Oh, Girl!

Migrant children, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, are traveling to the U.S. border to escape violence and seek asylum. Is anyone listening to their stories?

Alice Driver | Longreads | June 2019 | 21 minutes (4,024 words)

DISPONIBLE EN ESPAÑOL

“I will go with a map,” decided 16-year-old Milexi. Her love of maps, she said, was part of what gave her the confidence to migrate roughly 1,460 miles from El Portillo, Honduras, to McAllen, Texas, alone. When I interviewed her in August 2018, she sat, her body tense, her gaze direct, on the sunlit patio of the Border Youth Care Center (CAMEF El Centro de Atención a Menores Fronterizos) in Reynosa, Mexico. Milexi’s hair was parted down the middle, and it shined in the sun as she said, “My dream was always to travel on the Beast,” as the train that runs from one end of Mexico to the other is known; migrants hop on and off it as they work their way through the country, sometimes losing a limb or two if they miscalculate the jump onto or off of the train. Milexi dressed as a man and made it as far as Reynosa before being caught and turned over to the Center, where she had then spent 57 days and made the request to receive asylum in Mexico.

Milexi left Honduras because her stepfather beat her mom and one of her brothers. She said that he beat her mother for years, that he fractured her 11-year-old brother’s knee. She said that she started cutting herself at age 7, but was also proud of herself because, for the past year, despite feeling anxious, she had not cut herself once.

Then she added a detail: One night her stepfather beat her mother. She waited until he was asleep then got a knife from the kitchen and stabbed him. “I had bad luck and the knife struck in the wrong place,” she explained without blinking. Her stepfather survived and after that, she decided to leave Honduras.

Milexi hoped to request asylum in the United States on the grounds of domestic violence, perhaps unaware that U.S. policies related to domestic violence had changed. In June 2018, then Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a decision titled Matter of A-B- vacated an immigration court decision to grant asylum to a woman fleeing domestic violence. A federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s policy ending asylum for those fleeing domestic violence, but the situation for migrants who request asylum based on domestic violence claims remains in limbo and is still open for interpretation. Orange County–based immigration lawyer Ashkan Yekrangi said that Session’s actions have created a gray area in which judges are unsure of how to treat asylum cases based on domestic violence claims. For now, according to Yekrangi, “The majority of cases are still being denied because judges and the Department of Homeland Security are relying on the Matter of A-B-.”

A room for migrant girls at the Home for Children in Reynosa.

Milexi knew none of that. I hovered, indecisive about whether to try to explain what was going on in the U.S., worried that the weight of such knowledge would throw her into despair. Mexican photographer Jacky Muniello and I had decided that we wanted to work on a project with migrant girls, because we felt like their stories were often untold or that their voices were included only in certain stereotypical contexts like discussions of prostitution or human trafficking. We were aware that it would be difficult — potentially impossible — to navigate not only Mexican bureaucracy and getting the permissions necessary to interview and photograph minors, but ethically complicated as well. I let Milexi speak, interrupting her as little as possible, worried that the slightest misstep on my part would break her sense of trust in me. Her first reflections about the journey were filled with wonder — the freedom of traveling on her own, of living free of violence — but the weight of unsaid trauma hung in the air.

Four months after leaving Honduras, Milexi arrived in Reynosa. It was June and temperatures hovered near 100 degrees. She walked into a city with in which journalists were afraid to report the truth, a city where photojournalists had long faced the choice of either dying for their vocation, fleeing the city, or becoming wedding photographers. Citizens who wanted to find the latest news relied on a Facebook page called Code Red Reynosa (Código Rojo Reynosa) where anonymous sources posted information about events, mostly violence, in real time. On walls around the city, devotees of Holy Death had spray-painted her likeness, a skeleton in hooded robes carrying a scythe, sometimes accompanied by the words No me chingues (“Don’t fuck with me”). Although Milexi didn’t know it when she arrived, she was as likely to wake up to the sound of a shootout between various cartels, including splinter groups of the notorious Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, along with the Army, which occupies the city, as anything else. As she discovered, soldiers dressed in camo and bulletproof vests patrolled the city in armored SUVs with mounted gun turrets.

