Cars and helicopters descended on Alex almost as soon as he crossed the Rio Grande River. He was an 11-year-old boy trying to see his mom. Border agents threw him in a freezing cell, then handcuffed him.
That was Alex’s introduction to the United States, a place he hoped would become his new home. But even after he left government custody to join his family in Houston, Texas, his future was unsettled at best. He recalls how at school, a classmate told him to go back to El Salvador.
“When you don’t belong somewhere,” Alex said, “they do the most for you to don’t feel welcome here.”
Harris county, which includes most of Houston, has become the top destination nationwide for unaccompanied migrant children like Alex, who travel north without a parent or guardian in search of safety, opportunity and family.
Many are from Central America’s northern triangle and have suffered state-sponsored violence, gang activity, death threats or domestic abuse. They risk a life-threatening journey to the US, in a desperate attempt to escape poverty and persecution.
“The decision is not being made lightly. It’s more like it’s being made for them because they don’t really have any other choice but to come – but to leave,” said Salma Hasan, senior attorney for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) in Houston.
This year, unaccompanied children are arriving in droves at the south-west border, where they’re swept away to frigid hielera holding cells, then transferred to government shelters for weeks or months. But their lives in the US don’t truly begin until they’re released into communities across the country – the start of their new normal.
Most of the young migrants move in with relatives, even if they’ve never met before. Many don’t speak English before enrolling in school, and some don’t know how to read or write.
At immigration court, they stare down deportation. To stay legally, they turn to laws that were enacted to defend survivors of horrific crime, abuse, neglect, abandonment or oppression. They’re often eligible, sometimes for multiple protections.
“Kids are coming, yes, because they want increased access to resources like education and work. But they’re also coming because they are legitimately not safe in their community. And for some of these kids it really is a matter of life and death,” said Jodi Berger Cardoso, an associate professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
Four years ago, when Alexa was 14 years old, she took a month-long bus trip from Honduras to the US-Mexico border. She got off in San Diego at 5am, and wandered for about an hour, looking for an officer to take her into custody.
She was picked up and taken to a hielera (“refrigerator” in Spanish; so called because the cells are so cold), where she could hear others sobbing around her. “I think I spent the entire night crying,” she said in Spanish, “missing my family.”
Now, she lives with her mother in Houston, a city she has grown to love. But it wasn’t easy to adapt when she knew no one and wasn’t sure what to do.
“In a few words,” Alexa said, “the most difficult thing was making the United States my new home.”
Joyful reunions, then getting to know a long-absent parent
When Alex was in El Salvador, he spoke to his mother Mirna on Facebook Messenger almost every day. But he still struggled on Mother’s Day, when he couldn’t give her gifts or hugs. He would ask his grandmother why God would separate little kids from their mothers.
“I used to blame myself. I was like, ‘I didn’t ask to be born like this. I didn’t ask to be born, then my mom go away,’” Alex said.
It broke Mirna’s heart that when Alex was little, he knew her only through pictures.
“He would always tell me, this, ‘mom, I want to know you. But in-person,’” she said. “It would hurt me because I couldn’t be there.”
Mirna migrated to the US so she could work double shifts and support her children from afar. In Houston, even undocumented migrants are able to find jobs in construction, agriculture, hospitality or domestic work, where employers don’t ask about their immigration status or language skills.
Just hours from the border, Harris county houses more northern triangle immigrants than almost anywhere else in the US, so there’s at least some semblance of home. That’s part of what makes the Houston area such a hub for unaccompanied kids.
“You’ve got, a large community there of family members, potential sponsors, networks, etc. to support people,” said Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute.
“You’ve got infrastructure that’s been built up over the years, stronger in some parts of the city than others – housing and jobs. So that’s a pretty decent foundation.”
Sometimes, immigrant parents intend to stay in the US short-term, but their plans get derailed. Meanwhile, their kids can become even more vulnerable to dangers at home.
