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GUATEMALA CITY — A barefoot 16-year-old boy fidgets as he recounts how he and two fellow Honduran companions tried to sneak into the United States but instead landed in a Guatemalan shelter for migrants and refugees.
The day before, police rescued Emilio and the other two from a man who bought them from a smuggler and locked them in a house in Guatemala City. He then threatened to kill them, they say, unless their families back in Honduras paid him $2,000 each.
Emilio says he’s still determined to get to the United States, but he looks worried when he’s asked why he would set out on such a dangerous journey through Mexico. Emilio whips his head toward the Rev. Juan Luis Carbajal, the Catholic priest who runs the Guatemala City shelter.
“The road is dangerous?” Emilio asks him.
Emilio is as clueless as he and his 18-year-old companions are desperate to escape Honduras and get to the United States. Intent on escaping the grinding poverty and out-of-control gangs at home, thousands of migrant children from Central America are running headlong into the risk of assault and kidnapping a long way to perceived freedom.
Still, the promise of reaching the United States is so intense that it’s driving a shocking surge in migration north by children unaccompanied by their parents. Their exodus has become a full-blown humanitarian crisis for Congress and the Obama administration to deal with this summer, and it could force some deal-making if lawmakers want to avoid hurting kids.
President Obama last week asked Congress for emergency supplemental spending of $3.7 billion to cope with a wave of an estimated 52,000 children who have crossed the border. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told the Senate Appropriations Committee that the extra money was an “absolute necessity,” as agencies in his department will run out of money before the end of the fiscal year. “Doing nothing is not an option,” Johnson told the committee.
The request immediately became mired in a partisan debate over the nation’s immigration policy and border security, although a few Republicans from border states appear interested in approving some additional spending.
There is no dispute, however, about the magnitude of the migration or the dangers that children face on the journey. Gangs kidnap, assault or threaten thousands of migrants every year in Mexico — others are simply killed or disappear — and federal and state authorities are frequently implicated in abuses, too, according to Amnesty International. The extortion attempt Emilio and his companions describe is commonplace in Mexico.