The Trails: Immigration, Detention Centers, and Lost Children

by Gabriela C. Romeri


Children often feel the need to confess for the things they’ve seen or been forced to do…. —Monsignor Arturo Bañuelos  

Each year thousands of children try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Most travel from Central America. On this journey — one that can be over 2,000 miles, the equivalent of walking from New York to Florida twice — the children must sneak past Border Patrol and guns. They must survive dehydration and starvation. They encounter gang violence and “coyotes,” who often abuse and extort them. 

There is an option to the long walk. La Bestia is what the immigrants call the train that runs through Mexico. Riding La Bestia is risky, however, as the poor must sit on top, vulnerable to the train’s violent shaking, sometimes resulting in broken limbs and other injuries. Gangs patrol La Bestia, demanding $100 U.S. dollars per station. To refuse means being shot or stabbed and thrown off the train. La Bestia. The beast.



The children lucky enough to survive the walk or La Bestia will often end up in detention centers. Norma Lujan, an El Paso resident, works as a detention center volunteer. She reports, “They found a boy of twelve crossing the desert carrying his sister on his back, his nine-year-old sister was paraplegic, that’s how they found them… last night they found three little brothers trying to cross.” She is jubilant when the children survive.

Lujan is the mother of three girls. In 2008, when Obama took office, she started visiting the detention centers for children caught crossing the border. “There were seventy kids and two children detention centers here in El Paso.” Five years later, the child detention centers are at collective capacity of two-hundred and fifty children. They are building a fifth child detention center in El Paso, and Lujan says. “I’m going to have to recruit more parents.”

Through her church, St. Pius X Parish in El Paso, Lujan recognized that children were disappearing along the border. To date, she has recruited sixty parent volunteers, and she continues to recruit more. Their jobs are to comfort the children with visits and stories, songs, shared meals, the occasional hug, against policy, but impossible to deny. Many of the older girls arrive pregnant. This past summer, Lujan and her church held eleven baby showers. They have seen newborns taken from their mothers, nursing mothers deported, children entered into the U. S. foster care system. A lucky few, the “legals,” are reunited with their families.

In 2012, the number of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) being detained by the U.S. government more than doubled — from 6,000 to more than 14,000 child detainees. This year, according to the Refugee Council: “It is expected that roughly 23,500 UAC will arrive by the end of this fiscal year 2013.” This is low compared to the 100,000 children that Border Patrol claims to prevent from crossing every year. The majority have traveled not from Mexico but from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. The Women’s Refugee Commission reports that “desperate conditions” are part of “trends in Central America, including rising crime, systemic state corruption and entrenched economic inequality.” In Honduras alone, 920 children were murdered between January and March of 2012.

The detention centers offer housing. Some have outdoor, fenced-in playgrounds. Some do not. During the day, some children are taken by white vans to schools. Others are taught on site for two to three months while immigration judges decide their fates. This system, based in part on a family reunification policy, is more often concerned with borders than family.

There is one systemic grace. Inside the detention centers the children do not yet fear Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) like so many immigrants attending U.S. public schools, where ICE is an unrelenting threat. At any time, these children and their families can be taken and separated. In just one year, according to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHS) there were 204,810 parents of US-citizen children deported. Last year the number of kids detained more than doubled. To handle the rise in numbers, the centers converted gym floors into barracks with cots in order to house them. This year, the expected number is 23,500.

Immigration is a search for a better life, work, family. Safety. Families will gather and save what is a fortune for many, $5,000 and more, to pay traffickers and coyotes to bring children and adults safely across the border. Too often these coyotes molest, abuse, impregnate, and sell these children and adults into slavery. The families know this risk, and still, they take the risk due to poor quality of life, a need for a better one. Monsignor Arturo Bañuelas of St. Pius X Parish in El Paso has heard these children’s migration stories. He says, “Children often feel the need to confess for the things they’ve seen or been forced to do.”

Border Patrol saves lives, yes. The detention centers are a grace to a point. What lobbyists and political engines choose to ignore, however, are the inconvenient details: the border patrollers who have shot and killed youth, the real likelihood of these detained children being deported to the same life they felt so compelled to escape, and this system by which corporations continue to profit.

ICE pays private detention facilities to detain 400,000 adult American Immigrants per year. At $164 per detainee per day, this system is not cheap. In just 2011 the Corrections Corporation of America and the Geo Group, the two largest private detention facilities, earned a combined total revenue of $3.3 billion. Additionally, children who are separated from their families and placed into foster care cost taxpayers $26,000 per child per year. The U.S. now spends more on immigration enforcement agencies than all other law enforcement agencies combined, despite all the overtime NSA PRISM perks.

Last year our immigration enforcement budget cost us $18 billion. This year, additional criminalization features in the comprehensive reform bill—S.744, the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act”—would raise that budget again, to $22.5 billion.



There are U.S. citizens committed to raising the voices of those lost on the trails. Robin Reineke is a doctoral candidate at University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology. Her job is to try to piece together the identities of the corpses found in the desert from their remains. She studies artifacts found in the baked sands of the desert, near desiccated skeletons and bodies decomposing from the heat.

The letters are from the children or wives of those we’ve found dead, wishing them luck and telling them that they’re loved, that they should be very careful on the journey, that the family’s prayers are with them, that the family’s hopes are with them. And the photos have been touched and pulled out over and over again, then folded up and put back carefully.

Deborah McCullough, born in Ohio and raised in Western Maryland, is an artist now living and working in Arizona. Her mixed media forms include artifacts left behind on the trails. One of her pieces, Angel of Mercy, wears a skirt made of ribbons. She explains that “each [ribbon bears] the name of a person who has died in the Sonoran Desert from 2011 through February 2012.” McCullough’s work has been exhibited at the University of Arizona, Social Action Summer Institute, and Duke University, but she does not sell her Trails artwork.

The items I find in the desert have been carried for hundreds of miles and days, weeks, sometimes months, only to be lost or left behind on the dangerous migrant trails of Southern Arizona; they were once treasured by someone who valued them enough to carry them on their journey, I prefer to use them to raise awareness about the suffering and deaths that occur along the US-Mexican border. Walking the trails, finding lost people, seeing the sadness in their eyes when they realize they cannot continue and knowing that people continue to die horrific deaths so close to where I live, compels me to continue my humanitarian efforts with the Tucson Samaritans and to continue creating artwork that will bridge the disconnect between immigration as a political talking point in Washington and the suffering I see firsthand here in Arizona.

Academics, activists, and volunteers such as Robin Reineki, Deborah McCullough, and Norma Lujan work every day to make immigration safer and uncover the voices of the lost. To join their efforts, you can contact humanitarian projects such as Humane Borders, and contact your elected representative.


Gabriela C. RomeriGabriela Romeri, originally from Argentina, is a bilingual writer and editor for Maryknoll magazines and an assistant editor for The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has an MA in creative writing and literature from Johns Hopkins and studied screenwriting and film studies at Hollins University.


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Gabriela Romeri
Gabriela Romeri, originally from Argentina, is a bilingual writer and editor for Maryknoll magazines and an assistant editor for The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has an MA in creative writing and literature from Johns Hopkins and studied screenwriting and film studies at Hollins University. @0G13

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