In El Salvador, Alex watched as older boys were given two options: join one gang, or join the other. He worried that eventually, he’d be next.
So in 2014, he left with his brother, aunts and cousins, guided by a drug-trafficking coyote, a human smuggler who threatened to leave them behind if they said anything. Alex spent 16 hours on the ocean, terrified he would fall in, before finally making it to the US-Mexico border – and eventually to Mirna.
For Alex, there are almost no words to convey what it was like when he and his mom finally reunited. “I was happy,” he said. It felt so good he cried.
But after an initial honeymoon phase, young migrants can sometimes be blindsided by the reality of relying on someone who hasn’t been physically present for much of their lives.
Suddenly, they’re meeting their parents’ partners and US-born children, who are strangers. And after a decade apart, parents may be distracted by other responsibilities. The children sometimes act out, withdraw or even run away.
“For a lot of these kids, the parent wasn’t the primary caretaker,” Berger Cardoso said. “That really unhinges the hierarchy in the family upon reunification, ’cause the parent wants to parent, and the kid is like, ‘you’re not my parent. I barely know you.’”
Alexa never felt like her mother was absent, even from thousands of miles away. “The only thing that was missing was maybe hugs or kisses,” she said.
But before she got to the US, she had only two memories of being with her mother in person. Both were from when she was a baby, and she had always assumed they were just dreams.
At first, it was difficult for Alexa to communicate with her mother. She wasn’t used to having her around all the time. Her mother wasn’t used to living with a teenager, either. But they found a way to make it work. And years later, they’re inseparable, linked by a deeply rooted friendship and matching mother-daughter tattoos.
“If I have my mom,” Alexa, who’s now 18, said, “I don’t need, like, anyone else.”
Lessons in English, and in staying safe
Alexa pulled out a book she has kept ever since she was a student at Las Americas Newcomer School.
In the book, she had assembled an entire collection of her photographs as a homage to the older brother she lost back in Honduras. Stunning landscapes filled the pages, contextualized by her handwritten poem, A Gaze Towards the Sky”.
“Above us there is a story, a world. There is life,” Alexa wrote. “The sun is our light along the path. The moon is the companion of our fears. The stars accompany our wishes and the clouds the feelings in our hearts.”
Alexa joined the school’s photography group because of Sarah Howell, Las Americas’ clinical social worker. Years later, as both of them sat together reminiscing about the project, Howell sang Alexa’s praises.
“They were powerful,” Howell said of the photos. “She’s more willing to share her personality than a lot of kids, and so it was a cool way to see her express herself.”
The Houston Independent School District developed the Las Americas Newcomer School for its least-acclimated immigrant and refugee students – children who just smile when asked for their names and ages in English. Itprovides a much-needed cultural orientation to Houston, at a time when kids are trying to process dramatic life changes, culture shock and the realities of poverty in America.
“It’s, ‘oh my goodness gracious, there’s the same gangs present in the United States as there are in my home country,’” Howell said. “‘Just ’cause we have carpet doesn’t mean that we can pay all of our bills.’”
The school’s campus is unassuming, with small, temporary-looking structures for classrooms. But it gives 9- to 15-year-olds a haven where they can quickly learn English, in an environment more sensitive to their needs.
“To me, this is a perfect place,” said Marie Moreno, Las Americas’ principal for the past 16 years.
“I continue to stay because … there’s still more kids to educate. There’s still more kids to help.”
When Alex went to Las Americas, he wanted to get to know all his classmates so badly that he started speaking English in a matter of months. At home, he read books, watched movies and listened to music in English.
He told his friends to correct his pronunciation, and within six months he had mastered the basics.
“I don’t care if you laugh at me when I’m doing something,” Alex said. “Imma still do it.”
Kids at Las Americas learn the usual subjects such as math, social studies and science, preparing for a possible future as US citizens. But they’re also taught safety planning and emotional regulation – survival skills needed if they’re forcibly repatriated or have to drop out of school so they can work.
