The Boy in the Caravan


MONICA CAMPBELL: It’s November, and I’m crossing the border into Tijuana. I’m looking for a kid I’d heard about from El Salvador who came up in the migrant caravan. He’s 15 and alone, and waiting for a chance to enter the US and ask for asylum.

There’s a US helicopter overhead and Mexican soldiers and police around.  And there’s this plaza and a group of migrants are gathered around a man with a notebook.

MAN: 1231! De Guatemala!

MONICA CAMPBELL: He’s calling out numbers from the notebook. It’s a way of creating a line of sorts for the 1000s of migrants here. If your number is called, you can go up to the border to US officials and ask for asylum.

But the kid I’m looking for – his name’s Vladi – isn’t here.  He can’t come here. If he does, Mexican officials can pick him up and even deport him, because he’s a teenager on his own without papers. So he avoids this place. He’s holed up in a shelter nearby.

MONICA CAMPELL: So I’m heading to the youth shelter where Vladi is staying.

MONICA CAMPBELL: The shelter’s this small concrete building on a busy street. It’s just ten minutes from the border. I find Vladi in the courtyard hanging out.

MONICA CAMPBELL:Mucho gusto. It's nice to meet you. Un gusto conocerle.



VLADI:Pues, bien.

MONICA CAMPBELL: He’s slim, with brown eyes -- wearing a grey sweatshirt, basketball shorts. He’s got a baseball hat, one of those flat-brimmed ones, turned to the side. The clothes are all donated, but he likes them. They’re trendy street clothes.This shelter’s for teenagers like him. Many of them came up in the same caravan he did.  He shows me around. 

VLADI:Ahí está el estacionamiento, allá está los baños, está el baño para bañarse.

MONICA CAMBPELL: …area for taking a shower, washing up, there’s a small garden, a parking lot.

MONICA CAMPBELL: And there are certain rules here he’s got to follow.

VLADI:Primera regla es prohibido fumar.


VLADI:No consumir bebidas alcohólicas.


 VLADI: Hay un límite para regresar, a las seis y media.

 MONICA CAMPBELL: They’ve got to be back by 6:30. If they want to go out, they need to ask permission.

MONICA CAMPBELL: The rules are no joke. This part of Mexico can be dangerous. It’s no place for a kid like Vladi on his own. A couple of weeks after I meet him, two kids staying at the same shelter were found murdered not far away. Their bodies were foundon the side of the road.

But El Salvador wasn’t safe either. He starts telling me why he left.

VLADI:Porque fue amenezado por las pandillas.

 MONICA CAMPBELL: He says because he was threatened by the gangs.

VLADI:Ya uno tiene 14, 15 años, así ya corre peligro ya las pandillas piensan queren involucar.

MONICA CAMPBELL: He said that when you turn 14 or 15 where he lives in El Salvador then you're ready to be recruited, you feel that pressure to be recruited, and that's just a fact of life of where he lives.

VLADI:Empiezan a amenazarnos y van a matar nuestras familias si no nos unimos y, si no, nos van a matar nosotros.

MONICA CAMPBELL: He says that they'll start to threaten, that they were threatening us. They said they would kill us, kill all my family if we didn't join them.

MONICA CAMPBELL:But he didn’t join the gang. His mom told him to join the migrant caravan instead. So he left El Salvador, along with his grandmother who went with him as far as Tijuana.

VLADI: Pues los primeros días que empezamos a caminar.

MONICA CAMPBELL: He says the first few days walking were some of the toughest.

VLADI:Eh, pues yo traía un par de zapatos de El Salvador, pero ya los bote porque se me arruinaron un tercer par de zapatos y contando unos ginas ya cuarto …

MONICA CAMPBELL:  He's on his fourth pair of shoes.

MONICA CAMPBELL:It was scary at times. At one point a man from Honduras hitched a ride on a crowded truck and fell off and died.

MONICA CAMPBELL: The caravan gained momentum as it moved north.

