Mexican Migrants Leave Kids, Problems Back Home As Mexicans migrate to the United States, many are leaving their children behind in the care of extended families. That's causing problems in their home communities: children are doing poorly in school, dropping out and turning to criminal activity.
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Mexican Migrants Leave Kids, Problems Back Home

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Mexican Migrants Leave Kids, Problems Back Home

Mexican Migrants Leave Kids, Problems Back Home

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Changing immigration patterns across Mexico has meant that more women are crossing the border into the United States. That means increasing numbers of children are being left with relatives in their home communities, without their fathers or mothers to take care of them. It's a problem that is only just being looked into.

Here's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro with the second part of our series on how migration is affecting Mexico.


The rural village of San Andres Nicolas Bravo in the Province of Malinalco, lies somewhere between one state and another. Locals joke that they're the only ones that really know where the border is. Mid-last century, there use to be pitched battles here between the residents of the State of Morelos and Mexico, over land and water rights. The middle school, which was founded in the 1970s, is called United Nations, not because it gets any help from that august organization, but rather because the townspeople wanted to show that they put their fractious past behind them.

It's a sunny day at the school, and hundreds of birds are swooping in and out of nearby fields.

(Soundbite of birds)

NAVARRO: Fourteen-year-old Alexis Silva Carreno is known as a rebel. But as he shuffles in, he looks at the floor. He seems somehow embarrassed. His school uniform is smeared with dirt. His brown hair is tussled and sweaty. He's been at the point of being expelled many times. He says his troubles began one day in 2001, when his father left for the U.S.

Mr. ALEXIS SILVA CARRENO (Student, United Nations Middle School): (Through Translator) I felt really bad. I begged him not to go. I told him he would suffer without his children, his wife.

NAVARRO: But his dad left anyway, traveling illegally to Houston to join relatives already there. Alexis was about nine. Things were fine, for a while, until his mother took up with another man.

Mr. CARRENO: (Through Translator) I was 12 years old and I was fed up with everything. My mother would tell me, Get out, dog. And my friends would tell me, Have a beer so you'll feel better. And I started to like it.

NAVARRO: Those friends were part of a local gang, led by a Mexican youths who had grown up in the U.S. and returned. Alexis started doing drugs too, and was eventually sent to a local state home for troubled kids. Even though he had difficulties with his mother, the hardest blow came when she up and left for the U.S., too.

Mr. CARRENO: (Through Translator) She didn't even leave any kitchen utensils. She took everything. Everything. She left us to be street kids. She forgot her children.

NAVARRO: He was left in the care of his grandmother and extended family, but it didn't help how he felt.

Mr. CARRENO: (Through Translator) I felt discriminated against, like I was worth nothing. Like trash.

NAVARRO: According to the head mistress of his school, Alexis's story is far from uncommon. Antonia Figaroa Ibanez says that more and more parents are leaving their children behind to be cared for by relatives.

Ms. ANTONIA FIGAROA IBANEZ (Head Mistress, United Nations Middle School): (Through Translator) It's affecting us hugely. Out of 73 children in one class, 10 have neither of their parents here. That's a big number.

(Soundbite of children)

NAVARRO: In another town near Malinalco, teacher Carmen Sanchez quizzes her teenaged students on their geometry. Here, too, migration has meant that many of the children have at least one parent in the U.S.

Ms. CARMEN SANCHEZ (Teacher): (Foreign language spoken) (Through Translator) How many of you have family outside of the country? So about 50 percent. Gracias.

NAVARRO: Sanchez says that when a child's parent leaves, there is a clear consequence.

Ms. SANCHEZ: (Through Translator) When they don't have their father or mother, they lack confidence. In the academic sphere, it means they will be more likely to miss school and to drop out. They're also less respectful of their grandmothers, or uncles, or their teachers.

GRADSTEIN: Portina Flores Peres(ph) is the superintendent for middle schools for the municipality. As he sits near his office, he doesn't mince words. He says migration is causing a crisis in the schools because of its affect on children who are left behind.

Mr. PORTINA FLORES PERES (Superintendent of Schools, Malinalco): (Through Translator) This has enormous repercussions on the education system. Because these students, instead of finishing school in three years, do it in four. So it's an economic burden on the state. And some don't finish at all; the student leaves school altogether.

NAVARRO: And he says, because these students have trouble learning and have behavioral problems, they are disruptive to the rest of the class, and more of the teachers' time is spent helping them. Many educators, here, say the same thing, they fear that what is being created is a lost generation.

Ms. THERESA KILBANE (Child Protection Officer, UNICEF, Mexico): There's a lot of research in Mexico, and I think also in the United States, about the impact of migration, it's economic impact. But the impact on families, on children, and women, is less documented. We don't have valid data on what's happening.

NAVARRO: Theresa Kilbane is the child protection officer for UNICEF in Mexico. She says that more women are traveling north, either because they want to join their spouses, or out of financial need. Unlike Alexis mother, most find the separation heart-wrenching. But they don't bring their children with them because of the perils of the journey.

UNICEF is starting to research the phenomenon in a more systematic way. But already, on a small scale, others have been trying to get something more than anecdotal evidence.

(Soundbite of bells)

NAVARRO: A pair of boys rings the bell at Proyecto el Rincon at Malinalco. The project is being run by Ellen Calmus, a former Harvard academic, who has founded an NGO here that is trying to help the children of migrants.

Ms. ELLEN CALMUS (Project Coordinator, Proyecto el Rincon): I was hearing more and more stories, anecdotes of what was happening with one family and another family, and another family.

NAVARRO: So Calmus decided to find out what exactly was going on. And with the help of some local nuns, she polled some of the population.

Ms. CALMUS: In the schools in our municipal center, in our more urbanized part, what we found was that 10 percent of the children had one or both parents in the U.S. In the outlying areas, we found that a conservative estimate seemed to be about 60 percent.

GRADSTEIN: Calmus says that it's having a devastating affect on the communities.

Ms. CALMUS: People are going north, thinking that this is going to be a way to help out their families, in the short term; thinking that they're going to be able to return, fairly quickly, to be with their children; and finding that the conditions are such that they can't come back as quickly. And the crisis gets more severe.

NAVARRO: She says because crossing the border illegally has become more difficult and costly, migrants don't want to risk returning to see their families; which has also meant that many of their children are now going north unaccompanied, to be reunited with their parents instead; uneducated and ill prepared.

(Soundbite of birds)

NAVARRO: Back in San Andres Nicolas Bravo, Alexis says that his father has come back from Texas. And now he stopped drinking and going with the gangs. Still, there's been more trouble at home. He doesn't like his father's new girlfriend. He says he, too, is now thinking of going north.

Mr. CARRENO: (Through Translator) I want to go to school up there, or work to make money, so my father will be proud of me. But maybe on the way, they'll kill me or rape me. In the desert, I've heard, it's really bad. I've heard they'll even steal your water.

NAVARRO: Knowing all that, when he's asked why he still wants to head off, he's says there's something inside of him that tells him to go. Leave, leave, he says his heart tells him. And then he whispers, Sometimes I feel like I just want to die.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Malinalco, Mexico.

MONTAGNE: And you can hear the first part of this series at

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