Part of surge across U.S. border, girl travels from Guatemala to Maryland

Journey of nearly 3,000 miles ends at relative's home in Hyattsville

July 26, 2014|By John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

Surrounded by strangers in a dusty border town just south of the United States, 17-year-old Hilda Lopez bowed her head to pray — a rare moment of peace in a journey that had allowed little time for reflection.

Since leaving Guatemala three weeks earlier, she had entered Mexico on foot, traveled day and night in a truck crammed with dozens of people and slept outside, huddling next to flea-infested cows for warmth.

Now Lopez was about to enter the U.S. illegally, joining a surge of unaccompanied minors who have fled Central America in recent months. The influx has inundated federal agencies, left the Obama administration grappling for a response and reopened a politically charged debate over immigration. It has also forced officials to seek shelter space for the children in Maryland and other states, an effort that has sparked controversy.

"We were asked to pray — to ask God that everything would go OK," Lopez recalled. "I was really scared because I was the only girl among all these men."

Hours later, Lopez stepped into a rowboat in the early-morning darkness and crossed the Rio Grande.

The soft-spoken, rosy-cheeked teenager, who now lives with an uncle in Hyattsville, is among 2,205 unaccompanied immigrant children who have settled in Maryland since January as their cases slog through a backlogged immigration court, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Some 57,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border since October, more than double the number last year. President Barack Obama met Friday with leaders of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras to discuss the issue, and Congress is considering a $2.7 billion emergency funding bill to pay to shelter and ultimately deport many of the minors.

But with House Republicans calling for increased border enforcement and balking at the scope of the funding request, its fate remains unclear.

Lopez's story challenges assertions lawmakers of both political parties have made in the debate. Despite Republican claims that the influx has been caused by Obama's 2012 decision to defer the deportation of some children, Lopez said she wasn't even aware of the policy.

And while Democrats argue against increased border security by noting that some minors are voluntarily surrendering to immigration agents, Lopez said she went to great lengths to avoid being caught.

Lopez grew up in the El Quiche region, northwest of Guatemala City. Her father owned a truck, a symbol of wealth that made him an extortion target for the gangs that have proliferated in the years after Guatemala's 36-year civil war.

Lopez, who was about to enter the 11th grade, said her family began to receive threatening phone calls last June. The threats became more intense and Lopez began to fear for her life. She had little contact with her estranged mother. Her father, who is gravely ill, reluctantly gave in to her desire to emigrate to the U.S.

The family raised $6,000 — much of it borrowed — to pay the "coyotes" to guide her.

In early January she left from Huehuetenango, a city in the country's western highlands about 40 miles from Mexico — and about 2,700 miles from where she would end up in Maryland. After walking across a remote stretch of the Mexican border, she was picked up by a guide and began to head north.

Speaking through a translator, Lopez described a harrowing and sometimes confusing journey through Mexico, where authorities rely on highway checkpoints to identify Central and South Americans on their way to the U.S. Roughly 30 men rode in the back of a large truck, hiding under a nylon cloth. Eight women, including Lopez, sat separately in the cabin. She could not always see out and lost track of whether it was day or night.

Lopez and her companions sometimes stayed in hotels and sometimes slept outside. One night, the travelers were pelted by rain and slept between cattle to stay warm. Many awoke in the morning sick and covered with insect bites.

Frequently switching vehicles, Lopez reached Camargo, just south of Rio Grande City, Texas, in late January.

Near the border, they stayed in a squat hotel and split into two groups of 30 each. The coyotes told Lopez she would soon cross. The other group left first. All of them, she learned hours later, were caught.

At 2 a.m. the next day, Lopez stepped into a rowboat with 14 men and crossed the river, a trip she said took about 20 minutes. With their feet on U.S. soil, the group ran — to the bushes, to a highway and then to a house where they ate and prepared for the next and most risky leg of the trip.

Once in the United States, immigrants face a network of road checkpoints that extend for miles into the interior. To circumvent them, most walk through the desert, a particularly dangerous approach. There were 156 border deaths in the Rio Grande Valley in the last fiscal year, more than doubling from 2011, according to Customs and Border Protection.

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