Children of the Storm

Hurricane Mitch left thousands homeless, jobless, and alone, forcing them to cross the border in search for new lives in America. And those were just the kids.

Walter Cruz sits down on the rocky river bank in Nuevo Laredo, watching the Rio Grande, his back turned to Mexico and to the long trail leading to his native Honduras. He feels cold--gripped by a familiar hunger that comes from weeks of uncertain meals and days of hiking through rough terrain and thick jungle. Walter is 17, though his beardless face and small frame, made thinner by the long trip, make him look even younger.

From the shore, he sees lights twinkling on the American side, like so many promises of food, warmth, and work. He's been waiting for three days, sleeping in hidden corners, afraid of the Mexican migra, ruthless immigration officers who follow no rules but their own. Yet he is more afraid of the treacherous undercurrent he's about to face: In the United States, it's called the Rio Grande, the great river; south of the border it's el Rio Bravo del Norte, bravo meaning rough, but also furious, as if the river were angry at those like Walter who attempt to cross its waters looking for a better life.

Long before he left his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on January 15, Walter heard the stories of immigrants who survived the arduous journey from Central America only to lose their lives or their families to the pull of the river. He knows of other teenagers, even adults, who turned back at this point, but he has come too far--there is too much riding on his success.

His mother had lost everything she owned to Hurricane Mitch: the house they lived in, the furniture, even their clothes. Now, she watches over his 7-year-old brother and 8-year-old sister in the crumbling rooms that were left standing, wearing the clothes he had bought for her before he left. She is depending on him, praying for him, waiting for him to call and say he is safe on the other side.

He's watched scores of other men crossing the river in the past few days; he knows he must strip down to his underwear, stuff his clothes and shoes in a plastic bag, and close it tightly so they will stay dry. Going with him is Victor, another Honduran teenager he met along the way. The boys tie the bags to their backs, and plunge shivering into the murky water.

The rushing river is nothing like the Caribbean Sea that Walter swam in as a child; it drags the boys along, and they panic, kicking against the push-pull of the current. In the struggle, the river rips open Walter's carefully bound package, tearing away his shirt, shoes, and pants. In a final lunge, he manages to grab his pants. Exhausted, he saves his last breath to make it to the shore. Later he will learn that even while el Rio Bravo had let him go, others had been less fortunate: Not far from where he had crossed, five men from El Salvador had drowned that same day.

It is early morning when he crawls out onto the American bank, wet, tired, without shirt or shoes or money, and he knows nothing of the failed plans and the stillborn dreams of others. He is happy, crouched by the river for what seems like hours while his friend finds a church willing to donate clothes. He has time to plan his next step: finding his aunt somewhere in faraway Dallas.

At last, dry and dressed, the two boys are ready to walk into Laredo. Strolling down the streets that early February, smiling to himself in his ill-fitting clothes and too-big shoes, Walter is a textbook example of the new indocumentado.

Now, it wasn't just young, able-bodied men who were making the hazardous journey north, but children, boys no older than 17 and as young as 10, orphaned by Hurricane Mitch or left homeless or jobless and unable to fend for themselves or their families. These children had grown up watching American shows on television, listening to stories passed down by their mothers about the men in their family who had gone before them.

If they survived the journey, if they made it across the river, they had no idea what the future and the United States government had in store for them. Would they be allowed to stay, having nothing to return to--no home, no family, no life? Or would they be sent back, deported, treated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service like the undocumented immigrants they were, with no consideration given to their tender age or dire circumstance?

When the border patrol drove by Walter and his friend on the streets of Laredo, the officers didn't hesitate to stop them.

"They asked us where we were from, and we said Honduras," recalls Walter. "They asked if we had documents to be here. Of course we didn't, so we said we didn't, and they put us in their truck. There we were, caught, just like that, after weeks of suffering."

They hadn't even been in the United States for a day.

No one knows exactly how many children have made their way into this country. They are the most fragile and overlooked link in the long chain of immigrants connecting Central America's underprivileged to the possibility of work in the United States. In the months following the hurricane, however, the number of Central Americans apprehended entering the country illegally exploded to four or five times the usual number apprehended. The Laredo and Del Rio Border Patrols saw nearly a 500 percent increase in the number of Central Americans--mainly Hondurans--who were detained.

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