1 of 12
Matthew D. LaPlante, For the Deseret News
Maria Rojas embraces her son, Wilbur, whose life has been threatened by gang members in Santa Isabel Ishuatan. Wilbur has asked his mother to let him try to migrate to the United States, where he has a half brother in Houston.

ZACATECOLUCA, El Salvador — Carmen de Jesus rose from her bed, night after night, to shake off her nightmares and check on her teenage daughter.

She could hardly bear to look at the sleeping girl.

The day she would send her daughter north was approaching. And de Jesus was overcome with guilt and fear.

She knew the journey was replete with kidnappers, drug smugglers and extortionists. She knew migrants faced long desert marches and swift river crossings. She knew most travelers are turned back, and that some are never heard from again. She knew young women are often sexually assaulted along the way.

And she knew other parents whose children had met all these fates.

But she was sending her daughter, nonetheless. Because she also knew if the girl didn’t go, she was going to die.

The threats on young Patricia’s life had begun in the fall of 2016. Members of the Barrio 18 Sureños gang had concluded the girl was a police informant, and pledged to kill her.

“I knew they would do it,” de Jesus says as she looked out, through barred windows, at a broken-down police car parked in front of a friend’s office in the center of this bustling, volatile town, “because they had done it before.”

Less than a year earlier, the same gang had leveled the same accusation against de Jesus’ older daughter, Norma. In November of that year, a Barrio 18 member had confronted Norma in the street.

It didn’t matter that she was pregnant. The gang member shot her twice.

“Once here,” de Jesus says, touching her cheekbone. “And once here,” she says, dropping her fingers to her belly.

“I couldn’t lose another daughter like that,” de Jesus says. “I had to do something.”

And so, over the next few months, de Jesus sold everything she had and hired a smuggler to take her daughter to the United States.

“It was a terrible choice to make,” de Jesus says. Her square jaw trembles and her shoulders shake. “A terrible choice.”

And it’s a choice facing thousands of families in this small Central American republic. Nearly 5 percent of Salvadorans — more than 300,000 people — abandoned their homes due to violence last year, according to a survey published in January by José Simeón Cañas Central American University in San Salvador. In nearly 1 in 5 homes, according to the survey, at least one family member had to flee El Salvador altogether due to the violence.

The migrants are often children. They are often alone. And they are often headed to the United States, where many have family connections. There are from 1.5 million to 2 million Salvadorans living in the United States — a populace rivaling the entire San Salvador metropolitan area. El Salvador ranks fifth in countries of origin for U.S. immigrants and, per capita, no country sends more of its citizens to the United States.

Dr. Saul Quijada holds the skull of an infant who was murdered. Quijada, who works at the Institute of Legal Medicine in San Salvador, says no one is safe from violence in El Salvador. | Matthew D. LaPlante, For the Deseret News

These children are not criminals coming to sell drugs or laborers coming to steal jobs, as they are often described in the heated rhetoric that frames immigration reform. Their plight is far more akin to that of refugees who are seeking asylum from war-ravaged places across the globe.

Whether they’ll be treated that way by the new American administration, though, is an open question. While “the vast majority of the world’s refugees were generously hosted” by neighboring nations, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees noted in an August 2016 report that “a number of countries took measures to restrict protection space and prevent people from accessing territory through physical, legal and administrative barriers.”

The report did not point fingers at any specific nation for not doing its share to help, but, specific to the situation in El Salvador, it called for “greater international responsibility sharing.”

And that was before the election of Donald Trump, who has pledged to build a “great wall” across the U.S.-Mexico border and deport millions of undocumented immigrants in what he has described as a “military operation.”

And so, as Trump’s administration considers policy changes that may further limit the ability of children like Patricia to reach safety in the United States, many parents in El Salvador are feeling the pressure to make a decision — and soon.

They can risk their children’s lives by sending them north, or risk their children’s lives by keeping them close.

And it is a terrible choice.

•••

Maria Rojas doesn't want her son to leave.

“He’s just a teenager,” she says of the boy, Wilbur, as he runs up the road in a sweat-soaked soccer jersey, meeting his mother with a big, wet hug. “He is only 15.”

Maria Rojas embraces her son, Wilbur, whose life has been threatened by gang members in Santa Isabel Ishuatan. Wilbur has asked his mother to let him try to migrate to the United States, where he has a half brother in Houston. | Matthew D. LaPlante, For the Deseret News

As migrants go, though, Wilbur’s age wouldn’t put him out of place.