People kept joining, many of them planning to seek asylum in the US. And it all blew up in the news. President Trump started tweeting about it and said he’d send troops to keep the migrants out.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: I’m not letting ‘em in. They’re not coming in. They’re not coming in. We’re going to do whatever we have to. They’re not coming in.

MONICA CAMPBELL:Vladi knows what the president is saying about the migrants.

VLADI: Pues esto es discriminación, pues eso lo que está haciendo el presidente de los estados unidos. El es hijo, creo que su mamá era imigrante, y pues la esposa es imigrante

MONICA CAMPBELL: He says it's discrimination. He says that Trump also comes from a family of immigrants, that his wife is an immigrant.

MONICA CAMPBELL:But Vladi is still determined to cross the border and enter the US. Someone’s waiting for him there. His mom.

MONICA CAMPBELL: I meet his mom – Verónica Aguilar – at the house she’s staying in near San Francisco with a couple who took her in. She fled El Salvador a year before Vladi did.

VERÓNICA:A causa del papa de mi hijo, yo ya habia tenido problemas con la pandilla desde que yo decidí dejar de ir a verlo al penal, o la detención.

MONICA CAMPBELL: Vladi’s dad was in prison for murder. He was in a gang.She tried to cut off ties with him — but he said you’re being disloyal and keeping my son from me.  

VERÓNICA:Ellas tienen que ir o las matan porque ellos, los pandilleros, casi la mayoría que son detenidos, tienen obligadas a los mujeres,aunque ellas no quieren a ir.

MONICA CAMPBELL: She says if you’re with a gang member who’s locked up, you’ve got to stick with him - or else. Like being married to the mob. One time, she was walking home and this guy stopped her and said, “Put out your hand.” And he put three bullets in her palm and said they’d be used to kill her.

VERÓNICA:Fue un día que me pusieron la pistola en la cabeza.

MONICA CAMPBELL: She said at one point someone came and put a gun to her head on the street.

MONICA CAMPBELL: It’s one bad thing after another. I read her asylum application later and realize she didn’t even tell me about one of those prison visits - when Vladi’s dad got angry and threw her and kicked her in the ribs. She says the prison guard just stood there.

But she built a life of her own too and made ends meet.

VERÓNICA:Trabaje en un super…

MONICA CAMPBELL: She worked at a supermarket and sewed tights in a factory. And she was really into lifting weights. She showed me this video where she’s at this competition

She’s petite but strong wearing black shorts and hot pink sneakers and you see her prep herself to lift this huge barbell.

Life’s so different now in California. And Vladi’s not here with her. It’s unthinkable sometimes. But she always meant to send for him once she’d figured out a place for them to live. When she crossed the border, she was detained for seven months but as soon as she got out, she started thinking about getting Vladi here.

When she heard about the big migrant caravan she told him to join it. 

VERÓNICA: Si la veía como una opción --

MONICA CAMPBELL: It’d be safer with a group of migrants and not a smuggler. But she still worried about him the whole time.

VERÓNICA: Todos los días cuatro o cinco veces lo más que podía. … Dónde estaba, cuando tenía señal me contestaban, cuando no era horrible porque yo estaba Dios mío.

MONICA CAMPBELL: They talked four or five times every day. If he didn’t call, she tried not to panic. She was really anxious when Vladi crossed into Mexico from Guatemala on a raft made of tires and wood.

When he finally reached the US border, she was relieved – but knew it’d be harder for him to get across. It was getting tougher.

The week we meet, US border patrol agents tear gassed migrants on the border.

MONICA CAMPBELL: President Trump sent troops there and thousands of migrants in the caravan Vladi came up in were stuck in Mexico.

VERÓNICA:Muy preocupada, un dolor en mi pecho -- de saber dónde estaba mi hijo, de cómo estaba, si habîa comido.

MONICA CAMPBELL:Verónica says her chest physically hurts wondering how he’s doing - whether he’s eaten. She hasn’t seen him since she left El Salvador more than a year ago.

VERÓNICA:Tengo fe en Dios que todo va a estar bien. Solo hay que saber esperar.

MONICA CAMPBELL: I have faith in God it’ll all be fine. I just have to wait.

