Life and death decisions

Immigrants' children put fate in smugglers' hands

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / April 3, 2008

The two Salvadoran children set off on separate journeys from the same struggling land, determined to join relatives who had left them behind to work in Massachusetts.

Nancy Carla Valle was 16 and restless, with painted toenails and banana-curled hair, desperate to leave her village in El Salvador and reunite with her family in Chelsea. Wilber was only 7, toting a tiny backpack with a change of clothes and his mother's cellphone number in Boston.

They left with strangers, professional smugglers who would escort them across the border illegally in exchange for $5,000 to $6,000 each. Half the money would be paid at the start of the trip, half at the end, if it went safely. These are dangerous quests, with the risk of assault by smugglers, dehydration in the desert along the US border, or drowning in the fast-moving Rio Grande.

One made it. One didn't.

Their stories, told last week in interviews with relatives and government officials, reveal the wrenching decisions facing scores of immigrant parents and the children they left behind. Many came to the United States illegally and have stayed longer than they intended, and now the families must choose: break the law to smuggle the children into this country or leave them in their poverty-stricken towns with aging relatives who can no longer care for them.

It is unknown how many children are smuggled into the nation each year. Roughly 8,000 unaccompanied minors were caught trying to cross the borders illegally last year, according to the government. But several area lawyers say it is becoming more common to find teenagers and children who arrive on their own after years of separation from their parents. Increasingly, government officials and some immigrant advocates say they are warning against making the trip.

"This is a problem of massive proportion," said immigration lawyer Manuel Macias of East Boston. "Grandparents are dying. There's no one to take care of the kids. What are they going to do?"

Everyone had left
Valle, known as Carla, began her journey last summer, when she sank into a deep depression, said her aunt, Delsa Balderas, and Lucy Pineda, director of an Everett nonprofit, Latinos United in Massachusetts. During Valle's 16 years, almost everyone she loved had left for the United States: her mother, uncles, aunts, even her boyfriend.

Now her ailing grandmother, who raised her, was visiting her children in Chelsea, and Carla didn't believe her grandmother would return to her small town of Nueva Concepción. Few who leave come back.

Carla called her grandmother in Chelsea every morning, weeping on the phone. She said she wanted to join her.

Relatives said they begged her not to come, fearing that the girl was not healthy enough to make the journey, especially in the summer, a deadly season for border crossers.

Carla had been sickly in recent years. Out of the blue, her nose would start bleeding profusely. Relatives sent her to the doctor, but weren't sure what was wrong. Her health problems never appeared to be life-threatening.

Carla was adamant about making the trip.

"Without you I am nothing," she told her grandmother.

In El Salvador, Carla was closest to her grandmother, who could barely walk. Carla made her coffee in the morning, and they slept in the same bed. Carla didn't like school, but at home she loved to mop floors, wash dishes, and scrub all their clothes by hand.

"She was like the old lady of the house," Balderas said. "She couldn't sit still."

A relative in El Salvador loaned her $5,000 to pay a smuggler to bring her to Massachusetts.

With a purse filled with photographs of her grandmother, mother, and other relatives, she set off June 28 with three friends from the village and the smuggler.

Days later, her relatives talked to her in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico. Carla sounded happier than she had in weeks. She was almost in the United States.

An anguishing decision
On the telephone, Wilber always pleaded with his parents to bring him to the United States. Always, his parents told him to wait for them to come home to El Salvador.

They came into the United States illegally to work and save money after Hurricane Mitch wiped out their cornfields in 1998. They left him in his grandparents' care in the farming municipality of San Francisco Menéndez and planned to return.

But things kept getting worse back home. In 2000, the first of two major earthquakes collapsed their adobe house and wiped out their family's crops and clean water supply.

Because of the earthquakes, the family won temporary permission to stay legally in the United States, but they did not have the right to send for their son, said their lawyer, Jeff Ross.

In 2003, Wilber's grandmother died of meningitis. His 11-year-old aunt was left in charge of Wilber and several other children while his grandfather worked, and Wilber began to miss school and meals.

For the first time, in 2005, his parents considered smuggling him into this country.

"We spent days and nights on what we should do," said his father, who told the boy's story on condition that their last name not be published because smuggling is a crime and could jeopardize their legal status. "He's so small. The poverty is so difficult. He didn't have anything there. We decided the best thing was for him to be with his parents."