More than 7,000 unaccompanied Salvadoran children were apprehended in the Southwest border states between October and January, according to the U.S. Border Patrol, and total apprehensions of children traveling without a family member were up 26 percent over the same time period a year earlier. The majority of the apprehended children were teenagers, some trying to make the voyage on their own. Some were younger children — including babies and toddlers — entrusted to coyotes, human smugglers who are seen as heroes by some parents and a necessary evil by others.

If he gets a good coyote, Wilbur figures, his chances of making it through are 50-50. His mother thinks the odds are lower.

That’s what the U.S. government wants her to believe, too. The risks inherent in the journey are a key message in the multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns the United States has sponsored to dissuade Central American families from sending their children north.

Ellos son nuestro futuro. Protejámoslos,” one ad that has run on Salvadoran television concludes. “They are our future. Protect them.”

Rojas wants nothing more than to protect her son. And for the moment, at least, the village in which they live is relatively safe. Here Wilbur can play soccer in the streets and help his mother sell shaved-ice minutas from her roadside storefront. On Sundays he walks her to church.

But Wilbur’s school is about two kilometers away, down a steep road that winds though a lush forest, in the town of Santa Isabel Ishuatan — and he cannot get there without moving through territory claimed by the gangs, known as maras.

The two most powerful gangs, Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, both started in the 1980s in the United States when refugees from El Salvador’s civil war — which pitted the U.S.-backed government against communist revolutionaries — arrived in Los Angeles in the midst of an American gang war between the Crips and the Bloods. The Salvadorans who assembled into gangs in the midst of that turmoil were soon deported, reorganized and began accumulating control over large swaths of Central America.

Some estimates put the number of gang members in El Salvador at 70,000 or more. (By way of comparison, the Salvadoran military has about 25,000 active and reserve members.) But over the past two years — as their members have been killed and imprisoned by the thousands as part of a ferocious government crackdown — Salvadorans in cities and villages across the nation say the gangs’ leaders have become more aggressive about recruiting.

Three boys from Wilbur’s neighborhood have recently joined. Rojas thinks those boys, who had reputations as troublemakers, were destined for such decisions. “But my son is not that way,” she says as she stirs a pot of sopa de gallina india. “He is a very well-behaved boy. Everyone would agree. He has a good heart.”

The gang members haven’t given Wilbur a choice in the matter. “They told me if I didn’t want to join, they would kill me,” Wilbur says.

These are not idle threats. More than 11,500 people were murdered in El Salvador in the past two years — a homicide rate some 20 times higher than in the United States. (By way of comparison, that would equate to 600,000 murders in the United States in the same time period.) Per capita, the only country where more lives were lost to violence in 2016 was Syria, according to data released in early May by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Salvadoran legislators have responded by passing anti-gang laws that gave police wide latitude to use deadly force, and by packing gang members into prisons to the point that the country’s Attorney General’s Office for Human Rights has compared the cramped and disease-ridden jails to concentration camps.

Vendors watch forensic workers investigate the scene of a shootout between private security guards and gang members, at the central market in San Salvador, El Salvador, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. At least 30 people, mostly gang members, died in the last 24 hours in El Salvador on one of the most violent days so far this year. | Salvador Melendez, AP

The drastic measures may be responsible for dip in homicides this year, but across the nation Salvadorans say the violence is taking a greater toll on innocent bystanders, on residents of gang-run neighborhoods who either can’t or won’t pay extortion taxes known as la renta, and on children who decline to join up when called upon to do so. Those are contentions backed by an analysis of crime and survey data by the Columbian nonprofit InSight Crime, which also has reported a significant uptick in the number of students who have dropped out of school to avoid the violence.

Wilbur, who loves mathematics and social studies, is among the tens of thousands of children who have stopped attending school.

“I miss it a lot,” he says.

There is hope, however, in Houston. Wilbur’s older half brother, who has been living there for several years, has told him the high schools in Texas do not ask about a person’s immigration status. He could re-enroll. Maybe even play some sports.

But first Wilbur has to get there.

A 14-year-old boy who lives down the road made his first attempt to enter the U.S. in January but fell ill in Guatemala and was abandoned by his coyote. His parents, who live in a dirt-floor shack, had spent everything they had on the smuggler and had to beg family members and friends for money for a bus ticket so the boy’s father could retrieve his son.

“He was alone and sick in an empty house for three days,” says the boy’s mother, Nohemy Rodriguez. “He was dehydrated and was having trouble breathing. I was worried he would die.”