Tomás, a resident of Reynosa, paid a local artist to create a mural honoring Holy Death, a popular saint in the area. The words written next to Holy Death’s mouth read, No me chingues (“Don’t fuck with me”).

Milexi was apprehended while trying to cross the border to McAllen, Texas. She still had the round, full face of a child — it had not yet gotten lean like her body  — and she wore no makeup. She was one of 37 migrant children at the Center in Reynosa that August whose ages ranged from 12 to18. The kids at the shelter wandered around in laceless shoes — even the metal grommets had been removed — a precaution the center took with minors to prevent self-harm. The shelter held a maximum of 120 kids, explained José Guadalupe Villegas García, the coordinator at the Center, before he pointed out, “There are no mirrors, because they can hurt themselves.” The Center was surrounded by a white fence and manned by a security guard. Until the situation of each minor was legally defined, they could not leave.

Migrants, even when they are children, are often demonized in the media, both in Mexico and the U.S. “I honestly expected to find myself working with very bad or aggressive guys. That is the stereotype of Central American migrants,” explained Víctor Tolentino Reyes, 29, an artist from Reynosa who works with children at the Border Youth Care Center on art projects. Of the migrants he had worked with, he said, “You run into children who are searching for a better future; or you run into children who are on their way to meet their parents for the first time, parents who left them when they were newborns; or boys who are fleeing for their lives and are going through a difficult stage for any human, which is adolescence or puberty. And here they face all types of situations, because it is complex to face that you are locked up.” Of the roughly dozen children I interviewed, most mentioned the difficulty of living at the Center and the fact that at some point, after enough time, it did feel like a prison.

Isis, 27, from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, tries to console her daughter Linda, four, who is sad because she can’t leave the enclosed space of the Home for Children.

In 2018, more than 30,000 children from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador were temporarily held in Mexican detention centers like the Border Youth Care Center. During a roughly two-week period in January 2019, some 3,000 children crossed from Tecún Umán, Guatemala, into Tapachula, Mexico. Minors are held for their own safety at such centers, given the risk that they could be kidnapped by gangs and that deportation for a child who has experienced physical or sexual violence or been threatened by a gang, could result in death. Some of the minors are apprehended in Mexico while others cross into the U.S., are caught by border patrol, and deported. According to the Pew Research Center, U.S. apprehensions of unaccompanied children rose substantially between June 2017 and June 2018. Migrants like Milexi, if left on their own in Reynosa, for example, are likely to experience violence at the hands of gangs or to be kidnapped and sold into prostitution. The Center tries to identify parents or relatives in order to release minors to family; once that occurs, the minors are then transported to their home country (if the minor, though, is a native of Mexico, the child can remain in the Center until they reach 18 years of age and can legally make decisions for themselves). This means that some children spend months or years at the Center.

The Border Youth Care Center where Milexi was held is one of several in Mexico run by the National System for Integral Family Development (DIF), which among other programs, provides safe housing to undocumented minors who have been apprehended by Mexican authorities or deported by U.S. authorities back to Mexico. According to the Migration Policy Institute, an estimated 25,000 children were repatriated in 2015, and through 2018, Customs and Border Protection reported that some 50,000 minors were apprehended at the border between ports of entry.

Jacky and I received permission to visit the Border Youth Care Center in Reynosa and the Home for Children (Casa Hogar del Niño), a shelter for children under 18 and their mothers or female relatives. The only condition for our access was that we would only use first names and we would not photograph the faces of children without the written permission of their mothers or relatives, in the case that they were accompanied. I had previously been denied access to the Border Youth Care Center in Nuevo Laredo in June 2018, and the director of that center stated that he couldn’t risk bad press during an election season, which ended the following month. The directors of both centers in Reynosa discussed being afraid, in general, that journalists would be critical of the conditions there, and while they conceded to only a brief interview, they gave us access to interview migrant children for roughly an hour a day over a period of a week.

