KENDALL, Fla. -- They come frightened, confused, often clutching toys. They arrive over land, by air and by water. If they're old enough to grasp their situation, they'll tell you they come for work, for schooling, and for escape from a dangerous or otherwise unhealthy environment.
They're as young as 3 and as old as 17; they are the children who come to the United States illegally and alone.
While the Immigration and Naturalization Service says it has no firm figures on how many unaccompanied minors have hit American shores, indications are that the numbers are increasing. The Community Relations Service, a Justice Department agency that contracts for the care of immigrant children in southern Texas and Florida, has seen its caseload go from 292 in 1988 to 1,647 in 1990, the last year for which figures are available.
And as the number of children multiplies, so do the distances over which they travel.
A 17-year-old recently flew to Miami from China, after a stopover in Peru. His falsified documents, attendant smuggling fees and airfare cost his family $10,000.
"I've had, I'd say, seven children from China in the past year," says Lourdes Nieves, a counselor at Boystown in Kendall, one of two Catholic shelters in the Miami area that house minors who immigrate illegally.
The teen from China has relatives who are legal residents in the United States, so his future is assured and his stay at Boystown will be short.
But an 11-year-old girl from Mexico has been at the Catholic Home for Children, where girls are sheltered, for seven months.
"Her story is complicated and sad," Mr. Nieves says.
Abandoned by her parents in Mexico, the child was taken in by an uncle who mistreated her. He eventually gave her to friends who were coming to the United States. She was to work in their home as a maid and baby sitter.
Last year, a Florida Health and Rehabilitative Services worker found the girl with a 1-year-old boy wandering the streets of Miami.
"She had never been to school," says Mr. Nieves.
When first brought to the Catholic Home for Children, the girl, like many others, cried continuously.
"Now she is fine," assures Mr. Nieves. "She is adjusting to the program."
With any luck, the child soon will be placed in a foster home in Texas.
Carlos Holguin, general counsel with the privately supported Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles, says 90 percent of the apprehended children are sent back home, even when there is no identified family to return them to. "They are simply turned over to the government of their country," he says. That means the children may end up in orphanages.
"Whether you're 2 or 42, you have to have a right to be in this country," says Duke Austin, spokesman for the INS in Washington.
Yet like adults, children too may win asylum by fighting deportation in a hearing before an immigration judge.
Mr. Holguin has an extensive record of suing the INS on behalf of minors: for detention in facilities that he says did not meet minimum standards for the care of non-delinquent juveniles, for denial of civil rights, and for holding youngsters when there are family members and others willing to provide a suitable home. As a result of the suits, INS policies have changed.
"We don't want to detain children," Mr. Austin says. "The instant you take them in, you have a tremendous responsibility. It is not something we solicit, not something we aggressively pursue.
"It's an unfortunate reality that we have the children. The separation between the child and family is not an act of the U.S. government. That was a voluntary decision made by the parents."