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.”
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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 last 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 come 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.
Dehydration and overheating are leading causes of death.
“The big challenge has never been getting across the river. The big challenge is getting across the checkpoints,” said David Spener, chair of the sociology and anthropology department at Trinity University in San Antonio and the author of a 2009 book about the crossings. “It’s not actually desert. In some ways, it’s worse. It’s an arid savanna with a lot of very dense and very thorny brush that makes going through it really rough.”
The Obama administration has emphasized the danger inherent in the journey as part of a media campaign in Central America aimed at discouraging families from making the trip. One poster shows a boy sitting alone in a rocky landscape, a jug of water at his side, near the words: “I thought it would be easy for my son to receive documentation in the north. It wasn’t true.”
Her feet cut by thorns and her clothes torn by barbed wire, Lopez walked for three days in the desert, moving by night and resting during the day. She carried a gallon of water, which she exhausted soon after the first day. She believes she wouldn’t have survived without the help of one of the men in the group who shared his water.
“I was always left behind. I would fall behind and they would yell at me, ‘If you want, we can leave you here,' “ Lopez said of the coyotes. “They didn’t want to wait for me any longer.”
After escaping close calls with border patrol agents, some in helicopters, her group emerged from the desert and made its way to a safe house. It was then, Lopez said, that the coyotes demanded money – in addition to the initial payment – from her family. She waited several days while her relatives scrambled to comply.
Lopez had traveled more than a month – roughly 2,000 miles – and was within sight of Houston when one of her guides was pulled over by local police for drunken driving. When she couldn’t produce identification, Lopez was also taken in by police and then handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
It was the first opportunity she had to call her father and let her family know she was safe.
Lopez spent weeks in a shelter for children with about 90 others, most of whom were girls, while social workers arranged to unite her with her uncle in Maryland, a construction worker who is in the country legally. She was fingerprinted, and her case was entered into the immigration court system.
Federal law requires immigration officials to turn the minors over to the Department of Health and Human Services, which is struggling to find space to house the children, until they can be placed with family or other sponsors in the U.S.
The government has assessed at least four sites in Maryland. Some have faced opposition from local leaders. All have been rejected.
Jennifer Girard, an attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, has represented Lopez in state and immigration court. Girard said 95 percent of the minors she works with have spent time in an HHS shelter.
In part because of her father’s illness, Lopez qualified for special immigrant juvenile status, which will likely allow her to attain legal residency. To receive that standing, a state court must find that a child has been abandoned, abused or neglected. Girard sought and won that determination for Lopez in Prince George’s County Circuit Court, days before she turned 18.
The local court assesses what outcome is in the best interest of the child, taking into account issues such as health, safety and education.
“The ‘best interest' standard that the judge is using is the same standard they’re using in … any kind of family law case within the United States,” Girard said. “Gang violence is a huge factor with the safety.”
Nearly 3,300 children have applied for the status from October to May, including 155 in Maryland, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. That compares with 2,968 nationally and 51 in Maryland in fiscal year 2012.
Gangs were a significant part of why Lopez left Guatemala, but they weren’t the only reason. Otherwise quiet and unemotional, Lopez lights up when talking about her desire to attend school in the United States. Because she doesn’t yet speak English, she will likely repeat the 10th grade this fall when she enrolls in Prince George’s County schools.
“Every child has a different situation,” she said. “There’s some that come to reunite with their parents. I think they should be given an opportunity to stay because they were left when they were really, really small.
“But there are other children that think that life in the United States is really easy and they don’t even think about the journey they’re about to start – how difficult it is to get here.”
She hesitates when asked if she would make the trip again.
“Yes,” she says haltingly, then more emphatically: “Yes.”