A bony gray cat noisily darts across her corrugated metal roof, and she looks upward, through the cracks in her ceiling, as dust falls from above. “We have nothing here,” she says.

And so Rodriguez, fearful and desperate, says she would like her son to try again.

Wilbur says he understands the risks, but he nevertheless wants to try to make the journey as his younger neighbor did.

"I don't know what will happen if I migrate," he has told his mother, "but if I stay here I know I will die."

Rojas has been praying — begging God to tell her what to do. She is still waiting for an answer.

She has heard, though, that the new U.S. president is cracking down on illegal immigration and wants to build an enormous wall along the Mexican border. She fears what little window is open might soon be closed.

If the boy goes, she says, it will happen by June.

“It’s a horrible thing,” she says. “I feel terrible about the idea. But what choice do we have?”

•••

Past the abandoned train tracks, the police officers warn, things are bad. Past the river it is even worse.

Kevin’s home is past both.

“There are shootings every night,” the quiet 17-year-old says of his neighborhood, near the border of San Salvador and the volatile city of Apopa, where he lives with his mother and older sister.

Four of his friends have been killed by the gangs, including a teenager named Rolando who was shot to death in front of the school Kevin attends.

Such is the scale of the violence here that Kevin actually considers himself fortunate an attack on his life came not in a hail of gunfire but by a gang member with a baseball bat.

His offense? Not pledging allegiance to one of the three local gang cliques that have formed a temporary truce with one another to go to war with the police. He was bedridden for a month as he healed. Now that he’s better, the gang members are after him again.

The body of a victim of a shootout between private security guards and gang members, lies next to a wheelbarrow filled with mangoes at the central market in San Salvador, El Salvador, Wednesday, March 15, 2017. At least 30 people, mostly gang members, died in the last 24 hours in El Salvador on one of the most violent days so far this year. | Salvador Melendez, AP

“They told me ‘join us and your family will be respected,’” he says. “‘If not, we will kill you.’”

He’s already made one attempt to escape to the United States. He walked and rode busses all the way to Mexico City — the halfway point in the journey. That’s where a suspicious bus driver flashed his headlights at a police officer, who pulled Kevin off the vehicle and asked for his identification.

“They can tell by your accent that you’re not Mexican,” he says, shifting his cadence in an impression of the Spanish he heard spoken to the north.

During his presidential campaign, Trump blamed Mexico for the problems stemming from illegal immigration. But Mexico plays a big role in apprehending undocumented migrants from south of its border — often long before they get anywhere close to the U.S. border.

More than 1,100 Salvadoran minors — more than half of them under the age of 11 — were caught in Mexico in the first three months of this year alone, according to the Mexican government’s Immigration Policy Unit.

The deportees return by the busload, every day and sometimes multiple times a day, to a U.S.-funded government complex on the eastern outskirts of San Salvador. There, officials say, they help returnees reintegrate into Salvadoran society.

“We try to identify the most vulnerable people,” says Krissia Borjas, who works at the complex.

Sometimes, Borjas says, children will break down in fear of being sent back to the neighborhoods they came from. “They will say, ‘If I go home, they will kill me,’” she says.

There are police officers stationed at the reintegration complex, but they describe themselves as “intelligence officers” focused on interviewing returnees about the human smuggling rings. There are officials from human rights groups, too, but they are on the lookout for wrongdoing by police and government officials.

Multiple workers at the complex struggled to explain the process for protecting children who disclose they would be in danger if they were returned to the neighborhoods from which they fled. One official said such pleadings are “passed along to a committee that tries to help find solutions.”

Kevin doesn’t believe there is a solution to his predicament and, in any case, no one asked him if he was in danger. Since being deported from Mexico last year, he’s tried to stay inside his home as much as possible as he awaits his next opportunity to escape.

As Kevin speaks of his plight he rubs a bright orange crucifix between his thumb and fingers.

“My mother is also too afraid to leave our home,” he says. “We can’t even go to church.”

An uncle in New York is raising money for a coyote, and Kevin’s mother wants her son to leave as soon as possible. Every day that passes, she worries, is a day he has cheated death.

“She wants me to go,” he says. “She says it’s best if I am in the United States.”

But Kevin tears up at the thought of leaving his family. If he makes it though, he says he’ll do whatever it takes to get a job and save money. As soon as he can, he’ll send for his sister and mother.

“All we want is to be together,” he says.

•••

Their signs declared “Repatriate Illegals,” “Bus Illegal Children to the White House” and “Return to Sender.”

