The river was dirty, full of trash and discarded clothes from previous migrants.
Sisters Carolina and Liseth were standing on Mexican soil. The Rio Grande separated them from the United States and their dreams for a safe future.
They had traveled on foot, by bus and in the backs of trucks for weeks, through mountains and across desert terrain with a human smuggler.
Crossing the river was the last step in their monthlong journey to the United States.
Carolina, 16, was afraid to cross. But she was the big sister, so she took 11-year-old Liseth by the hand and entered the river. The smuggler, who had been paid $14,000 to escort the girls, had dropped them off at a house in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the river from Hidalgo, Texas. Now they were following a man they had just met into the water.
Crossing on rafts because it was dangerous to swim, the sisters floated away from the violence and death threats in their native El Salvador, leaving behind tiring days, nights without sleep and horror stories about bad things that can happen to children on such a risky journey.
They had said goodbye to friends and left their home, sent off by the grandmother who was raising them, who hoped they would find a better life.
Stories about children like Carolina and Liseth have been repeated thousands of times in the past few years as unaccompanied minors have flowed across the southern U.S. border, in particular from violence-plagued Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The child migrations have caused political furor nationally, with President Barack Obama calling it a humanitarian crisis and pushing for immigration reform, while others demand that the children be ejected and the security at the border be tightened.
Gov. Dave Heineman sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seeking the names of unaccompanied children sent to Nebraska, and Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad requested similar information in a letter to the president.
Carolina and Liseth now live with their uncle Roberto in Lexington, Nebraska, after spending about a month in immigration custody in Texas.
They’re stuck in limbo as they wait for their federal immigration trial in Omaha. The process might take several years because of an understaffed department that has been overwhelmed by a large caseload. The family agreed to share its story on the condition that the girls would be identified only by their middle names, for fear of harassment or discrimination.
Slowly, the sisters are acclimating to their new lives in Lexington, away from the intense poverty and gang-ridden violence they faced every day in San Luis Talpa.
The girls’ father died nine years ago. A year after that their mother abandoned them to slip across the U.S. border. The girls’ uncle said he hardly communicates with their mother, and that because of some personal problems his sister is having, he is caring for the girls.
Carolina doesn’t remember much about her parents but spent a lot of time at her grandmother’s house even before she took over raising her granddaughters. She loved going to school and playing striker on her neighborhood soccer team.
But she said she always had to keep a watchful eye for any unsafe situations, unlike small-town life in Lexington.
“I feel free here,” Carolina said in Spanish during a phone interview from Lexington. “I feel safer, with more freedom to go outside. In my country, if I would go outside, I would feel scared that they (the gangs) could do something, that they could kidnap me.”
Gangs are rampant in El Salvador, which struggles with high levels of youth unemployment and poverty. Gang members frequently ask children for money or pressure them to join the gang. Children who refuse might be threatened or even killed.
Carolina said she knew kids as young as 12 who were involved in gangs. After one of her classmates joined a gang during the year, everyone noted changes in his personality.
“He was awful,” she said. “He was more violent, did strange things and talked about death and murder.”
Gang members didn’t do anything bad in school but instead waited to attack on the streets, she said.
One of Carolina’s uncles was killed by gangs two years ago. He was a school bus driver, and gangs would often demand that he pay them to pass through an area, like a gang- imposed toll.
One morning he couldn’t pay, so the gangs killed him. Carolina and her uncle were close; he was the coach of her soccer team.
The harassment didn’t end there.
In December, gang members captured Liseth because Carolina wouldn’t join the group. They let Liseth go the next day, unharmed, but she still doesn’t like to talk about the incident. Too traumatic for a young girl.
After the kidnapping, the grandmother told Liseth nothing was going to happen anymore. You girls are going to the United States, she told them. People were being killed every day in El Salvador, and she feared that the sisters could be next.
About 10 a.m. on Jan. 10, the girls said goodbye to their grandmother, knowing they might not see her again. Each sister had a backpack filled with some warm clothes, toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, soap and medicine.
They left with a coyote, the term commonly used for human smugglers. Hundreds of coyotes take groups of children and adults across the border, for a price. Carolina’s grandmother and an uncle in Maryland paid about $7,000 per sister to the coyote; they considered it a necessary expense if the girls were to survive the long journey.
The first day, Carolina and Liseth walked until 10 p.m. on the way to the Guatemalan border.
About 10 other children traveled with them at the start, and the sisters saw many more people going north: pregnant women and other children, some only months old. They didn’t know the other children in their coyote group and later lost contact with them.
The journey lasted one month. The girls spent many days waiting for transportation because so many other people were waiting, too. They walked the first couple of days to a village in Guatemala, Carolina said. Then they were transported like cargo, riding in the backs of pickup trucks to Guatemala City, where they then boarded a bus to Mexico.
In Mexico, the sisters lingered about 10 days, waiting for a safe time to cross the border.
“There’s nights you don’t sleep, days you don’t eat,” Carolina said. “It was worth it, to suffer.”
The girls ate when they could buy something from a gas station or when they stayed for a night at a migrant shelter, where people cooked food. So many people were on the move, sometimes there wasn’t enough food. And on some days of long walks, the girls never passed a place to buy food.
They slept on the floor, outside or in safe houses, among people they had never met before. One woman warned them of danger, showing them a picture of her daughter’s friend with his organs cut out.
It was hard to sleep soundly because of freezing desert nights. Carolina often stayed awake anyway, afraid someone would take their things or send them back to El Salvador.
Little Liseth often cried, wanting to return home. Carolina told Liseth she had to be strong. We can’t go back. We have to continue on, she told her.
