By Lorena Figueroa / El Paso Times
Posted: 12/23/2013 10:39:55 AM MST

JUáREZ >> An overwhelming desire to see his three brothers living in New York and the chance to flee his poverty-ridden hometown in the Mexican state of Guerrero motivated 16-year-old Fermín to cross illegally into the United States alone.

His attempt to reach New York ended on Nov. 24 in El Paso when Border Patrol agents detained him and others just as they crossed into the U.S. He was riding in the trunk of a vehicle.

"Oh well. It's not good to cry now," Fermín said while waiting last week in a shelter Juárez where arrangements were being made to send him back to Guerrero.

Fermín, from the ranching community of Olinala, Guerrero, was headed to New York because his brothers stopped sending money back home and because he wants a better life.

And just like hundreds of other children who try to cross alone, the dream of living in the U.S. outweighs the risk of something going wrong for them as they travel alone or with strangers.

The smuggling of children into the U.S. was at the forefront of the news earlier this month when a 2-year-old boy was abandoned by a man near Sunland Park after a Border Patrol agent approached them.

The man ran back into Mexico, while the little boy was left alone. Officials eventually identified the boy and reunited him with his mother, who said the grandmother paid a smuggler to cross the boy.

Most of these children crossing alone nowadays rely on paid "coyotes" or human smugglers, a fact of life that worries authorities on both sides of the border because there is not much they can do to prevent families from sending unaccompanied minors to the U.S.

Mexican authorities and advocates say that neither the violence in Mexico nor an increased vigilance by U.S. border patrol agents has affected the flow of undocumented immigrants under the age of 17.

From 2010 to mid December of this year, 2,586 unaccompanied minors who were being smuggled into El Paso were returned to Mexico through El Paso-Juárez border, according to the Mexican General Consulate in El Paso.

About 90 percent of them were boys and 10 percent were girls.

Most of these children were between the ages of 15 and 17, according to officials.

Rarely are 2-year-olds found traveling alone, but it does happen, said Gilberto Solís, director of Mexico mi Hogar, one of three shelters in Juárez that receives these unaccompanied minors.

Mexico mi Hogar houses most of the unaccompanied minors before they are sent back to their hometown. This year alone, it has received 540 children, some as young as 12. Although it is a shelter for Mexican children, it has housed children from Central and South America.

This year, four children from India spent time there.

Solís said babies and toddlers are often smuggled to be reunited with one or both of the parents, who are already established in the United States. They cross the border through the ports of entry on foot or in vehicles with legitimate birth certificates, passports or visas belonging to other children, he added.

Mexican authorities and advocates estimate that most of the unaccompanied minors who succeed are at least 10 years old and they cross the border through the dessert between Puerto Palomas in New Mexico and Juárez, or through the Valley of Juárez.

Leticia López, director of Casa YMCA shelter, said that more than half of the children they help are from the state of Chihuahua. The others come from the interior of Mexico, Central and South America.

The shelter has housed 9,085 children between the ages of 12 to 17 over the past 18 years.

She said all unaccompanied minors, except the ones that live in Juárez, cross illegally into the United States with the help of smugglers that are hired by the children's relatives at the risk of being robbed, kidnapped, raped or simply abandoned to their fate. They risk dehydration, sunstroke or hypothermia.

Fermín, whose last name is being withheld, said his brothers hired the coyote that was helping him cross.

"I did not think much about him, except that he was going to help me," Fermín said.

Fermín was among a group of immigrants, all adults, the coyote had picked up in Guerrero. They took a plane to Hermosillo, in the state of Sonora, and then drove to the U.S.-Mexican border where the group waited until dusk to cross the desert.

Fermín said the smuggler told him to say he was 18 years old if Border Patrol agents captured him.

The advice resulted in Fermín being jailed for a week until his brothers sent proof of his age to the authorities. On Dec. 15 he was repatriated to Mexico though the El Paso-Juárez border and sent to Mexico Casa Hogar.

Advocates said that in the last decade the number of unaccompanied minors from Juárez, known as locals, now represent more than half of the number of overall immigrant children that cross the border illegally and alone.

In 2013 about 150 children from Juárez -- out of 194 unaccompanied minors from the state of Chihuahua -- have arrived at Mexico Casa Hogar.

Mexican authorities and advocates have made an effort to offer unaccompanied minors alternatives to stay home and, in many cases, return to school through preventive programs. But they say it is a difficult task.

Lorena González, head of the Juárez Attorney's Office for Children's and Family Affairs' Advocacy, said the children's immediate family has to be involved in providing those alternatives as well as society and government in giving, at the same time, economic opportunities for those families.