Edilsa Cano was fleeing sexual assault, kidnapping and death threats — all from her own family — when she left her village in Guatemala at 16.
Now 21, she sees her own desperation in the tens of thousands of Central American children, some as young as 4, flooding the U.S. border with Mexico. Border authorities are scrambling to shelter the children, and President Barack Obama is looking for ways to deport them faster to cope with what has been called a humanitarian crisis.
Cano said it took her about a month to make the dangerous trip from Central America to the U.S.
Before the 1,000-mile journey was over, she would sleep, six to a bed, with strangers also migrating through Mexico, run away from a violent coyote , or human smuggler, in Arizona and then wander, lost in the desert and looking for help.
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“I don’t really know how I got here,” Cano said in disbelief. “God is with every single child that crosses the border.”
Central Americans trying to escape war, economic trouble and natural disasters have been making new homes in North Texas for decades. But the numbers are far greater now, and more of the immigrants are young: U.S. Customs and Border Protection has reported 52,193 apprehensions of unaccompanied children at the southwest border for fiscal 2014, which began in October, up 99 percent from last year’s 26,206.
Gang violence and rampant crime are driving the exodus from Central America, in addition to the old problems.
In Guatemala, for example, Doctors Without Borders estimates that 10,000 rapes are committed a year, most of them at home by relatives or acquaintances.
Sexual assaults often go unreported because victims don’t believe they will see justice: A study by the International Justice Mission found that only 3 in 10 reported cases of sexual assault in Guatemala from 2008 to 2010 moved past the investigation phase. Prosecutors file charges in only 1 in 10 cases, according to the group.
When migrants leave for the U.S., they are exposed to muggings, thefts, kidnappings and rapes, according to a news release from Doctors Without Borders. A survey of 396 people treated in central and southern Mexico from July 2013 to February 2014 found that more than half — 58 percent —experienced violence on the journey.
“I decided to come by myself,” Cano said, shifting between Spanish and English as she told the story of her illegal flight from a tortured home life.
After years of physical and mental abuse by relatives, she wanted out.
“The problem is that you are in a situation that you want to escape,” Cano said. “I told my father: ‘I can’t stand it anymore. I want to leave.’ ”
She took just two pairs of pants and two blouses, along with the clothes she was wearing.
“My father gave me a Bible,” Cano said.
Her aunt and uncle advised her to carry a small knife for protection and to guard against dehydration by drinking liquids containing electrolytes.
They collected enough money to pay the coyote’s $10,000 fee, and Cano met him in Chiquimulilla, Guatemala, where she got into a car with three older men, also traveling to the United States.
They made it to the Guatemala-Mexico border in about a week. Cano’s last day in her native country was Jan. 3, 2010.
They spent two nights crossing into Mexico on foot. Cano said she was focused on her escape and unafraid.
“I was so young,” Cano said. “I took it as a game.”
For another week, she and other Guatemalans traveled north, day and night, by bus. Twice, Mexican authorities stopped the bus and singled her out. Each time, the Mexican authorities wanted money — 3,000 pesos, or about $231.
“My accent was different,” Cano said. Because she sounded Salvadoran, she was assumed to be in Mexico illegally, and they demanded a bribe. The coyote gave them the money, so the authorities let her get back on the bus.
When the bus reached a town in central Mexico, Cano stepped off and looked for a place to sleep. After several hotels refused to admit an illegal immigrant from Guatemala, a taxi driver took pity on the 16-year-old and dropped her off at the home of a woman who let her stay.
Soon, Cano got on another bus that took her to the border town of Altar, across from Arizona. She was there for 15 days, in a house that resembled a hotel and held hundreds of people. They were fed only breakfast, she said.
“In one bed, you used to sleep six people at a time,” she said. “It didn’t matter where you were from.”
Cano and 32 others crossed into Arizona through holes in a wooden fence. Their instructions: “Don’t let anyone see you.”
Remembering her family’s advice, she carried a gallon of water, Gatorade and a drink similar to Pedialyte, which contains electrolytes to prevent dehydration on the last leg of her journey through the Arizona desert.
‘We got lost in the desert’
After about a week in the desert, the coyote separated the males from the females and tried to rape a 10-year-old girl, Cano said. The females — three teens, the 10-year-old and a 45-year-old — ran.
“We defended ourselves and went running,” she said. “We got lost in the desert.”