“Go back home,” hundreds of American protesters chanted in the summer of 2014 as they stood in front of three busses carrying undocumented migrants, refusing to let the vehicles pass.

The detainees, American officials said, were mostly children who had been picked up in Texas. They were to be processed at an immigration center in the Southern California town of Murrieta before being placed with family members, mostly in other parts of the country.

The protest was a harbinger, perhaps, of the seething anger over illegal immigration that drove many Americans to support a presidential candidate who kicked off his campaign with a promise to build a border wall, noting “the U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”

Now, four months into Trump’s presidency, his administration is working to make good on campaign promises to clamp down on what he and others see as lax border control and immigration procedures.

Among the policy changes that have been considered: Separating children from their parents when families are caught crossing together — a proposal human rights groups called cruel. As of early April, the Department of Homeland Security reported, that specific policy was no longer under consideration. But the breakup of families doesn’t have to come as a result of heavy-handed policies; that was happening long before Trump became president.

The U.S. stiffened its approach to stopping migrants in 2014 under former President Barack Obama, who pressed Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to help stem the tide of Central American migrants. Nieto obliged, and Mexico has since deported hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them children fleeing gang violence.

Trump has said on many occasions that Obama didn’t do enough. And in mid-April he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions promised even tougher enforcement was on the way, singling out the dangers of Mara Salvatrucha gang members who are in the United States, to bolster their push for more stringent immigration enforcement.

The heightened attention to stopping undocumented migrants has resulted in “a road full of anguish,” says professor Juan Ricardo Gómez Hecht, who teaches at the College of High Strategic Studies in San Salvador.

Mexico’s stepped-up enforcement of well-known migration routes has pressed human smugglers to explore new and more dangerous pathways. That, in turn, has pushed up the coyotes’ fees. Salvadoran parents who have negotiated for the transport of their children in recent months say successful coyotes are now charging $7,000, with the best smugglers demanding $10,000 and more. The average Salvadoran makes less than $400 a month, according to the World Bank.

Gómez Hecht says some parents — unable to pay the toll for even one child — have taken to accompanying their young children to northern Mexico and dropping them off close to a border patrol station with a note in their pockets in the hopes they will be found and placed with relatives in the United States.

“Can you imagine leaving your child and not knowing if you will ever see them again?” Gómez Hecht asks. “It is heartbreaking.”

Gómez Hecht, who lectures around the world on illegal migration, says Americans often believe migrants come to the United States looking for work. But especially as it pertains to children, he argues, migration isn’t driven by economic forces.

“They don’t want a better life,” he says. “They just want to stay alive.”

•••

Every day, people line up in Zacatecoluca to plead for Bufete de León’s help getting their children out of El Salvador.

They all want their sons and daughters to migrate legally, says the attorney whose practice includes immigration assistance, but the process is almost impossible. It takes weeks to get a 10-minute appointment with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Office in San Salvador, which is a half day’s bus ride away and only open during weekdays, excluding both U.S. and Salvadoran holidays. All appointments must be made via the internet — a luxury to which less than half of the country has access. And those seeking asylum face a particularly convoluted quandary: Not only must they prove they face political, racial or religious persecution, but they must also make the claim from within the borders of the United States.

“So they must make it across the border to begin with,” de Leon says, “and even then, if they don’t have a relative already in the United States, it is hopeless.”

It’s even more hopeless if they don’t have legal help in the United States. Nearly 90 percent of unaccompanied migrant children without a lawyer receive an order for removal, according to the Congressional Research Service. For those represented by an attorney, though, only about 13 percent are ordered to leave the country.

De Leon does what he can to help his clients create a best-case scenario for their kids. At the very least, he tells the mothers and fathers who come to his office, their children must travel north with the contact information for family members willing to provide for their care, an affidavit describing the threats and violence they face in El Salvador, and another letter from police attesting the child’s life is at risk.

The latter document is hard to get. Police officers at a station in San Salvador’s volatile San Antonio neighborhood say they get about five requests a day for such a letter, but cannot write one themselves. The requests must be sent to police headquarters, and a response can take weeks, months or never happen at all.

“A lot of people are afraid to go to the police for any reason,” de Leon says, “because the gang members, when they threaten anyone, say, ‘If you go to the police we will know because we have people there.’”

That is generally true, de Leon says.

“Gang members,” he says, “do what they say they are going to do.”

Given the dangers in El Salvador, de Leon says, the apparent hardening of attitudes and policies toward illegal immigration up north isn’t much of a deterrent.

