Most come from some of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere but the journey north exposes them to new risks.
For years, Dora waited impatiently to turn 15, the age her mother had agreed she would be old enough to leave their home in El Salvador – where she suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her grandfather – and head to the US, in search of a new life.
Her goal was to join two older sisters who had resettled in Los Angeles after fleeing the same abuse five years ago.
But even after her birthday in May, Dora did not feel ready to brave the hazardous 5,000km journey, until local news reported that a caravan of migrants was heading north – and she decided to set out with a friend of her mother and her two small children.
“Seeing them leave together … that gave me hope and gave me the courage to finally leave,” said Dora, who is now living at a children’s shelter in Tijuana, on the border with California.
This year, more than 49,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended at the US border, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Jakelin Caal, the seven-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in US custody this month was with her father, but the group they were traveling in included some 50 children who were traveling alone.
Most unaccompanied minors come from some of the most dangerous countries in the hemisphere – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – but the journey north exposes them to new risks: migrants are often targeted for rape, murder, kidnapping and robbery.
Those who survive the journey are not out of danger: bureaucratic hurdles can delay them from pleading their case to US officials – or even prevent them from seeking asylum altogether. Meanwhile, they are forced to wait in border cities that have become battlefields in Mexico’s raging drug war.
On Monday night, US border patrol blocked 15 Honduran migrants, including eight unaccompanied children, from seeking asylum at the Otay Mesa port of entry north of Tijuana despite two members of Congress traveling with the group. After four hours, the unaccompanied children were let in while the rest waited to plead their case.
As part of the Trump administration’s crackdown on migration, the US government has put a limit on the number of people who can apply for asylum each day, a practice known as “metering”. Meanwhile, the Mexican government routinely diverts unaccompanied children into the foster care system or simply deports them – regardless of the dangers they face at home.
“It is a timebomb of tensions and vulnerabilities,” said Michelle Brané, the director of the migrant rights and justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.
Brané, who recently visited Tijuana, said metering was creating an especially dangerous situation for children who remain exposed to violence and gang recruitment while they wait to apply for asylum.
At some ports of entry, metering has been in place for more than two years, but in the past six months, it has become the standard across the US-Mexico border, according to a report released this month by three research institutes.
Nowhere is the precarious situation for unaccompanied children more visible than in Tijuana, which has been overwhelmed by thousands of asylum seekers in the final months of 2018.
According to an unofficial list of asylum seekers, some 5,000 people are currently waiting to present their claim, with an average waiting time of 12 weeks, according to the report by the Robert Strauss Center’s Mexico Security Initiative, UC San Diego’s Center for US-Mexican Studies and the Migration Policy Centre.
Child protection groups in Tijuana estimate there are hundreds of unaccompanied children in the city, but the figure is hard to confirm because minors traveling alone are hesitant to identify themselves for fear of gangs, traffickers – and the Mexican government.
Mexican child protection officers are obliged to take unaccompanied minors into custody, where they are filtered into foster care or deported.
“Even if they are lucky enough to get information about the asylum system in Mexico, they very often still don’t have access to actually apply, but then even beyond that, they don’t get any information about the United States,” said Brané.
Those unaccompanied children who make it to the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana can also still be turned away by US Customs and Border Protection agents. According to Amnesty International, the border patrol has since April turned away at least five unaccompanied children seeking asylum at San Ysidro.
DHS said in an emailed statement: “No one is being denied the opportunity to make a claim of credible fear or seek asylum.”
But on a visit to Tijuana last month, the US congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington, intervened when five asylum seekers, including two unaccompanied children, were stopped from presenting themselves for asylum at the border by US officials.
“It shouldn’t take intervention from a Member of Congress and an incredibly compassionate Border Patrol Chief for those fleeing violence and persecution to seek asylum in the United States,” Jayapal tweeted after the incident.
When Dora tried to apply for asylum at San Ysidro, she was intercepted by Mexican immigration agents who sent her to the children’s shelter where she now spends the day watching television, playing cards and hanging out with new friends.
She is not able to contact her family because their cell service is patchy in the city where they live. She hopes eventually to apply for asylum again.
With her dream of reaching Los Angeles just out of reach, Dora said she was still grateful to have escaped the chaotic environment around her grandfather.
“When he wasn’t drinking it was fine, but it got to be every day,” said Dora.
“He would hit me hard and then when my mom would try to intervene, he would hit her. You never knew exactly what would set him off. Living on edge like that, it’s constant fear and anxiety. I feel much more at peace here, like it’s going to be OK.”
But Jenny Villegas, an organizer at the advocacy group Caracen who has been working closely with unaccompanied children in Tijuana, said that many of the youngsters are only just realizing the scale of the risks they still confront.
“Some have faced very terrible things on their way, some have been kidnapped by cartels,” Villegas said. “So they are dealing with a lot. And on top of that, they are realizing it’s not as easy as they thought it would be when they got here.”
Without adult supervision, unaccompanied children are very vulnerable to gangs and traffickers in Tijuana, where homicides soared to a new high in 2017 because of gang violence. “There are active gangs here who recruit minors,” she said.
Many of the unaccompanied children who reach the city are unaware of the risks and obstacles they still face, preoccupied as they are by homesickness and the violence they have left behind.
Orlin, 17, and his brother Marcos, 15, described a steady life with their grandparents in Zamora in northern Honduras, until they declined to join a gang – and were given two weeks to leave town.
“Honduras is a beautiful country but the gangs make it an ugly place to be,” said Marcos, speaking in the same shelter. “I don’t ever want to go back.”
The two brothers had left school before age 10 because the costs of pencils, backpacks and notebooks was too much of a financial burden for their family.
“We almost never leave the house because of the gangs – we definitely don’t go out at night, but during the day even we really only go out if we have to run to the store or something,” Orlin said.
Orlin has two round scars on his knee and a third on his left thigh from being shot by gang members who robbed him two years ago .
“That really shook me,” he said. “Our father had been killed by the gangs and I didn’t want to be next.”
The ultimatum from the gangsters came just before the first caravan set out from Honduras.
The two brothers have family scattered across the US and said they hope to become fluent in English, work in construction and eventually make their own families.
Orlin nodded northwards, towards the US border. “The dream – our dreams – are there.”