Barely two years old, the “marked girl” climbed aboard a raft with other migrants and floated across the Rio Grande near Granjeño, 10 miles south of McAllen, Texas, hoping to hug her mother.
“Some of the witnesses who came with her told U.S. authorities the toddler was traveling with a person. But before the raft took off she was left with the others,” Ena Ursula Peña, El Salvador's consul in McAllen, told Univision Noticias. “Some times they are accompanied, by relatives or friends, but the majority of the migrant children who are seeking asylum arrive alone.”
After crossing the river in late April, the group of undocumented migrants moved north until they were detained by the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley. The toddler had been abandoned by a coyote, according to news reports at the time, who wrote her name, a U.S. telephone number and the number of her Salvadoran birth certificate on her t-shirt.
“When the group was detained, they all said the girl was not with them,” said Peña. “They said they did not know. They just handed the 'marked girl' to authorities. But that happens with all the children coming. Their clothes are marked so that authorities can call their parents to pick them up.”
A crisis of unaccompanied minors detained along the U.S. border exploded in June 2014, when President Barack Obama announced the Border Patrol had detained more than 46,000 unaccompanied minors – 73 percent of them from Central America – in the first eight months of Fiscal Year 2014.
The flow of undocumented minors has not gone away and is on track this year to surpass the number three years ago, experts say.
By Sept. 30 of 2014, the end of Fiscal Year 2014, the Border Patrol had detained 68,541 migrant children, the majority of them “marked” like the two-year-old Salvadoran girl who had to cross Guatemala, Mexico and finally the Rio Bravo – a trek fraught with danger 24 hours a day.
Border Patrol figures show it detained 39,970 migrant minors in FY 2015. Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson warned in testimony before Congress recently that the figure will hit 75,000 by the end of FY2016.
“We already have 7,914 Salvadorans,” said Peña, referring to the number of minors from her country detained so far in FY2016. “It's a lot, and the smallest ones are coming 'marked.'”
Some wait a couple of hours to be picked up, but others wait weeks and even months. “What happened was that this was a little girl, two years old. What stood out was her age. But they are increasingly younger, the children who are making the trip to the border,” the consul added.
The Border Patrol says the “marked girl” was abandoned by a people smuggler. “The smugglers are heartless criminals who have no regard for the lives of people, no matter their age,” said Manuel Padilla, head of the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Salvadoran consulate isn't so sure the toddler was smuggled. It believes she was brought into the United States with the minimum information necessary to establish her identity and nationality and contact her family.
Only a birth certificate
The “marked children” are not a new phenomenon. “Central American migrants who cross the border without authorization generally carry their birth certificates in a plastic bag or written on their clothes,” said Lilia Velásquez, a law professor at the University of California, San Diego.
“What's new is that authorities are running into children so young, who are coming with their birth certificates or the numbers of the certificates so they can be identified,” Velásquez told Univision Noticias.
“When the children have no documents or identifying marks … the consulates try to determine if they are from their countries,” she added. “The physical appearance and manner of speaking of some can be used to determine their nationality. But children who are not Mexican may be sent back to Mexico. There's a process to be followed, and a judge must make a decision.”
The “marked girl” from El Salvador is in the middle of that process. “The Border Patrol called us,” said Peña. “We verified the information she had on her t-shirt. It was a telephone number and a number for her birth certificate.”
“We verified the information to certify that it was legitimate, legal. We asked the mother for documents and saw that her name appears in the birth certificate. The girl's mother lives in the United States,” the consul added.
The toddler was handed over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “We are assisting the mother in the process, in case she needs a lawyer. She is not detained. We cannot release her identify because asylum cases are confidential,” Peña said.
The U.S. Congress approved the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA) in 2008 to stop the immediate deportation of undocumented migrant children who arrive unaccompanied. The law requires the minors be turned over to the HHS for processing.
The road through hell
Most of the migrant children know that before they reach the doors to the United States they must first go through hell, crossing Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the Texas border. Many disappear without a trace during the trek.
Some come with nothing more than “identity documents, birth certificates, school papers or in some cases passports,” said Elizabeth Kennedy, a professor at San Diego State University and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Before starting off, she told Univision Noticias, “some of them speak with officials, with non-governmental organizations or relatives, and those people tell them they will need identity documents.”
“But some also have stolen documents, and others lose them along the way. It is the uncertainty of the road,” said Kennedy. “That's why many mark themselves with a phone number, just in case they become separated, or someone in the group disappears. Or they are murdered.”
“There are also coyotes who hand out fake identity papers to their groups. Maybe the children don't know that using false identity documents is a federal crime, and they think the documents will help them cross the border more easily,” the professor added. “The migrants I have interviewed never knew that was a crime, and only used the documents because the coyotes told them to.”
She does not know exactly how the U.S. authorities try to identify the migrants, Kennedy noted, “but I do know of a few cases of migrant children who were sent to another country, not their own country.”
The “marked children,” she added, is the result of an effort “to confirm an identity when they arrive at their destination and ask for asylum, and to make sure their parents will be called."
Kennedy told Univision Noticias in March that violence in Central American continues to be “the principal cause of migration to the United States,” noting that an average of 23 people were murdered every day in El Salvador, a country of just 6 million people. “And crime in Honduras is turning worse by the day,” she added.
Kennedy predicted the 2013 crisis of unaccompanied minors, but the U.S. government did not heed her warnings.
For Human Rights Watch, the issue of the “marked children” is not new yet remains “shocking.”
“Based on my experience, it is common for unaccompanied children and migrants in general to carry whatever type of identity document they have,” said Clara Long, HRW researcher on U.S. immigration and border policy. “Many times, the parents who send them manage to put contact phone numbers and other important information on their shoes, on their clothes,”
In the case of the Salvadoran toddler abandoned at the Rio Grande, she told Univision Noticias, “one can only imagine the despair that encourages parents to send a two-year-old baby.”