Houston has become the most common destination for migrant children and teens who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without a legal guardian.
In the last few weeks, thousands of these kids have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, which has overwhelmed border facilities and migrant shelters nationwide and has prompted the opening of several emergency intake sites across Texas.
U.S. Health and Human Services said more than 20,000 children and teens are being held in these facilities nationwide.
Behind those numbers are the lives of real kids.
In southwest Houston, Wisdom High School teacher Garrett Reed introduced Houston Public Media to five of those kids, all from Central America. Some made the journey across Mexico alone as recently as a few months ago.
(Houston Public Media is using the teens’ first names only, because of their pending immigration cases.)
Jaime, 18 years old, Guatemala
Jaime has adjusted quickly to life at Wisdom High School. He plays on the school’s football team and speaks some English.
He said he decided to leave his home in Guatemala for a couple reasons. His dad — who left when Jaime was a baby — lives in Houston. He also fled violence.
“Some gangs threatened me in my country so that’s why I came,” Jaime said in Spanish.
He said coming to the U.S. was really difficult — during the journey he traveled mostly by night with complete strangers he met during the journey.
He said he’s grateful he stayed safe.
“Nobody bothered me, thank god, because sometimes I’ve heard that they kill people, a lot of things happen on the way,” Jaime said.
Roselia, 17 years old, Guatemala
At 13, Roselia left her mother’s house to go work at another woman’s home in Guatemala, where she said she was mistreated and verbally abused.
“I couldn’t take it anymore” Roselia said. So she left Guatemala by herself after saving up some money to pay her way to the United States.
The first time she tried to cross into southern Mexico, she said officials there deported her back to Guatemala.
On her second attempt, Roselia made it.
During the long journey she remembers riding a bus, hiding out and feeling scared. At one point, the group she traveled with ran out of provisions.
“We were hungry and there wasn’t any food or water at all,” she said.
That was just a few months ago. When she crossed into the U.S. from Mexico, border officials processed her, then moved her to a shelter and reunited with her older brother who was already in Houston.
“Everything is different,” she said about Houston, “Everything is English, English, English!”
She said misses her mom in Guatemala, but likes living with her brother.
Jennifer, 17 years old, Guatemala
Jennifer lived with extended family in Guatemala and came to Houston to reunite with her parents, who live here.
When she was traveling through Mexico, she remembers being attacked by Mexican immigration officials.
“They wanted to kill us,” she said, so the group she traveled with paid them off to let them through.
After making their way through Mexico, her group crossed into the United States, where Border Patrol found her. She was later sent to a shelter.
She called her mom when she was in processing, and later took a plane to reunite with her.
“When she saw me for the first time, she cried because we hadn’t seen each other,” said Jennifer. It had been so long, it was like seeing her for the first time, she said.
Kevin, 16 years old, Guatemala
“For each of us who come here, it’s out of necessity,” said Kevin. He said coming here isn’t easy: “Some die on their way.”
He said he crossed into the U.S. near Reynosa, Mexico about three months ago. At one point in the journey he said was crammed in a tractor trailer with hundreds of others, including many children.
When he arrived on the Texas side of the Rio Grande, border officials found him.
He said he was happy with conditions on the U.S. side.
“They treated me really well. They gave me food three times a day — they even would give me a snack,” Kevin said.
Now he’s living with his uncle in Houston.
He dropped out of school in sixth grade and recently joined Garrett Reed’s class.
High school brings a lot of opportunities — and obstacles — for these teens. Despite challenges, the students have lofty ambitions.
Kevin said he dreams of one day being a businessman.
Franklin, 15 years old, Honduras
Franklin came to Houston from Honduras when he was 13 years old to be with his dad, though he still misses the rest of his family back home.
“I used to miss my dad and now that I’m here, I miss my mom,” he said.
He likes it a lot here — back home in Honduras his family wouldn’t let him leave the house much because so many kids would turn up dead each day.
He hopes his father — who has papers — will help him out so he can pursue his American dream:
“My dream is to study, give it my all and if god allows it, (become) an engineer.”