Carolina kept thinking: We’re going to be free. We’re going to be safe.
Crossing the Rio Grande took only minutes.
Then the sisters were in the United States — but they had no one waiting for them. All they had was the phone number of the uncle in Maryland.
So they turned themselves in to Border Patrol officials in McAllen,
Texas, about 11 miles north of Reynosa.
Roberto, their uncle in Nebraska, got a call at 2 a.m. the next night from immigration authorities. A problem had arisen and the uncle in Maryland wasn’t able to care for the girls. Officials tracked down Roberto and asked if he would take them in.
Roberto, who had never met his nieces, said yes.
Once the girls were cleared by health officials and other procedural paperwork was filed, they could go to Lexington, officials told Carolina.
The girls stayed at a Texas shelter for a month. There they met children from Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Mexico, some of whom had been there already for three or four months.
Carolina said they were treated well at the shelter and learned how to cook and sew from Spanish-speaking teachers.
The sisters took their last solo trip — a flight to Omaha — in early March. Both girls were nervous because it was their first time on a plane. But they were finally headed somewhere they could call home — or home for now.
They met their uncle Roberto for the first time at Eppley Airfield. Roberto hugged them. The girls talked about the journey, saying they were scared by the stories they had heard in Mexico.
“I felt happy when I saw them because we didn’t know anything about them,” Roberto, 39, said in Spanish during a phone interview. “We had little communication.”
Not all child migrants have safe journeys. Some are sexually assaulted, raped, beaten, robbed or killed.
Lourdes Gouveia, director of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies of the Great Plains at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said experiences often differ based on the price a family can pay a coyote for traveling.
“I’ve heard of Salvadoran kids who made it all the way to Mexico in air-conditioned vans. But I’ve also heard horrific stories,” Gouveia said. “Not everyone comes with equal resources.”
Gouveia said research shows that these children endure trauma during and after their travels.
“People who have to cross under difficult circumstances, of course, experience high levels of depression and feelings of isolation,” she said. “They’re going to feel out of place, hopeless, and have the stigma of being undocumented. It weighs heavy on them and can have a severe impact.”
The sisters went to school on their third day in Nebraska.
Liseth attended an elementary school while Carolina headed to Lexington High School, whose student body is more than 75 percent Hispanic, according to 2012-13 figures from the Nebraska Department of Education.
Carolina entered the newcomer English Language Learners class, one of 17 students. Next, students move to middle- or top-level English learners classes based on reading skills and then join English-speaking students in various subjects.
About 40 migrant students at the school are in solely English-language classes. An additional 100 receive other English learners services while attending other classes.
Teacher Courtney Deuel says Carolina didn’t speak a word on her first day. Another student helped her by explaining high school policies in Spanish and helped her go to homeroom and physical education, her two mainstream classes.
Carolina joined the school’s soccer team, playing striker just as she had in El Salvador.
“To see someone like (Carolina) become involved in activities is really awesome,” Deuel said. “It helps learning the language but it also puts them with a social group. She’s really flourished and has a good group of friends.”
Carolina started the new school year Wednesday in the top level of English learners classes.
“If they come to our country literate in their first language, then they can move quicker through the levels,” Deuel said. “We have students who are very driven and gifted academically.”
After this year, Deuel hopes Carolina can take classes with English-speaking students. Right now Carolina said it’s easier for her to listen and understand English than to speak it. She’s getting some help from her cousin Jennifer, Roberto’s daughter, who was born in the United States. The cousins sometimes speak in English together.
More than 60 percent of Lexington residents are Hispanic or Latino, and 65 percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“Here we all know each other,” Roberto said. “The town is very small, and we have many friends from (other countries).”
Roberto, who came to the country in 1995, received a green card in 2000 and became a naturalized citizen a couple of months ago. His Colombian wife became a citizen in 1991.
“It’s what all immigrants want to have,” Roberto said. “To be free in this country.”
The sisters’ first appearance in immigration court was scheduled for July 29.
Uncle Roberto drove the three hours from Lexington to Omaha with Carolina, Liseth and Jennifer.
Among mostly boys who had also arrived in the United States unaccompanied, the girls waited their turn in the lobby, then inside the courtroom.
Their attorney, Emeka Igbokwe, asked the judge if the girls could appear together. The judge approved, and a clerk brought another chair and pair of headphones, so both could listen to the Spanish translation.
Liseth was the youngest in court that day. Her feet dangled above the floor as she sat in a big leather chair.
Igbokwe told the judge the girls plan to file for asylum and special immigrant juvenile status, for children who are abused, neglected or abandoned. Some children who can’t be reunited with a parent can receive a green card from the special immigration status, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Igbokwe said he is working to secure official guardianship for Roberto, which would let the girls apply for the special juvenile status. He said securing that status is the best hope they have for staying.
Their next hearing is in October. Igbokwe said the sisters will be waiting until 2017 or 2018 for their trial because of a backlog, unless proposed federal legislation changes the process.
Until then, the girls’ fate is unknown. Attorneys say seeking asylum or special immigrant juvenile status is difficult. Liseth can continue to attend public school, but Carolina may face difficulties attending college or finding a job after high school because of her status.
The sisters speak on the phone often, sometimes every day, to their grandmother, who is Roberto’s mother. She tells them that the journey was the best thing they could do for their lives.
Carolina said she misses her grandmother but hopes she can stay in the United States.
“We had to come here,” she said. “It’s not because we wanted to — it was necessity. If I have to leave, I would be upset and feel very disillusioned about life.”
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