With smuggling costs skyrocketing, parents balance risk and debt for their children’s future

Blurry image of woman in pink hodded sweatshirt standing in front of window, with reflection of trees

In May 2017, Julia called her mom in Florida. She told her she and a cousin had been mugged while walking home from work in their hometown in Honduras.

“I knew it wasn’t going to resolve anything, but she is the one I call when I want to talk,” Julia says.

Julia confessed to her mom that a few weeks earlier her younger brother was also robbed and beaten at 6 a.m. on his way to work.

“As a mother, when you hear something like that, the fear takes over you, and you’re just afraid about what is going to happen next,” says Anna, Julia’s mom. The mom and daughter now sit side by side in a small office in the back of a community center in Lake Worth, a beach town about an hour north of Miami. Anna and Julia aren’t their real names. They are both currently undocumented and asked not to be identified in this story.

“The only thing you think is that the situation is so dangerous in my country,” Anna says. “So all you think about at that point is getting them out.”

The family immediately started planning to bring Julia and her brother from Honduras to the US.

[[entity_id:"172759" entity_type:"node" entity_title:"Story Act: Walls We Don't See"]]

For decades, families have used smugglers to migrate north from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Many of the migrants are fleeing violence or seeking economic opportunity in the US. But in the past few years, the price of this trip has skyrocketed to between $7,000 and $10,000, more than double what it was a decade ago.

At the same time, the trip has become more difficult because of increased enforcement in Mexico and along the US-Mexico border. Several cartels have staked out territories on the US-Mexico border and charge migrants fees to cross. Still, families try to find a way to bring their children to the US, and make choices about what kinds of trips they can afford and how they will finance the journeys.

Anna already knew a little about the trip north. She made a similar trek back in 2005. She was a single mom, raising four kids in the small city of Juticalpa, Honduras. She decided to try to go to the US to make money to send back to her family. She found a coyote, a smuggler, and borrowed $4,000 from a family member in the US. They agreed she would pay him back once she got to Florida.

Anna crossed the US border undetected, took a bus to Florida, and quickly got a job as a maid. She cleaned houses during the day and offices at night. She slept in the living room of one of the homes where she worked so she could save on rent. She says she paid back her debt in four months.

Then, Anna started to send money home, about $100 a week. Twelve years passed like this. Anna talked to her eldest daughter Julia on the phone every day. And she found that her choice to leave made a difference.

Julia was studying business at a local college. Her son was on track to graduate from high school. “They have a better life than me,” Anna says. “They are not hungry, they have a roof over their heads. And when I think about it now, it was worth it.”

Everything changed when Anna got that early morning call from Julia.

Young man and woman in shadows in front of building
Anna’s son, on the left, waits for her to return from work in Lake Worth, Florida. The family is from Honduras, and the children were smuggled over the border into the US. Both of Anna’s children are working with her to help pay off the debt the family incurred in the process.Barbara P. Fernandez/PRI
Person sweeping in front of building
Julia cleans the front porch of the home she shares with her family in Lake Worth, Florida while she waits for her brother to come home from school. She says she’s not planning for the future, just trying to pay off the debt they owe to smugglers for bringing them to the US.Barbara P. Fernandez/PRI

“The parents who send their children north, or are already in the United States and pay the smugglers to take their children here — they’ve become an extremely criminalized group in our discourse,” says Stephanie Leutert, director of the Mexico Security Initiative at the University of Texas at Austin.

In February 2017, soon after President Donald Trump took office, Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly signed a memo directing immigration agents to target and possibly arrest parents who paid smugglers to bring their children to the US. Kelly is now Trump’s White House chief of staff.

Leutert says she has met many families like Anna’s and has seen them weigh the choices of whether to pay to bring their children across the border.

“The parents are just trying to do what’s best for their children, and they are trying to get them to the US in the safest way possible, but there is no safe way really,” Leutert says. Families are “left with this list of bad options.”

Migrants who have no money can hitchhike, walk or take the train, called La Bestia or “The Beast,” that runs from southern Mexico to the US border. The train is known to be dangerous, and in the past few years the Mexican government has cracked down on migrants who ride the train, as a way to curtail the deaths and assaults that have made the train so infamous.

Some families pay smugglers a few hundred dollars to explain the route. Others pay for a smuggler to purchase a Mexican identity cards for their children, so that they can at least pass through Mexico more easily and get to the US border. With a little more money, families can pay for a smuggler to book the bus tickets in advance, so migrants just show up and hop from one bus to the next.

“The more money you have, the better service you get,” Leutert says.