* * *

At the Home for Children, I interviewed two 8-year-old girls, my first experience with such young subjects. Karen sat with her body erect as she told me that she didn’t feel scared traveling through Central America. Her tiny ears were pierced with gold studs, and she squatted next to a tree on the playground of the Home for Children surrounded by a low wall decorated with the handprints of migrant children. She was from Tepec, Guatemala, and her parents lived in the U.S. She said she had traveled with her 7-year-old cousin to Reynosa, Mexico. She did not provide details. When I asked her how long she traveled, she responded, “Day and night.” I wondered how fully she grasped the details of her journey, if she had been able to process all the changes in her life since leaving Guatemala.

Karen crouched next to Katerin, also 8, who had traveled to the U.S. with her mother in order to be reunited with her father. Katerin explained that she and her father lived in Florida for a few months before they were both caught and deported. Her father was being held in a separate facility in Reynosa. When I asked her if she wanted to request asylum in the U.S. she responded, “I don’t know.” Then she explained, in the meandering way of a child still making sense of her surroundings: “We are going back to our home because my grandma was with my grandpa and two of my uncles and an uncle who has a store. And my mom was sad because her cousin died. We didn’t know, but a girl talked about her cousin to his mom and told her that he had died. I want to talk to my grandma, but I don’t know if they are going to allow me a phone call to talk to her.” Karen and Katerin sat close to each other silently, their bodies relaxed, their friendship budding. Then they stood up and followed a group of kids over to the fence, grabbing the top rail with their plump fingers, gazing out beyond the fence at a wall. Before leaving the shelter, I had Karen’s mother and also Katerin sign an interview and photo permission form. Neither of them had a coherent story, but they had shared with me what they could. Karen wrote out her name, face full of concentration, in square letters constructed deliberately, in the hand of someone who has recently learned to write. I had permission from the Home for Children to interview Karen, and I had whatever concept of consent an 8-year-old can grant.

At the Home for Children, I also met Erika Izabel from Trujillo, Honduras, who sat beside her daughters Erika, 10; Ashley, 7; and Tifany, 4, near the playground. She said left “more than anything, because of domestic violence.” According to a 2015 United Nations report, domestic violence was the leading crime reported in Honduras, but few abusers are convicted in court. Erika’s brother gave her $500 to help pay for bus fare and food so that she would not have to risk her children’s lives. Her husband gave her some money too, and he told her, “Follow your path, nobody is going to stop you.” Her oldest daughter, tall and like a string bean, looked out into the playground yard, lost in thought. Ashley, whose hair was in a French braid, hovered next to her mom. She said that she was not afraid of the journey to Mexico and explained “because I didn’t want to be there,” referring to Honduras. Tifany, ran up to her mother and began to hiccup as her eyes overflowed with tears. She started to sob silently, her curls trembling, then whispered in gulping breaths, “I miss school.” Her mother, unable to bear the sadness, looked up at the sky.

Tifany, 4, migrated with her mother Erika Izabel and her two sisters from Trujillo, Honduras to Reynosa, Mexico. She and her mother and sisters stayed at the Home for Children while requesting asylum in Mexico.

Erika also worried about the girls missing school. “They are very intelligent. They get good grades. It is the only thing that worries them — missing school. But then when I have thought, maybe in moments of despair, to pray for deportation, they tell me at that moment that they do not want to go back to the house.” Her oldest daughter, her namesake, began to cry. As she wiped tears from her face, she said that her father was violent to her mother: “He hit her a lot. He told her he wanted to kill her.” Erika, her mother, mentioned that the girls remembered everything, that the littlest one still said, “My dad is bad.”

