San Diego 'Let's not talk in here," says Juan Enrique Méndez Meza, an official of the Desarrollo Integral de la Familia, which is known in Mexico by its acronym DIF (it rhymes with "beef"). The agency is the rough equivalent of the United States Social Security Administration. The single-wide trailer that houses his office offers zero privacy -- Mendez shares the trailer with four other DIF workers -- and there simply isn't room for two grown men to sit without blocking the passageway that stretches from one end of the 25-foot trailer to the other. Méndez, about 30, dressed in tan slacks and a lavender oxford shirt, smashes himself against one wall to let his visitor pass out the door and down the metal staircase to the blacktop courtyard outside. The courtyard and trailer sit on the grounds of the Grupo Beta Mexican border-police headquarters. The courtyard's north wall is the international border fence, and the San Ysidro border crossing lies immediately to the east. Though the revolving pedestrian gate can't be seen from the courtyard, its clank-clank-clank can be heard. Méndez has to speak up when he says, "We have a group of 16 kids arriving any minute."
The kids he speaks of were caught trying to cross illegally into the United States. After a couple of days' detention north of the border, they're being returned to Mexico by U.S. immigration authorities. Méndez and his associates are responsible for reuniting them with a parent or guardian.
"There they are," Méndez says as the gate's staccato clank-clank-clank momentarily gives way to a legato squeeeeeak. "They come in a different gate right next to the normal pedestrian gate."
A moment later, a short, dark-skinned girl of about 14, with long, braided black hair, rounds the corner of the Grupo Beta building, passes through a heavy gate, and walks into the courtyard where Méndez stands. Catching his glance, she lowers her enormous brown eyes in a gesture of self-conscious shame. With a paternal warmth, Méndez smiles at her and points to the steps into the office. Ten seconds behind the brown-eyed girl, a boy of 15 or 16 dressed in pressed brown jeans and a blue windbreaker comes through the gate. He's embarrassed too, but his embarrassment comes out in an ear-to-ear grin. Over the next five minutes, eight more boys and six more girls walk through the gate. Each struggles to contain embarrassment. The youngest of them, a girl no more than 11 wearing blue jeans and a pink jacket, holds her head high as she fights back the tears pooling in her dark eyes. "They are always downtrodden and embarrassed when they arrive," Méndez says, "because they've been held in what they think is a prison -- it's a detention facility -- and they're ashamed."
Most of the children, "about 60 percent," Méndez says, "were caught right here," he points east toward the cars lined up to cross into San Ysidro. "Typically, they have a valid birth certificate, but it belongs to a different child, a child who already lives in the United States. Most often, the situation is that at least one parent, but sometimes both, are already in the United States and they've sent for the child to come join them. The child comes to Tijuana on the bus or by plane. And when they get here, the polleros, or border-crossing guides, sign them up right at the bus station or the airport."
Once a child has been caught, U.S. immigration authorities contact the Mexican consulate in Little Italy. The consulate sends someone to interview the child. "First, they make sure they are okay. Then they try to get as much information as they can from the children: their names, where they come from, who their parents are, and how to contact them," Méndez explains. "Then they call us here, give us the information they have, and tell us when the children are going to be brought here. One of the consulate's workers accompanies each vanload of children being brought back. What we do here," he nods his head toward the dark beige trailer, "is we contact the nearest relative to the child as soon as we know who that is. Sometimes we know before the child is even here, if the consulate tells us. If they haven't told us, the child will tell us himself. Often, when we know in advance and we're able to contact the parents, one parent will fly here and be waiting to take the child home before the child even gets here. Sometimes the parent can't come, but there's somebody here in Tijuana -- an uncle, a godparent, a cousin -- to whom we will release the child, once we're convinced they're legitimate. We explain to them that once we release the child into their custody, if that child is caught trying to cross again, that they [the guardian] can be prosecuted."
Asked if that's ever happened, Méndez shrugs and says, "It has happened. But we're not in the prosecution business. Our job is to reunite children with their parents."
Most of the children are between 12 and 17 years old, Méndez says. "The youngest we've had was six days old. When that happens, it's usually an illegal private adoption. The mother can't take care of the baby she's pregnant with. And somehow she makes contact with a couple in the United States who can't have a baby. When the baby is born, they come down and pick it up and they try to bring it back across the border with them and the border agents catch them -- maybe they're acting very nervous, or maybe it's clear that you have two fair white people and a little brown baby."
Most of the children are collected by a parent or guardian within 24 hours of arriving, Méndez says. If night falls before the parent or guardian arrives, the kids are driven to one of three DIF shelters where they will spend the night. Over 5000 kids went through this process in 2005. "The largest percentage, about 22 percent," Méndez says, "came from the state of Michoacán. And we get lots from Guerrero, Jalisco, the Distrito Federal, Sinaloa, and Oaxaca.
"Let me show you our little facility," Méndez says, leading his guest back into the trailer. Two cribs, a rocking chair, and a changing table stocked with diapers and baby wipes occupy the room at the trailer's far east end. "This is our nursery for when we get the really young ones," he says. Today there are no occupants. Next to the nursery is a room with a couple of low couches and a TV showing cartoons. The seven girls occupy this room. A couple of cramped offices take up the middle section of the trailer. The far west end is furnished with two sets of wooden bunk beds on which lounge the nine boys who were repatriated earlier.
"How are you, jóvenes?" Méndez asks.
The boys respond with smiles and grunts.
"Where were you guys caught?" he asks.
"In hell," one of them answers, setting off a chain reaction of nervous laughter.
"In the mountains or the desert?" Méndez asks.
"Mountains," they all answer.
"How long were you walking?"
"Not long," says a 13-year-old on the bottom right bunk. "We were caught in less than an hour."
"Not us," says an older boy on the bunk above. "We were walking through hell for 15 hours."