At a glance: Mexico

Children face dangers as they try to cross desert into U.S.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF TACRO/2007/Caraveo
18-year-old 'Enrique' walks past a mural dedicated to people who've died trying to cross the desert into the United States. Like thousands of other people in Altar, Mexico, he is there looking for a smuggler to get him across.

By Thomas Nybo

ALTAR, Mexico, 24 May 2007 – For countless Latinos, the road to the American Dream has a short-cut through a tiny farming community about an hour-and-a-half south of the U.S.-Mexico border. Word has travelled throughout Latin America that if you're looking for a guide to help you illegally navigate the desert into the United States, you'll find him in Altar. 

A never-ending stream of buses delivers migrants to the front of the town square, where they will wait for a smuggler, known as a 'coyote', to offer his services to elude U.S. soldiers, immigration agents and armed citizen militias patrolling the border. A line of dusty vans sits, like taxis at an airport, along the far side of the square, waiting to ferry migrants to the border, where they will begin their dangerous three-day hike across the scorching desert.

18-year-old Enrique (not his real name) was approached by a coyote who offered to deliver him to a major U.S. city for $2,500. A relative is lending Enrique the money, which will be paid to the coyote upon delivery.

Trying to turn a dream into reality

There are no guarantees. Each year, hundreds of people die making this journey. Many of them are women and children who run out of water in the middle of the desert. Some migrants are caught by the authorities multiple times before they get across. Others are stripped bare of their belongings by bandits hiding along the worn desert trails.

Like many migrants, Enrique has grown tired of living on less than $3 a day. His dream is to own a house, and he says the only way to make that dream a reality is to get a job in the United States. Is Enrique afraid of what he might find in the desert?

“Yes, I am afraid because I have been told that many people die in the desert," he says quietly. "But to try to be in the United States, I will do my very best to get there.”

Enrique’s mother pleaded with him to stay in Mexico. But the lure of economic prosperity proved too strong. 

“My mother told me it is too risky,” he says. “But I'm going anyway.”

If Enrique succeeds, it will be years before he sees his mother again.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
Migrants try to cross in increasingly remote areas of the desert, sometimes carrying only two gallons of water for the long, hot journey.

Many dangers for children

With growing security on the border, migrants like Enrique are now trying to cross in increasingly remote areas of the desert, sometimes carrying only two gallons of water. That might seem like a lot, until you realize that temperatures often climb above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants are caught by the authorities every year. Most of the adults are simply dropped off back on the Mexican side of the border, free to try again. The children are sent to repatriation centres, where they wait to be picked up by a relative. UNICEF partner Colegio de la Frontera Norte works with the Mexican government to ensure that the children are safe, and given access to health and legal services. They also discourage the children from attempting another crossing.

“There are important dangers that children need to know about,” says Humberto Valdez, a director for DIF, a Mexican public institution of social assistance. “It is possible for them to become the victims of thieves, rapists, sex traffickers. And in some cases, people who want to sell their organs.”

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF video
A social worker speaks with a girl at a repatriation centre.

One of the fortunate ones

On the night before Enrique climbed into a van and sped off to the desert with a coyote, a journalist passed along his cell phone number with instructions to call him with news of the journey. One week passed without a call. On the evening of the eighth day, the phone rang. Enrique was on a pay phone on the outskirts of a large U.S. city.

“We made it!” he said. "I am calling from a gas station. I can only talk for a few minutes." He said that he and nine others travelled three days across the desert. They were robbed along the way, and nearly suffered hypothermia at night, but they made it out alive.

Still others will not be as lucky as Enrique, and will attempt the same journey. Children will continue to face the dangers of the desert with the lure of their dreams on the other side.


 

 

Video

February 2007:
UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports from the border town of Altar, Mexico on the dangers facing those who try to cross into the U.S.
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