Carlos eats breakfast at home in the Bronx. (Photo: Edward Keating)
Çarlos, the soon-to-be-19-year-old from Honduras, is most fond of pastimes and people who bring on temporary amnesia. His former girlfriend, Maria, was one such happy distraction. He plays soccer every Saturday in the Bronx at Mullally Park, just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium. That helps, too. “I concentrate so much,” he says, “that I forget about everything else.”
Most of the memories Carlos would like to lose come from the trip he made from Honduras to the United States as an unaccompanied migrant two years ago. He fled because it was his best chance of having an adulthood. His hometown San Pedro de Sula has the highest homicide rate in the Americas. Once, gang members on motorcycles arrived at a park where he had been playing soccer and opened fire. A mushy white scar on his right calf records where a bullet pierced his skin. At 15, he saw a close friend shot in front of him.
As a witness, Carlos would either have to join the responsible or be murdered gang. He went to live at an aunt’s house, an uncle’s, another aunt’s — at each, gang members arrived, threatening him. “I told my mother that if I was going to die, it would be trying to get out,” he says. She gave him $150 and he boarded a bus to Guatemala. The day he arrived at the Mexican border, he was robbed. The same week, he met a young woman who was also intent on riding the freight trains, called la Bestia or el Tren de la Muerte, to the United States. “She was beautiful,” Carlos remembers. Soon after they talked, he saw her stumble and fall on the tracks as she tried to board a train. Her decapitated head rolled to the ground near Carlos’s feet.
A month into his journey, Carlos was detained by a member of the Zetas cartel who demanded $80. At the stash house, he stood on a floor stained with blood and could hear the screams of migrants being tortured in back rooms. It was only because one of his traveling companions was a childhood friend of Carlos’s kidnapper that he went free. And then there was his 17th birthday, which he calls the worst day of his life.
Carlos was sleeping under a bridge when a man just a few feet away from him was burned to death. Another migrant awoke Carlos by telling him, “La migra [Immigration police] is coming.” He panicked and ran. The pungent smell of burning flesh was detectable even after he’d sought refuge in an adjacent forest. Carlos witnessed horrible things on the trains, too. He saw a woman gang raped. Migrants were occasionally thrown from the top of la Bestia
onto the tracks. When a family offered him a job in Veracruz setting up chairs and cleaning at an events hall, he seized it so he could save money to pay for the bus. Most Central Americans enter the U.S. by crossing the Rio Grande into Texas. Because his final bus ride left him in the northwest corner of Mexico, Carlos traversed through the Arizona desert. He smelled the human bones and decomposing remains before he saw them.
Twenty days into the trek, out of water and hallucinating, he made his way to the highway and walked on the double yellow line so he would be picked up by Border Patrol. After two days in a detention facility in Phoenix, it was transferred to a juvenile shelter in Westchester. When his grandmother, who is a U.S. citizen, saw him there, sheed faint. During his seven and a half months in Mexico, Carlos was able to call home just three times. “It ran through their heads a lot that I was dead,” he says.
More than 10,000 unaccompanied child migrants were apprehended at the border in June 2014 alone. A public relations campaign warning Central Americans against the journey, combined with a Mexican crackdown on migrants boarding la Bestia, helps reduce the number of arrivals by two thirds by the end of the summer. Nonetheless, advocates estimate that some 74,000 children and teenagers will cross into the United States this year. That’s almost double the figure from 2013.
Aside from Texas, New York has taken in more of these kids than any other state. In part because of geography, Carlos stands a better chance than most of being permitted to stay. As a Central American, he is entitled to a court hearing to determine if he will be deported.
(Mexican children, in contrast, can be screened and sent back by border patrol agents.) And, in a break with the past, the Office of Refuge Resettlement – the part of the Department of Health and Human Services that is responsible for the unaccompanied migrants — is picking up the tab for legal representation of children who are housed in their juvenile shelters in New York. Because Carlos was released to his grandmother in New York City, it also meant he could access a medical and legal clinic operated by Catholic Charities, the Children’s Health Fund, and Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. Every other Wednesday evening at the hospital, he and other unaccompanied teenage migrants in the city can receive medical check-ups, attend a group counseling session, and meet with an attorney.