His father met with an acquaintance in the Boston area who knew a smuggler in El Salvador. He offered to pay $6,000, but the journey had to be safe. Wilber's mother, who followed her husband, was in a boat that splintered during a voyage to the United States. Her friend drowned.

"The hardest moments are knowing how far it is from El Salvador to here," his father said, his voice weary. "You know what you have suffered to come here as an adult. You did that. And to let someone take him and come here - ." His voice trailed off.

In September 2005, a big car pulled up to Wilber's house in El Salvador. The stranger driving smiled, gave him a pillow and a blanket, and told him to lie down in the back seat and go to sleep.

When they arrived in Guatemala, Wilber came down with a fever. For four days, a woman cared for him in a hotel, gave him medicine, and fed him tacos and McDonald's hamburgers, getting him ready to cross the border into the United States.

Struggling to find answers
In July 2007, less than a week after Carla's family last heard from her in Mexico, she disappeared.

Relatives made frantic telephone calls to smugglers and her fellow travelers, who had arrived in Texas and were resting and preparing for the trip to Massachusetts.

Different stories emerged. One friend said Carla had fainted and was in a hospital in Houston. One of the smugglers said she was fine.

"It was torture," Balderas said.

Relatives rushed to Houston twice, to scour hospitals and, fearing the worst, the morgue. Balderas said the authorities offered little help; authorities said they investigated the case and showed pictures of an unidentified dead girl to relatives. Nobody could match Carla's photograph to the unidentified body in the morgue.

Carla's fellow travelers, fearing deportation, refused to go to the police to help find her.

In the fall, authorities arranged to get DNA samples from her relatives. Results typically take six months. In Chelsea, her family waited in disbelief that answers could take so long to find.

A reunion and regrets
Thirteen days after Wilber left El Salvador in the fall of 2005, federal agents caught him and his smuggler at the border near McAllen, Texas.

Wilber had been warned to tell government officials that his smuggler was his father. But Wilber confessed to the federal agents, who put him in a shelter and sent for his father in Massachusetts.

When his father arrived days later, Wilber raced into the room and threw himself into his arms.

Last year, Wilber's lawyer and the Cambridge nonprofit Centro Presente secured temporary legal residency for him on humanitarian grounds.

Now, in their three-decker in Boston, it is as if the journey had never happened.

Wilber, now 10, and his 6-year old brother wear Patriots' sweat shirts and play basketball in the park. All are in the United States legally.

Occasionally, other parents ask for their smuggler's phone numbers. But Wilber's parents refuse. They still have misgivings about their choice.

"I wouldn't do it again," his father said.

A family grieves, wonders
In February, days before Balderas became a US citizen, authorities contacted the family with word about Carla: The family's DNA matched a body in the morgue.

In an interview in Spanish, the aunt said she was grasping for answers. She still did not know details of how Carla died or where she was found and was unsure how to get the information.

"I need to know what happened," Balderas said in an interview at a Salvadoran restaurant in Chelsea, twisting a tissue to shreds in her hands.

According to the Harris County sheriff's office and the medical examiner, Carla was seen on July 11, 2007, a hot Wednesday morning in Texas.

A woman spotted her lying on the grass, propped up against the wall of a car wash on Aldine Mail Route Road, outside Houston. She wore a red shirt, jeans, and no shoes.

The woman approached her and saw that Carla was gasping for breath. The woman helped her stand up, but Carla collapsed. The woman started CPR, and others ran over to help. Somebody called an ambulance.

At 12:35 p.m., Carla was pronounced dead at Northeast Medical Center.

An autopsy showed that Carla died of Graves' disease; her immune system was attacking her thyroid gland, according to the medical examiner. The disease is rarely fatal, although it can lead to heart failure and other complications if left untreated.

No one can say for sure, but for someone with her condition the arduous journey could have been too much.

Sheriff's investigators combed the grassy area around the car wash for clues, but Carla had no identification. To Texas authorities, she was homeless.

But she wasn't. In Chelsea, relatives, friends, and the church collected donations to send her back to El Salvador last month, in a pink casket with a white lid.

A few days ago, photographs of the funeral arrived in Chelsea, documenting the bouquets of roses and ashen-faced mourners gathered under a tin-roofed church.

Carla was finally home.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.