One of the most important lessons Howell believes she can convey is how to ask for and find help. She realises how the rest of the world perceives the kids she cares so much about, and she does her best to protect them, down to giving out her phone number in case they’re ever stopped by the police.
In south-west Houston, where there’s a history of gang violence, Howell knows Latino boys can attract the attention of authorities just by sporting Honduran jerseys, lanyards and cool haircuts.
“I see kids who come through that are stereotyped as tough gang members, who are absolutely not,” she said.
At school, Howell keeps a treasure chest, where children can write down and safeguard their most intimate feelings. During non-pandemic times, she comforts them with a therapy rabbit. She’s there to give them space to process whatever they’re going through, whether that’s news that a family member back home has been killed, or just boyfriend drama.
Lately, Howell has been hearing more frequently about alleged sexual abuse in home countries.
But the families didn’t feel comfortable opening up to any officials when they were detained or living in shelters. Everyone wants immigrants who are hard workers, they tell her. No one wants immigrants who have been sexually abused.
So they don’t mention abuse as a reason to flee. “It’s easier to explain, ‘it was a good time to go after the hurricane, after the pandemic,’” Howell said.
Nearly 4,000 unaccompanied children poured into Harris county between October and the end of June, and more students are showing up at Las Americas.
In mid-June, they filed back into the buildings for the first day of summer school. Victor Saenz Jr’s class was practising multiplication tables. Marvel-inspired superhero decor adorned the classroom, though the popular teacher also left enough space for a few sentimental notes on the wall. “For the best teacher in the world I want to thank you very much,” one read. “You were like a father.”
Outside, Howell walked by the school garden, where she proudly observed one of the plants. She felt sure it had died after Texas’s severe winter storm last February. But then it popped up nearby and started thriving.
The message, she said, was not to bloom where you’re planted. Bloom wherever you want – where you can survive.
‘I’m trying to be something’
When Alexa went to immigration court in Houston, she was so nervous her hands were sticky with sweat. The judge told her to study and learn English, and her mother was forced to explain why she had “abandoned” her baby daughter in Honduras.
“The court feels really heavy,” Alexa said. “You feel all of the nerves of the people who are there in the air.”
After spending weeks, months or years in Harris county, thousands of migrant kids come up with plans and ambitions. Alexa is torn between human and migratory rights or psychology. Alex wants to go into dentistry. His cousin Dayana hopes to become an lawyer.
But in immigration court, all those prospects can suddenly fall apart. The sheer number of unaccompanied kids in Harris county means there aren’t enough attorneys to go around, and without a right to appointed counsel, many children and their families are left to parse complicated immigration laws and procedures themselves.
Their cases wind through an overburdened bureaucracy, where recently the lion’s share have gone unresolved for years. And as kids wait, they stand to lose everything.
“Immigration court is a place where the child is essentially on the defense, even though they’re a child,” said Jennifer Nagda, policy director at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights.
“It is an adversarial space where, at the end of the day, the government is trying to remove the child from the country.”
Before Alex’s first court appearance, he had never taken the metro or seen such large buildings. The freeways and skyscrapers put him on edge, and the court’s trumped up security presence made him feel as if he had done something wrong.
Back then, he was afraid he’d get sent back to El Salvador. Instead, he was issued a green card, the best case scenario for kids like him.
And yet he worries. “I know we don’t belong here,” he said.
Still, he presses on. And he’s come a long way from the terrified little boy stuck in an hielera.
During his senior year of high school, he pushed through pandemic-era classes and 12-hour overnight shifts at an IHOP chain, sleeping three hours a day. In June, he finally graduated.
“For me to came (sic) to this country with nothing, came to this country not knowing about the culture, not knowing English, nothing at all,” he said, “I couldn’t ever see myself finishing high school.”
In the fall, he’s off to college, on a $72K scholarship.
“I’m trying to be something,” he said, “in the future.”