 to 14, who have traveled hundreds of miles to the U.S., hoping to reunite with relatives who came here before them.
Many of the children now live in shelters in cities across the U.S., including Fort Worth, where they are cared for by Catholic Charities.
“Some of the stories we’ve heard from the children you wouldn’t even imagine,” said Yuriko Castro, a case manager with Catholic Charities Fort Worth.
The number of children fleeing Central America for the United States, usually because of violence and abuse in their home countries, has increased dramatically in the past four years. In 2009, the U.S. Border Patrol encountered 1,115 undocumented and unaccompanied children from Guatemala. In 2013, the number was 8,068.
Catholic Charities partners with the federal government to offer temporary shelter to some of the children, who arrive lonely and scared but thankful to be safe.
“What they go through to get here, I feel, is the truest testament to what they are fleeing,” said Dana Springer, program manager for Catholic Charities’ Fort Worth assessment center.
Since June, the social service agency has served about 100 children, Springer said.
The children — nine right now — live on the Catholic Charities campus in south Fort Worth, where they have their own beds, sitting side by side, much like those in barracks. Their new home includes a classroom, a lunchroom and a game room, as well as a recess area outside.
While many are searching for their parents, others want to find jobs so they can send money back to relatives in Central America.
Most children at the Fort Worth shelter left El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Federal reports list the three countries as places with violent crimes including rapes, killings and kidnappings. The danger is a concern documented by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
A State Department travel warning issued in December says, “Since 2010, Honduras has had the highest murder rate in the world.”
El Salvador is considered “critical” for crime by the State Department, according to a 2013 crime and safety report. The country has violent gangs, including MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha.
In 2012, the government declared MS-13, which has ties in the U.S., an international criminal group. Arrests of MS-13 members by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have taken place in North Texas.
“Crimes of every nature occur 24 hours a day; daylight is not a deterrent,” the report on El Salvador says. “There are no areas that are deemed free of violent crime.”
Some children have traveled with smugglers, or “coyotes,” to enter the United States illegally.
Some come on trains or buses to the Texas-Mexico border, Castro said.
“They are either traveling alone or with an adult who they got separated from,” Springer said.
Apparently, smugglers don’t cross the Rio Grande with the youngsters. Instead, they point out where to cross, Castro said. Often, children say they crossed on the shoulders of a sibling.
“They are injured all the time,” Castro said.
Apprehensions of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico have increased in recent years, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Mexican children lead in apprehensions, with 17,240 in 2013, up from 13,974 the previous fiscal year.
Because Mexico is next to the United States, children are either returned to Mexican authorities or, in some cases, sheltered close to the border. The Border Patrol is authorized to return children from neighboring nations if there is no credible fear of persecution or evidence of trafficking.
Unaccompanied minors from non-neighboring countries are turned over to the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours.
“Although Border Patrol apprehensions are near record lows, the agency is concerned and closely monitoring a substantial increase in the numbers of unaccompanied minor children,” said Jenny Burke, a spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
While the Border Patrol is committed to securing the nation’s borders, Burke said, these cases require special care.
“ Children, especially those who are traveling without a parent or other caregiver, are inherently vulnerable and have unique needs,” she said.
Unaccompanied children make up only about 9 percent of Border Patrol apprehensions, she said.
“Although historic migration trends and patterns are cyclical and vary month by month over a year, this increase is generally consistent with the increase in apprehensions of other Central American nationals during this same period,” Burke said.
A safe place
The children in Fort Worth were caught at the border and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement before coming to the shelter.
Castro said the shelter screens them to make sure they are not victims of human trafficking and determines whether they are eligible for legal status in the U.S. They also get a checkup and vaccines.
The Catholic Charities shelter has space for 26 youngsters, Springer said. Ten of the slots are for youngsters the group is assisting through Child Protective Services. The 16 others are for the undocumented children, she said.
Springer said the children have typically been flown in from the Harlingen-Brownsville area by immigration authorities.
While the children stay in Fort Worth, the Office of Refugee Resettlement works to find relatives or sponsors for them. Then the children typically live with those people while awaiting the outcome of their immigration cases, Castro said
The youngsters attend classes and make friends. Some asked Castro for Facebook so they can contact relatives in Central America.
“I feel good here because I’ve met other children like me,” a 12-year-old from Honduras said in Spanish. She added that she feels safe and happy.
Fort Worth is just one stop on the journey. Many children end up with family in New York, California or Virginia, where a new chapter begins.
“It’s a place for kids to be with kids,” Springer said. “ A lot of them are very happy to be here — somewhere safe.”
Last week, the 12-year-old from Honduras was eager for that chapter to begin — she expected to join her dad soon.
“I’m so grateful that I get to see my dad again and not worry so much anymore,” she said.