MEXICO CITY — The ''unaccompanied minors'' who walked out of the brush on the banks of the Rio Grande and turned themselves into Border Patrol officers last month were not, technically, unaccompanied. In the group of 15 people that we watched that night, about half of them appeared to be adults, including men and a woman carrying a baby, in addition to several children.
It's the most potent image in the current immigration crisis: tens of thousands of Central American children on a dangerous solo exodus out of their countries. But from what I've seen reporting on this issue from the US border and in Honduras, it is also somewhat misleading.
The term ''Unaccompanied Alien Children,'' or UACs, as used by US Customs and Border Protection, refers to people up to age 17 who are traveling without a parent or legal guardian. It does not mean they are traveling alone.
In migrant shelters in Mexico and Honduras, talking to both children and adults who are making these journeys, or who have been deported after failing to reach the United States, the most common scenario seems to be children who are traveling in groups that include adult relatives, neighbors, smugglers, or others. Often the children migrating already have one or more parents living in the United States, and they are considered ''unaccompanied,'' even if traveling with adult relatives.
This is not to diminish the desperate circumstances these children are leaving, the dangers of the journey, or the strain this is causing on the immigration infrastructure in the United States.
In a government-run shelter for families and child migrants in San Pedro Sula, Honduras — the city that has sent more of these children north than any other — buses arrive three days a week with hundreds of migrants who got picked up along the way in Mexico and deported home. In interviews there recently, the children were with aunts, neighbors, grandparents, cousins, parents. One 13-year-old boy I interviewed, whose parents were both in prison, had attempted the journey with a neighbor's family. ''His mom's a good friend of mine,'' the neighbor told me.
From Honduras, there are various ways these groups of migrants reach the United States.
Those with the most money to spend can hire smugglers to drive them in private cars across Guatemala and Mexico to the US border. Cheaper options, but often still paying a smuggler, mean going by bus or riding on top of Mexican trains.
Some of the kids who end up alone caught in limbo in the immigration system started out with others. At a church-run migrant shelter in Reynosa, Mexico, one 14-year-old Honduran boy had set off with his 25-year-old brother before they got into an argument and parted ways. He continued the rest of the way through Mexico by hitchhiking. A teenage girl from El Salvador awaiting deportation from a government-run shelter in Reynosa said she had been separated from her group of travelers, which included a smuggler, when she got too tired. She had nearly reached the Rio Grande when she was taken into custody.
Amid the tens of thousands of kids making this journey, there are surely some doing it completely alone, but that seems to be the exception.