It’s unclear how long Cano and the others walked. At one point, they found a woman’s body. They kept walking. Cano said it was cold and there was snow. The 45-year-old became dehydrated, and the 10-year-old needed help to continue.
Finally, they reached a house and knocked on the door, seeking help. But immigration authorities showed up, and Cano wound up at a youth shelter for unaccompanied minors in Arizona.
Cano transferred to Texas to get help through the International Foster Care program. The process took months and included searching for any relatives in the U.S.
Catholic Charities Fort Worth, the same agency working with the current wave of unaccompanied minors, helped Cano join her foster family in 2010.
She received legal status through Special Immigrant Juveniles, which helps certain foreign children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected.
“It was deemed unsafe for her to return to Guatemala,” said Sharon Young, a case manager with Catholic Charities’ International Foster Care program in Fort Worth.
Since last summer, Catholic Charities Fort Worth has helped about 200 youngsters. It recently doubled its youth shelter capacity from 16 to 32 — numbers that don’t even make a dent in the 60,000 to 90,000 expected this year.
Salvadorans fled war
Many Salvadorans came to the U.S. in the 1980s searching for peace.
“My mom came because of the war,” said Xiomara Hernandez, 35, of Fort Worth. “Someone had gotten shot in her back yard.”
Hernandez’s father came to the U.S. first. Then he sent for the rest of the family, who entered illegally but later gained legal status with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch also prompted waves of Central Americans to head north.
Jose Mario Mejia Barrera, the El Salvador consul general in Dallas, said children are making the journey now for multiple reasons. One is family reunification. Many of the immigrants are teens whose parents left in the last 10 years — shortly after natural disasters in Central America — and they want to be together again.
Mejia said child migrants may also be victims of unscrupulous people telling them that they can get legal status in the U.S.
“There is a lot of disinformation,” he said.
He added that many children say they fear for their safety and want to escape gang violence.
Maria, a Salvadoran immigrant who cleans houses in North Texas, said her family has told her that criminals in El Salvador use children as go-betweens for crimes. For example, a child is enlisted to demand payments from a family.
“You don’t see the maras,” Maria said, referring to the term for gangs. “The person who picks up the money are the kids.”
If families are perceived to have money or property, criminals target them, she explained, adding that this activity may be tied to the maras but that it’s difficult to know.
This year, Maria learned that her 19-year-old nephew was coming to Texas, fleeing criminals trying to extort hundreds of dollars from his family. They threatened to take him if the family didn’t pay, Maria said.
U.S. immigration authorities who caught her nephew wanted to identify him and see whether he had family here, she said. So Maria sent them a letter describing how she would be responsible for him.
“I am worried,” said Maria, who didn’t want to be identified in this article. “That’s why I did the letter. It would hurt me to find out something happened to him.”
But he was deported about a month ago.
“He returned to El Salvador, but he’s not at his mother’s house,” Maria said.
News images of youngsters in Border Patrol custody have made immigrants want to help or find out whether they have relatives coming to the border.
“We need to find out what is going on with each child,” said Nicolas Argueta, president of the Asociacion Salvadorena Americana, founded in the Dallas area in 1991.
Argueta said the group is helping authorities and social service groups identify children so they can be united with relatives who may be in the U.S.
A better life
Cano graduated from Paschal High School in Fort Worth this year. She is married and has a 5-month-old daughter, Guadalupe. She works many hours at a Fort Worth Wal-Mart, speaks English, and wants to become a U.S. citizen and a nurse.
She said the hardest part of her journey wasn’t traveling through two unknown countries among strangers. It was learning to become an American.
Cano said her foster families had high expectations. When she stayed with Brenda Diaz, or Momma Brenda, she had to attend school, learn English through the Rosetta Stone program and take English as a second language classes at a church.
“English, English, English,” Cano said, recalling Diaz’s words. “You are in America.”
Cano said that she was expected to study and that a grade of 70 percent wasn’t acceptable.
Diaz, who lives in Sunnyvale, said that helping the young migrants is a calling and that part of the job is teaching them self-reliance.
“What do we do with these kids?” Diaz said. “They are children. They didn’t create the situation they are in.”
Tears filled Cano’s eyes when she imagined whether she would want her daughter to make a journey like hers. She glanced at the baby.
“I wouldn’t like for her to live what I’ve been through.”