TAMPA — Like many other people, José Leiva has watched as tens of thousands of Central American minors have left their country without their parents this year, making their way through Mexico and crossing the border into the United States.
He has more than a passing interest: He made the same trip from Honduras in 2005 as a 15-year-old. The flood of children and teenagers making the dangerous trip was only a trickle then, but the same factors driving immigrants today, he says, were in place then, too — poverty and violence in their homelands and a desire to reunite with relatives who had come earlier to the United States.
“They come here with the same dream I arrived here with,” said Leiva, now 24. “The desire to move ahead, to unite with their mother .... an opportunity to study and to have a better life than they had over there.”
Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, the federal government processes unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries, such as Honduras, Guatemala or El Salvador. Depending on their situation back home, some are reunited with family or placed with a sponsor in the United States; others are repatriated back to their country of origin.
Leiva knows something of the hardships the children are going through on their trek to the United States because he made the same trip. He says he knows something else, too: For the ones who make it to this country, their journey has just begun.
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When 2005 began, Leiva had no intention of leaving Honduras. His mother, a single mom of three, had left for the United States the year before; she thought the best way to provide for her family was to find work there, he said.
Though he missed his mother, Leiva was content to stay in his country, where he lived with his two younger sisters in the warm embrace of his maternal grandmother.
That June, though, his grandmother died.
“I felt protected by my grandmother,” Leiva said. “Once she died, I had no one.”
His two younger sisters settled in with relatives in Honduras, but Leiva yearned to be with his mother, who by then had made her way to Tampa. Unlike many children leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador today, Leiva said he wasn’t being pressured to join a gang or threatened with violence, although he said he could sense that gunfire was becoming more common in his hometown.
“I wanted to come here where my mother was,” he said.
His mom didn’t like the idea. But Leiva was insistent and she eventually gave in, agreeing to hire a “coyote” to help him cross the border into the United States. She wired $3,000 to Honduras to help him begin his voyage; the balance of the $7,000 fee was due when he arrived safely.
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Leiva left on July 29, 2005, leaving in a tractor-trailer filled with merchandise. He was one of a dozen people on the trip, and the youngest. He came with the clothes he was wearing and a small bag containing two pants and two shirts.
Most of those inside the truck with him were strangers, but he knew a few neighbors; the “coyote” was a man from another part of Honduras.
The first stop was Guatemala, where they stayed in a home for several days, moving from the truck to the house at night to conceal their movements.
From there, they followed the armed “coyote” on foot, crossing a mountain to get over the border, he said.
They eventually ended up at a designated house in Mexico, staying six days and eating a meal a day that consisted of eggs, beans and tortillas, Leiva said.
“He came here thin,” said his maternal aunt, Lurvin Lizardo, of Tampa. “He was weighing about 90 pounds.”
To get to Reynosa, Mexico, they drove in two pickups stuffed with six immigrants each, sitting low in the cab to avoid detection.
The trip took three days. The women were allowed to use a restroom at the infrequent stops; the boys and men urinated in empty plastic bottles.
The coyotes worried someone would change their mind and abort the trip, meaning they wouldn’t get paid, and warned that if anyone tried to run off, they would be shot, Leiva said.
“I would get very nervous,” Leiva said. “I think it’s a dangerous trip. A trip with a lot of fear.”
In Reynosa, which is near McAllen, Texas, they stayed in a house for 10 days. Leiva said they ate once a day and were warned to stay inside the home so no one would see them.
Eventually, the group was led to another tractor trailer for the trip to the Rio Grande. Leiva, who didn’t tell anyone he couldn’t swim, said he was relieved when he saw the inner tubes. Three people shared a tube for the trip across the river.
Once across, they headed into McAllen, then to Houston. His mother was contacted and told he had arrived. When she wired the remaining $4,000, the men released Leiva and he got on a private commercial van for the trip to Tampa.
The van ride cost $300, and he was one of 18 people who made the trip to Florida. Most were being taken to Orlando and South Florida, Leiva said; he was the only one dropped off in Tampa, at a gas station on State Road 60 in Brandon.
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Leiva arrived on Aug. 20, 2005. A year later, he enrolled at Jefferson High School. He didn’t speak English and said he felt frustrated and alone. He later dropped out of school.
Last year, he earned his GED. He also filed last year for Dream Act status but was denied; he said officials told him he needed to show proof he has been living in the United States full-time since he arrived. He’s working to get the documentation so he can reapply.
Today, Leiva works at a local restaurant, although he has no permanent resident card, work permit, Social Security card or driver’s license.
His two younger sisters still live in Honduras. Like him, they are now adults. He sends them money and said he doesn’t want his sisters to follow the same route he did.
“With the danger that exists, it isn’t a great idea,” Leiva said.
He would like to see the people in the United States be more compassionate toward the unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border.
“I think they should allow them to stay here,” Leiva said. “The United States has always been a country of immigrants.’’
He still hopes to obtain Dream Act status. With it, he hopes to become a phlebotomist, someone trained to draw blood from patients, and eventually a nurse. He doesn’t plan to ever again live in Honduras.
America, he said, is “a great country. It’s a country that offers a lot of opportunity. Where someone can get ahead.”