MONICA CAMPBELL: Back in Tijuana, people are mobilizing to help migrants like Vladi. Not far from his shelter, there’s a building filled with volunteers. People are hauling donated water bottles, tents and tampons.

MONICA CAMPBELL: Okay, fourth floor?

MONICA CAMPBELL:I’m looking for a lawyer named Nicole Ramos – she’s connecting other lawyers to migrants.

MONICA CAMPBELL: How do you explain what you're doing here?

NICOLE:We're essentially doing legal triage. We are providing refugees with information about the US legal system.

MONICA CAMPBELL:I ask about Vladi.

MONICA CAMPBELL: He's 15 years old, he's here alone. His mom is in the United States. What are some of the scenarios that he faces?

NICOLE:He would attempt to present himself at the port of entry, here in Tijuana, where you would enter the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry. He would get to the gate and most likely he would be met by US Customs and Border Patrol officers, who would then turn him away.

MONICA CAMPBELL:She’s trying to prevent that.. I ask Ramos why she thinks the government is pushing back so hard at the border?

NICOLE:Because the US government simply does not want any more immigrants.         

MONICA CAMPBELL:The Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection declined my interview requests, but I talked to Andrew Arthur, a former immigration judge, about all this. He has a different take on why people are being turned away. He says it’s about capacity.

JUDGE ARTHUR: There’s a physical constraint, a space constraint, the ability to actually build additional screening areas would be a significant undertaking. And so, you can send more asylum officers down there, but you’re just not going to have the space capacity to screen those individuals at the port of entry.

MONICA CAMPBELL:I bring up Vladi – and how his family’s threatened by gangs.

ARTHUR:He needs to resist that. He needs to go to the policeand tell them about the harm that he’s suffered. 

MONICA: Oftentimes you hear that the police are involved with the gangsthemselves, that the police won’t help, what would you say to him them?

ARTHUR:Then you go to a higher level of police officer or alternatively seek relocation within the country.

MONICA CAMPBELL:Vladi and his mom did move to another part of El Salvadorthough. And they say they still weren’t safe – which is why he’s here in Tijuana.

For now, Vladi’s killing time at the shelter until the lawyers say it’s time to cross. He’s playing with this kitten the kids here rescued off the street. He’s on his phone a lot too, playing games and watching videos.

VLADI:Uno se llama Clash of Clan, el otro se llama Free Fire. Y me gusta ver videos en Facebook - animes se llama

MONICA CAMPBELL: He's really into the Japanese anime videos.

MONICA CAMPBELL:After dinner one night, Vladi and I talk about the future.

MONICA CAMPBELL:When you think of the United States, what do you think of?

VLADI: Pues es un país grande y podoroso y lleno de migrantes y, pues, los estados unidos, ayuda bastante la economía …

MONICA CAMPBELL:He says that the United States is a big country and it's a country of immigrants.

MONICA CAMPBELL:I ask him how he pictures life if he makes it to the US?

VLADI:Quiero estudiar por que el estudio es todo, ya una persona que no estudia tiene menos oportunidades de empleo.

MONICA CAMPBELL:He says he’ll go to high school.

VLADI:Tengo que tener buenas notas o me quita el teléfono.

MONICA CAMPBELL:I have to get good grades, or my mom will take away my cell. I believe it, from getting to know Verónica. She’s tough.

 But he wants to see her more than anything, after more than a year apart.

VLADI:Es mi mamá! Siempre va a hacer falta. Ella siempre me ha cuidado bastante y, pues, me hace bastante falta.

MONICA:He says he's looking forward to seeing his mom, giving her a hug, living with her again.

MONICA CAMPBELL:That evening, one of Vladi’s friends pulls him aside, this young guy from Honduras. He takes out this little plastic bag with a metal chain inside.

VLADI:speaks to his friend

MONICA CAMPBELL: It’s a cross on the end of his chain. His friend is putting it on him.

MONICA CAMPBELL:It lookslike a blessing. His friend says Vladi will need all the luck he can get to make it to the US.



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