He is alone.
He is a child, lost on the border, in a desert south of Texas.
He is 10 years old and he’s from Nicaragua, according to news reports. The skin around his eyes is purple, I suspect because of fear, hunger and so much crying. He seems very distraught. He’s wearing a Batman t-shirt and a black jacket against the cold. That’s all. Nothing to eat or drink. He suddenly approaches the truck of a U.S. border patrol agent who had just finished his shift. The agent starts to record with his cell phone.
“Can you help me? Can you help me?” he asks the agent twice, as he cries.
“I was coming in a group of people and they left me behind, and I don’t know where they are. They left me behind.”
“They left you alone? You’re not with your mom or dad?”
“Nobody. I was coming in a group and in the end they left me behind.”
“Did they tell you to come to ask for help?”
“No. I came because if I didn’t, which way am I going to go. I could be robbed, kidnapped or something. I am afraid.”
I watched the video several times, and it never fails to hit me. Because the child is so vulnerable. Because my children have been that age and I cannot imagine them alone like that, in a desert full of snakes and wild animals. Yet thousands of children are crossing the Mexican border with the United States every month, alone.
Just a couple of days earlier, two girls from Ecuador – three and five years old – were dropped from the top of a four-meter high border wall to the U.S. side. We know that from a Border Patrol surveillance camera. The two coyotes who had the girls escaped on the Mexican side.
“When I saw the first girl drop to the ground, and I didn’t see that girl move, I thought the worst. I thought she hit her head,” Gloria Chávez, head of the Border Patrol in El Paso, Texas, told me in an interview. “When I saw the videos, I said, this has to go to the news media, so they understand the risks these children are running when the families make the arrangement with criminal organizations to bring them to the border.”
More than 18,700 unaccompanied children crossed the U.S. border and were detained in March alone. That’s many times more than the 4,635 who did so in March of 2020. What changed?
A lot. There’s none of the “cruelty” – in the words of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas – that the Trump administration used to treat those children. Trump deported many of those children to Mexico or put them in cages. Now President Joe Biden has decided not to deport those children or put them in cages. But many of them have been forced to spend more than 72 hours in Border Patrol detention centers – which is illegal – or jam-packed centers run by the U.S. Department of Health. None of those places are appropriate for children. No matter where they come from.
The harder question is why parents risk their children and push them to cross the border – alone or with coyotes. And the harsh answer is that for thousands of families in Central America, it is much more risky for their children to remain in their country – facing hunger, gangs, corruption, rape and violence – than to attempt unaccompanied crossings of the U.S. border. It is a very difficult decision.
They are sending us what they most love – their children – for us to care for and protect them until they can be reunited again. This is incredible. They have enormous trust in this country. Many of these parents are already in the United States and have asked relatives and friends to bring their children. How can we blame them for wanting to be together. Of course, they could try to do that legally. But they know that process is extremely long, very complicated, expensive and not always successful. That’s why they use coyotes to bring them to the border.
I have read harsh criticisms of those parents on social media. But I don’t dare judge them. I ask myself, honestly, what would I do in a similar situation? We have to walk in their shoes. It is difficult to understand the degree of despair and poverty that must exist in areas of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala that forces a mother or a father to send their children north, alone, with a stranger.
And the trips – as we saw with the child lost on the Texas border and the girls from Ecuador – don’t always end well. The trauma for the child lasts a lifetime.
But it also opens a world of opportunities for them.
Those children we are seeing along the border are the new Dreamers.
Within 10 years or a little more we will see them in universities or speaking in English without fear on television or social networks, or running for an important elected job or creating a new business.
That’s why they come. That’s why so many are crossing the border. Even if it’s very dangerous. I know this is a very grave political problem, and that many young lives are being risked. I don’t recommend it at all. Don’t come this way, please. But I believe I understand why they do it, what drives them out of their countries and what lures them to this one. These Central American families have more faith in the United States than many Americans.
I suspect that some of these children along the border will one day tell us that it was all well worth it. Meanwhile, we have to take care of them as though they are our own children. Whatever happens, they are already part of our future.