Liliana, 19, from La Unión, El Salvador, told me that she had lived at the Home for Children since she was 17 when she arrived with her son Josef, who was a few months old at the time. The pair had spent almost two years at the shelter due to the fact that her first asylum request in Mexico was rejected, and the Home for Children, fearing she would be murdered if deported, provided her support to appeal the ruling. Josef had played on the swing set in the heat of the afternoon, and he was asleep in Liliana’s arms. Liliana piled her golden-brown hair on top of her head, but curls escaped at the nape of her neck. She wore a multicolored halter top, and she sat at a table in a hallway that connected to the playground on one end and the dormitories on the other. She talked about meeting the father of her child, a 35-year-old member of the MS-13 gang, when she was 15. “He was always violent,” she said, talking with downcast eyes about how he beat her when she was pregnant. Her mother had migrated to the U.S. when she was young, leaving her with a brother. “There was nobody to help me,” she explained, rocking Josef in her arms. She talked about how common it was for older men to date minors in El Salvador, said that you could file a complaint about it, but because it was so common, everyone, even the police, saw those relationships as normal.

“The whole time that I was with the father of my child, he did not let me communicate with my mom. I did not have a phone. I did not have internet. I did not have anything,” said Liliana. She lived with her boyfriend, his brother — also a gang member — and the brother’s wife. Liliana remembered the brother choking his partner with an electric cord and leaving her unconscious. Liliana had requested asylum in Mexico but due to a lack of documentation of the domestic violence she discussed, her request had been denied. The shelter continued to care for her and Josef during the process of appealing the ruling, fully aware that without their support she would be on the streets of Reynosa with a young child and unable to work due to her legal status.

A migrant minor who traveled unaccompanied through Central America sits on a bunkbed frame at the Border Youth Care Center in Reynosa.

* * *

Like Milexi, Erika and her daughters and Liliana and her son had initially hoped to request asylum based on domestic violence claims. When I interviewed Milexi in August, it marked the three-month anniversary of her arrival in Reynosa, and she was still waiting to receive asylum in Mexico. She didn’t know how long it would take. She said that initially she did not think the trip on the Beast would be either too easy or too difficult. Then she listed what she saw along the way: a girl raped, a boy killed, and two gang members pushed off the train and ground to pieces by its wheels. She described, “I even had to see the rape of a young girl. She was raped there, they did … oh, poor thing! In front of everyone, in front of all the men. Obviously, I did not want to see it, because how ugly! On the train, they did it! How horrible! There were so many of them, eight who did it. There was so much blood that the whole cabin was full of blood and even the handrails where you get off the train were covered in blood.” She talked about the rape, her face flat. The last she saw, the girl was weak and nobody wanted to help her.

In the railway car that she rode in, Milexi said the rape victim was the only other girl. The girl was traveling with a boy, Milexi explained, but then added, “But there are rules.” Before hopping on the train, Milexi said a group of 12 boys gave all the migrants a talk, listing the rules of the Beast:

  1. No couples traveling together in the same railway car
  2. No cuddling or kissing
  3. No insults
  4. No stealing

Milexi said that everyone had to respect the rules, then added, “That girl failed. I doubt she was saved.” She said that the girl was kissing her boyfriend and that she wore “flashy clothes.” In contrast, Milexi dressed as a man. “I think that they didn’t even recognize me as a woman,” she said.

Then calmly, without changing her tone of voice or taking a breath, Milexi described the assault. A gang member demanded that a migrant hand over all his belongings and money, to which the migrant responded, “Why do I have to give you my things if I am suffering? Why do I have to give them to you?” The gang member then called him a “fucking fag,” took out a knife, and cut him open. Milexi said that the blood made a sound, something like psst psst. She sat, frozen, sure that she would be the next victim, until the guys she was traveling with said, “What are you doing? You’re insane. Something is going to happened to you if you don’t stop watching that.” Milexi said, “I couldn’t speak. My throat felt swollen. I couldn’t speak given what had just happened. I stayed there. I was in shock.”

