More than 40,000 unaccompanied children have fled to the U.S. since January to escape violence plaguing their home Central American countries.
However, minors have been coming to the U.S. for years without their families — sometimes to escape violence and other times to make money they can send back home.
Stephanie Canizales, a USC doctoral student, has been researching how these minors grew up alone in a foreign land. She has been documenting a support group in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Pico-Union for former child migrants — now in their 20s in and 30s — many of whom came for economic opportunities.
"These are adults who arrived when they were as young as 12 years old," she says. "Parents have no idea what their children are facing, so children are left in a bubble of isolation."
Canizales says some of them left at a young age against their parents' wishes.
"Sometimes the parents are begging their children, 'Don't go,' and once they're here, 'Please come back.'"
Once they arrive, she says some will find shelter in a church. Others will accept the fact that they'll be homeless for a few days or weeks until they find work and, through other employees, a place to live. Sometimes they'll find a relative, but Canizales says she's seen several cases where siblings living in Los Angeles choose not to live with each other.
"I think it has to do with people being unable to provide support that does not put them into some financial bind," she says. "Because of these conditions of poverty, there is no sense of, 'I'm responsible for you.'"
Their journey would be much different if they arrived as adults, too, with more stable social networks and a better education.
"They talk a lot about retraso — setback," she says. For example: At 16, one child might be working to save enough to be comfortable 3-4 years down the line. By that time, he's aged out of the high school system, and so it will take him 5-6 years to earn a GED or diploma.
That will place him far behind other people his age in America.
Plus, she says the traumas of migrating at such a young age can delay a person's settling into the US even longer.
"There's a case of a young man who, at 14 years old, migrated," she says. He was traveling with his cousin at the time, but had to leave him in the desert because of his failing health and the environmental conditions. "He spent his first three years in the U.S. with depression, and a sense of guilt and shame."
For many, Canizales said, the struggle is worth it.
"The conditions of poverty [in their home countries] is so strong that they would still come," Canizales says. "They say, 'We work harder than the average American 18 year old. My parents don't support me.'"