NEW YORK — Thousands of child migrants travel alone each year, some not tall enough to reach the trains they jump on, to get to the United States.
Their story is documented in the film “Which Way Home,” an Oscar nominee that shows the harrowing journey of children as young as nine.
“No one else really knows what people suffer trying to get to the United States,” said director Rebecca Cammisa at a screening last week at New York’s Americas Society.
The film follows four children embarking on the arduous trip north, harboring hopes of paradise – or at the least, adoption – in the States. Along the way, many turn or are turned back, either by hunger while squatting in a train station or the threat of rape by thugs or beatings by police.
Even these realities don’t stop the thousands of children caught every year by the U.S. Border Patrol.
Children often wait in detention centers, stuck without a telephone number or enough information to quickly find their families. In 2008, Mexico repatriated 4,555 Central American children, “likely a fraction of the children and adolescents who migrate alone each year,” according to a 2010 Catholic Relief Services report.
The report estimates that 20,000 unaccompanied minors wind their way through Mexico every year.
“The problem is overwhelming,” said Jorge Pinto, former Mexican Consul General in New York at the screening.
In Mexico, the flow of migrants inspired the government to create a separate humanitarian arm, Grupo Beta, which doesn’t carry guns and solely exists to help migrants, with food, water, and advice.
In the film, many believe the risk of children traipsing through Mexico will be rewarded by an adoption or jobs in the United States, allowing sons and daughters to provide for their families at home.
“It really comes down to basic human relations, and are the parents educated?” Cammisa said.
Mexico’s First Lady, Margarita Zavala, personally gave First Lady Michelle Obama the film.
Most unaccompanied migrants ages 12 to 17 are male, according to the Catholic Relief Services. However, more of the youngest migrants were female. In the film, Olga, 9, is chipper about her trip until breaking into tears while talking about her mother and sister. She and another 9-year-old boy walk to the train tracks alone.
Among the children traveling, more than half told the Catholic Relief Services they’d left home with less that $100 in their pocket.
Twenty-nine percent experienced at least one case of abuse. None had reported it to authorities.
Image: Courtesy of director Rebecca Cammisa.