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Child migrants head for US to flee crime, drawn by belief they are allowed to stay

Wednesday - 6/25/2014, 12:39pm  ET

In this Friday, June 20, 2014 photo, Central American migrants use trash bags and cardboard to protect themselves from the rain as they wait atop a stuck freight train, outside Reforma de Pineda, Chiapas state, Mexico. The first leg of the long cross-country train journey, to Ixtepec in Oaxaca, typically takes 12-14 hours. On this occasion, the migrants had to endure alternate exposure to rain, cold, and heat for two full days, as the train suffered a minor derailment in a remote area halfway to Ixtepec. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

ARRIAGA, Mexico (AP) -- On the last day of school, Gladys Chinoy memorized her mother's phone number in New York City and boarded a bus to Guatemala's northern border.

With nothing but the clothes on her back, the 14-year-old took a truck-tire raft across the Naranjo River into Mexico and joined a group of five women and a dozen children waiting with one of the smugglers who are paid $6,000 to $7,000 for each migrant they take to the U.S.

The women and children waited by the train tracks in this small town in the southern state of Chiapas until the shriek of a train whistle and the glare of headlights pierced the night. Suddenly, dozens of teens and mothers with young children flooded out of darkened homes and budget hotels, rushing to grab the safest places on the roof of the northbound freight train and join a deluge of children and mothers that is overwhelming the U.S. immigration system.

The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. Children are also widely believed to be crossing with their parents in rising numbers, although the Obama administration has not released year-by-year figures. The crisis has sparked weeks of bitter political debate inside the U.S., with the administration saying crime is driving migrants north from Central America and congressional Republicans saying Obama's policies are leading migrants to believe children and their mothers will be allowed to stay.

In interviews along the primary migrant route north to the United States, dozens of migrants like Gladys indicated that both sides are right.

A vast majority said they were fleeing gang violence that has reached epidemic levels in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent years. The migrants also uniformly said they decided to head north because they had heard that a change in U.S. law requires the Border Patrol to swiftly release children and their mothers and let them stay in the United States.

The belief that women and children can safely surrender to authorities the moment they set foot in the U.S. has changed the calculus for tens of thousands of parents who no longer worry about their children finishing the dangerous trip north through Mexico with a potentially deadly multiday hike through the desert Southwest.

"The United States is giving us a great opportunity because now, with this new law, we don't have to try to cross the desert where so many people die. We can hand ourselves over directly to the authorities," Gladys said, adding that she hopes to become a doctor.

The smiling teenager with long black hair said she was more excited about seeing her mother again than she was scared about the trip. Her mother said she was aware of the dangers but finally decided the risk was worth it after five years apart.

Reached by phone at home, the mother said she decided to send for her daughter because "if she gets across she can stay here, that's what you hear."

"Now they say that all children need to do is hand themselves over to the Border Patrol," said the mother, who declined to provide her name because she is in the U.S. illegally.

The migrants' faith isn't totally misplaced. While Mexicans generally are returned across the border quickly when they're caught, overwhelmed border facilities leave the government with no way to care for most Central American children and their parents. The Central American minors who cross the border alone have generally been released into the care of relatives already in the U.S., while mothers with children are let go with a notice to appear later in immigration court.

While many children and families may eventually be ordered out of the U.S., many are reporting in calls back home that they're free to move around the U.S. while their cases wend through a process that can take years.

The Obama administration estimates that between October 2013 and September 2014 it will have caught 90,000 children trying to illegally cross the Mexican border without their parents. Last year, the U.S. returned fewer than 2,000 children to their native countries.

"The story is that you have to give yourself up to the Border Patrol, provide a contact in the United States and you'll be freed even though they give you a court date far in the future," said Ruben Figueroa, a member of the Mesoamerica Migrant Movement who works in a shelter for migrants crossing the southeast Mexico state of Tabasco. "If you combine this information with the violence in the streets and extortion keeping people from living their lives, the result is a massive exodus."

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