[[entity_id:"172744" entity_type:"node" entity_title:"Walls we don't see Newsletter"]]

For families who can pay, hiring a smuggler to take you to the border is often seen as the safest way. While there are smugglers who assault migrants along the way or leave them in the desert, Leutert says that many are from the same towns or areas as the migrants. They are known in communities and held responsible.

The smuggler takes care of crossing borders, acquiring fake documents, transportation, bribing Mexican officials, and paying the cartels at the US border to be able to cross. The cartel payment alone can cost 8,000 Mexican pesos, US$430, per person.

“Another thing that gets lost is that migrants are rational actors. They are going to try to protect themselves. They are going to try and get references. They are going to ask around and try to find a smuggler who they trust,” Leutert says.

One Guatemalan mother told Leutert that she took photos of her smuggler and threatened him that if anything happened to her child, she would use those photos to get him in trouble back in Guatemala.

“Migrants are going out of their way, trying to make this as secure an experience as they can, in what is a very unsafe journey,” Leutert says.

Anna chose to pay a smuggler. She contacted a cousin who had recently come to the US for a recommendation.

She messaged the smuggler and learned that he could get her two children out of Honduras the next week. She also learned that the price had changed since she paid $4,000 for her journey. The trip for two would cost $8,000 now and $8,000 once they crossed the US border.

On a Friday morning in July 2017, Julia and her brother got on a bus in Juticalpa. The smuggler told Julia and Anna that the trip would take about eight days. In the end, it took Julia and her brother two months just to get to the US border — and longer before they saw their mother.

Julia says the group of 27 migrants crossed the Honduras-Guatemala border on foot, because the identity cards they paid for never arrived. On one bus, she witnessed a shoot-out between people she thought were “the police and some criminals.” Once they crossed into Mexico, the siblings were held in a border town for about two weeks. Then the group was taken to Villahermosa, where Julia, her brother, and 100 other migrants were packed into an 18-wheeler for four days.

“At first they tell you that it’s 15 hours, and you try to stay calm. But once you start seeing that it’s not 15 hours, you start to panic a little bit,” Julia remembers. She says the back of the 18-wheeler was cold and dark. Sometimes the door would shift and let in some light. She was terrified. “You hear kids crying. You have to hope and wait for the next stop to be able to use the bathroom.”

During those four days, Julia and her brother had no contact with their mother, and Anna had no idea where her children were. Around this time, Anna saw on the news that police in San Antonio found an 18-wheeler in a Walmart parking lot with dozens of migrants overheated in the back. Ten people died. At the time, Anna had no idea her own children were in a similar situation.

Julia and her brother were dropped off in Reynosa, a border city in northern Mexico, where they were shuttled between stash houses, allegedly under the protection of the Gulf Cartel. After about three weeks, they were put on a small raft and sent across the Rio Grande to the US.

US Customs and Border Protection agents found them in the desert. Because she wasn’t a minor, Julia was detained in an immigration facility. After about two months, she was released while she and her brother apply for asylum. They flew to Florida to finally be with their mother.

Man stands behind counter, talking to young people
Tim Gamwell, 31, is the assistant executive director of the Guatemalan Mayan Center in Lake Worth, Florida. On some days, he goes to meet and greet parents at the Escuelita Maya, an after-school program that began to help more students finish high school.Barbara P. Fernandez/PRI

In the last three years, Tim Gamwell has seen many young people like Julia. Gamwell is the assistant executive director at the Guatemalan Maya Center, a nonprofit organization that works with immigrants and where Anna and Julia told their story.

“These kids who are in high school owe tens of thousands of dollars because they came to be with their mom or their dad,” Gamwell says. “They are trying to make this whole new calculus that I have never had to consider — about how they are going to go to work at night and school during the day.”

Some families are middle class and owned small shops or businesses in their countries, Gamwell says, but most are poor and from rural communities.

One young man told Gamwell that his family paid his smugglers about $10,000 for three chances to cross the border. The boy said he made it on the first try.

“His family paid part of that [money], and now he is working at an auto body shop and going to high school,” Gamwell says. “And the fear is that if he doesn’t pay it off, something could happen to his family in Honduras.”

To bring her children to the US, Anna took out an $11,000 loan from a man in Florida whom she would not name. He’s known for giving immigrants loans under the table with high interest. Anna knows it’s not a good deal, but she had no other options. She is undocumented so she can’t get a real loan, and she says her relatives don’t have that kind of money.

The stress of this debt makes Julia feel hopeless. She was studying business administration in Honduras and had a good job working at a gym. In Florida, she’s started working with her mom, cleaning houses, but she wishes she could help more.

Julia says right now, she doesn’t have any plans to go to school or try to finish her business degree in the US. Her only plan is to pay off this debt.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.