At another point, she said that gang members started chasing her and her friends down the train. They shouted, “Stop, you motherfuckers!” Milexi and the boys she traveled with ran from railway car to railway car. A migrant boy in front of her turned around and told her to go ahead. When two gang members caught up to the migrant, he hit one, who then fell down the stairs and was pulled into the wheels of the train. The migrant then pushed the other gang member off the train. Milexi remembered shouting, “Oh, no, he is going to fall!” She described the train eating him up, starting with his feet, as the rest of his body trembled.

Milexi talked about running out of money when she arrived in Monterrey on the Beast. The first person she saw there was a young woman who was sweeping. She approached her and said, “Hey, boss, can I help you sweep? Can I help you clean?” In return for her help, Milexi asked the woman for a bus ticket to the city center. The woman responded, “Oh, yes, my daughter,” and then Milexi started to mop and wash clothes. Later, upon arriving in the heart of the city, Milexi saw a butcher cutting up chickens. She offered to skin the chickens, and in return he gave her 50 pesos (about $2.50) and a free phone call. She called one of her neighbors in Honduras, who before going to look for her mother, who she hoped to talk to, said, “Oh, girl! Where you have made it, many men have failed.”

She decided to stay in Monterrey and try to earn some money to afford a bus ticket for the rest of the way to the border. She got a job as a chili seller at the local market and woke up at 3 a.m. every day. “My family was very proud of me, and my plans were to bring my mom and my little brother here,” she explained, adding “so they can get away from my stepfather. He is like a super spy and he doesn’t leave them alone.” After several months in Monterrey, she saved up some money and made her way to Reynosa, hoping to cross into the U.S. She admitted that she was worried about the border, about avoiding gangs, about finding places to sleep, about being caught by La Migra. Beyond those fears, she dreamed of getting a university degree and talked about her love of computer science and her interest in joining the armed forces.

Sitting on the patio of the Center, dappled in sunlight, she turned the tender flesh of her wrist toward me, displaying hundreds of faintly overlapping lines — scars of her own making. Then she pointed to her thigh. She wanted to show me the history of her pain, and so she wrapped a towel around her waist and pulled down the left leg of her jeans to reveal several dark gashes covered by a delicate crosshatch of scars. She began cutting her flesh after her stepfather started raping her. She eventually told her mother about the abuse. “She slapped me and told me I was a whore and that I had offered myself up,” explained Milexi, looking straight ahead.

Milexi stands in a dorm room at the Border Youth Care Center, showing the scars she made when she started cutting herself at age seven.

Fleeing her home was also her first time traveling outside of Honduras, and she was enchanted by the landscapes of Guatemala and Mexico. Milexi said: “It was very beautiful to travel on the Beast. I loved it, if it weren’t for so many crimes and assaults and all that. If I was deported to Honduras and if they asked, ‘Do you want to go back [on the Beast]?’ I would be delighted just because of what I got to see. There is so much violence in Honduras that I was already used to that in my house.” As Milexi signed the interview consent form, she spelled out her name, drawing tiny circles over each dotted “i,” then she signed her name in cursive with a controlled flourish.

Milexi, like Lilian and her son and Erika and her daughters, had survived more violence at home than most of us could imagine. They all had hoped to request asylum in the U.S. based on domestic violence claims, but even if they got the chance, it remains unclear whether the U.S. asylum system would listen to their stories. Milexi ran her fingers tenderly over her wrist, touching the scars that she made to survive. And then she looked me in the eyes and said, “I have faith that I will get ahead. This is just momentary.”

* * *

More from this series:
Father of Migrants
The Mutilated and Disappeared
The Road to Asylum

* * *

Alice Driver is a longform journalist and translator based in Mexico City. She covers borders and migration, and she is the author of More or Less Dead. You can find her work at National Geographic, California Sunday, Time, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN.

Editor: Mike Dang
Photographer: Jacky Muniello
Fact-checker: Matt Giles
Copy editor: Jacob Gross
Translation: María Ítaka