A young girl stands at a bus staton near the U.S-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, where migrants often travel to the interior of the United States. Last year, nearly 8,000 illegal migrants in U.S. custody were children who traveled to the country alone.
Andres sat in the front office of the children's shelter in Chicago, leaning back in a swivel chair, an expression of studied resignation on his face. The 16-year-old Mexican had crossed the Arizona border illegally two years earlier, and worked a string of jobs in the United States, making friends along the way.
But his American dream had been cut short when he was stopped for speeding. ("I was driving 40 and the speed limit was 35," he says.) After spending three months in a shelter for underage migrant children, Andres was due to be flown back home to Oaxaca the week after we met him in early October.
Unlike many immigrants, Andres was making a living before he came, and was even helping out his farmer father. He worked at the beach in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, selling fish and collecting fees at the public restroom there.
"I was happy," he recalls, "but my friend said, 'Let's go and look for something better.'"
It was the friend's third time crossing the U.S. border, and Andres says the two didn't even use a "coyote" to guide them. They walked for five hard days and nights to Phoenix, where another friend met them with a car.
Over the next two years, Andres says he worked chopping tobacco in Morristown, Tenn., and at a car-manufacturing plant in Ohio. Once he visited a friend in Miami, driving for 24 hours. It wasn't all he'd imagined.
"I thought I could work here and send money home, but no more," Andres says.
He said he had to buy a car to get to work, and that cut into his savings. He had managed to buy a Seiko watch for $640, but says the police kept that — along with his car and even his CDs — when they arrested him for the speeding ticket and turned him over to immigration.
"It wasn't worth coming to the U.S.," he says with a low laugh.
Still, Andres says he's going to miss the friends he made, including an American girl he met at a park and exchanged phone numbers with. He says she is "not a girlfriend," but she speaks a bit of Spanish, and they've visited each other's homes.
His friends in Ohio are paying for his plane ticket back to Mexico. That lets him depart "voluntarily," instead of having an official deportation on his record, which would bar him from re-entering the United States for a number of years.
Andres says he's looking forward to seeing his family again, and yet…
He glances at his lawyer. "If I come back and immigration arrests me, what happens?"
She tells him he must only return legally. What's more, if he enters the country without a visa after he turns 18 and is caught, he'll be treated as an adult and put in jail.
Andres mulls that over, then playfully cocks his head. "So, if I come back before I turn 18…?"