“The American political situation is terrible these days,” he says, “but parents here just want their children to survive, so they will accept the risks of going to the United States.”

And some parents will accept those risks even when their children have no one waiting on the other side.

When that happens, and a U.S. immigration judge approves a child’s asylum claim, organizations like Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County are called upon to help. The northern California nonprofit matches unaccompanied migrant children to guardians — and does what it can to help the children adjust to their new lives. But the organization’s director of refugee foster care, Angela Albright, says that adjustment can be a significant challenge.

Americans tend to assume that children who have fled such misery should be happy to have finally arrived in a safe and stable situation, Albright says.

“People sometimes think these kids can’t wait to come here and to become Americans, but that’s not the case,” she says. “These kids aren’t coming by choice. This is a migration out of necessity.”

The older children, she says, are often tormented by survivor’s guilt. “They struggle with feeling like they never should have left, feeling like they’ve abandoned their families,” Albright says. “They think, ‘Oh my gosh, I left them and now they’re going to die.’ No child should have to hold onto that.”

And the younger migrants, Albright says, don’t always fully understand why they were sent away by their parents. “They ask questions like, ‘Why didn’t my parents fight to keep me?’” she says.

For these reasons, Albright says, some migrant children struggle to attach to their foster families. “They haven’t developed the ability to trust the caregivers in their lives,” she says. “They’re expecting to be pushed away, and so they push their foster families away first, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

For children who have been through multiple traumas, the stakes are exceedingly high.

“When children are exposed to trauma, their brains can’t develop, and that can result in pathologies,” says Pia Escudero, who directs the Los Angeles Unified School District’s mental health program, where she works extensively with unaccompanied migrant youth. “That can mean the court system or the jail system, hospitalization and substance abuse.”

And that, in turn, can lead to deportation — just like what happened to thousands of young Salvadorans in the 1980s and 1990s, which begat an epidemic of gang violence, which in turn begat the latest generation of unaccompanied migrant children.

•••

Francisco Jose has a tattoo of a compass below his left bicep.

The lifelong resident of the San Salvador suburb of Zacamil always wanted to be a Boy Scout. He likes the Scout motto: “Be prepared.”

Francisco Jose plans to send his children to the United States in the next 12 months. The lifelong resident of Zacamil has been trying to prepare them for the journey. | Matthew D. LaPlante, For the Deseret News

Over the past few months he has been preparing his daughter and son for the journey north.

Renata, who is 12, will go first.

“Basically, I don’t feel like I have another option,” says Jose, whose teenage cousin was murdered four years ago when he refused to join a gang. “There is no hope here.”

Outside the window of the recreation center where he works, which is next to a busy city park, police officers are frisking a teenage boy.

“The violence. The political situation. The economic situation,” Jose says. “I don’t see an end to the dangers my children face.”

If all goes according to plan, Renata will leave in December with a coyote Jose has known since childhood. If that voyage is successful, 7-year-old Marcelo will follow in March.

In the meantime, Jose says, he’s taking every opportunity to prepare his children. “We talk about things like bravery,” he says. “We talk about their future in the United States, and how they must do whatever it takes to get there.”

Jose has told his daughter she will be in a bus the whole way, “but that is not completely true,” he says. The coyote has not settled on the route yet, but Jose says he knows it will be a long, difficult and likely dangerous journey.

As the voyage gets closer, Jose says, he will tell Renata “step by step, everything she will have to do.”

He will tell her to follow her coyote’s instructions — obeying him as she would her father.

Jose tries to not think about what could happen to his daughter if she is separated from the trusted smuggler, but he is not blind to the risks. Like pretty much everyone else in El Salvador, he knows about the things that often happen to girls and women during the voyage. One Amnesty International report concluded that 60 percent of Central American girls and women are sexually assaulted during the migration journey.

One official at the returnee reintegration center says mothers often speak to their daughters about rape before the trip. “They put them on birth control,” the official says, “which does not lessen the risks but does reduce the consequences.”

The fate for girls who stay in El Salvador is little better, Jose says.

“A young lady who stays here must become the girlfriend of a gang member,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if she wants to or not.”

Jose already knows how painful it will be to let his children go. He remembers everything about the day he sent away his eldest son, who now lives with relatives in the United States.

“I worried I would never see him again,” Jose says. “Letting him go was very hard.”

“After that,” he says, “I always felt incomplete.”

Matthew D. LaPlante is an assistant professor of journalism at Utah State University.