ARRIAGA, Mexico – On the last day of school, Gladys Chinoy memorized her mother's phone number in New York City and boarded a bus to Guatemala's northern border.
With nothing but the clothes on her back, the 14-year-old took a truck-tire raft across the Naranjo River into Mexico and joined a group of five women and a dozen children waiting with one of the smugglers who are paid $6,000 to $7,000 for each migrant they take to the U.S.
The women and children waited by the train tracks in this small town in the southern state of Chiapas until the shriek of a train whistle and the glare of headlights pierced the night. Suddenly, dozens of teens and mothers with young children flooded out of darkened homes and budget hotels, rushing to grab the safest places on the roof of the northbound freight train and join a deluge of children and mothers that is overwhelming the U.S. immigration system.
The number of unaccompanied minors detained on the U.S. border has more than tripled since 2011. Children are also widely believed to be crossing with their parents in rising numbers, although the Obama administration has not released year-by-year figures. The crisis has sparked weeks of bitter political debate inside the U.S., with the administration saying crime is driving migrants north from Central America and congressional Republicans saying Obama's policies are leading migrants to believe children and their mothers will be allowed to stay.
In interviews along the primary migrant route north to the United States, dozens of migrants like Gladys indicated that both sides are right.
A vast majority said they were fleeing gang violence that has reached epidemic levels in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in recent years. The migrants also uniformly said they decided to head north because they had heard that a change in U.S. law requires the Border Patrol to swiftly release children and their mothers and let them stay in the United States.
The belief that women and children can safely surrender to authorities the moment they set foot in the U.S. has changed the calculus for tens of thousands of parents who no longer worry about their children finishing the dangerous trip north through Mexico with a potentially deadly multiday hike through the desert Southwest.
"The United States is giving us a great opportunity because now, with this new law, we don't have to try to cross the desert where so many people die. We can hand ourselves over directly to the authorities," Gladys said, adding that she hopes to become a doctor.
The smiling teenager with long black hair said she was more excited about seeing her mother again than she was scared about the trip. Her mother said she was aware of the dangers but finally decided the risk was worth it after five years apart.
Reached by phone at home, the mother said she decided to send for her daughter because "if she gets across she can stay here, that's what you hear."
"Now they say that all children need to do is hand themselves over to the Border Patrol," said the mother, who declined to provide her name because she is in the U.S. illegally.
The migrants' faith isn't totally misplaced. While Mexicans generally are returned across the border quickly when they're caught, overwhelmed border facilities leave the government with no way to care for most Central American children and their parents. The Central American minors who cross the border alone have generally been released into the care of relatives already in the U.S., while mothers with children are let go with a notice to appear later in immigration court.
While many children and families may eventually be ordered out of the U.S., many are reporting in calls back home that they're free to move around the U.S. while their cases wend through a process that can take years.
The Obama administration estimates that between October 2013 and September 2014 it will have caught 90,000 children trying to illegally cross the Mexican border without their parents. Last year, the U.S. returned fewer than 2,000 children to their native countries.
"The story is that you have to give yourself up to the Border Patrol, provide a contact in the United States and you'll be freed even though they give you a court date far in the future," said Ruben Figueroa, a member of the Mesoamerica Migrant Movement who works in a shelter for migrants crossing the southeast Mexico state of Tabasco. "If you combine this information with the violence in the streets and extortion keeping people from living their lives, the result is a massive exodus."
Rocio Quinteros worked selling snacks in front of a school in San Miguel, 80 miles outside the capital of El Salvador, until gangsters' demands for a percentage of her income made it impossible to make a living.
She said that when she could no longer afford to pay, members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang threatened to recruit her 14-year-old son instead. This month, she told local gang members she was taking her four children, ages 11 to 17, to see their sick grandmother in another city. Then they abandoned their packed-dirt home on the northeastern edge of the city and headed north.
"They ask you for 100 and you give it, then they ask for 200, and they suffocate you until you have to hand over everything, even your house," she said as she waited with her youngest child in the women's section of Arriaga's migrant shelter. "If we had stayed in El Salvador, I already would have had to bury one of my sons."
With no toys to entertain them, the children in the women's section watch TV until their parents hear the train is on its way. As she waited, Quinteros spoke to her older children through the bars of the metal door of the men's section of the shelter.
In Carmensa, the neighborhood that she and her children abandoned, dozens of homes sit empty because their owners have gone to the United States. The remaining residents described daily lives marred by constant fear.
Gonzalo Velasquez, 66, said he had fled the countryside for San Miguel when El Salvador's 1980s civil war forced him off his small farm in the countryside.
"I lived through the war but this is different," he said. "Before, we knew who was shooting. Today nobody knows ... If you have little kids, young ones, it's better to go so they don't go into the gangs . The stores are closing because they get asked for payoffs and can't pay, so it's better to close."
Quinteros said she believed she was saving her children by fleeing to a place where they wouldn't be subject to gang recruitment.
"On the way north you have the hope of living and the risk of death," she said. "Back home death is certain."
The Obama administration said Friday that it was opening family detention centers on the border to reduce the number of women and children that are released. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Guatemala the same day to emphasize the dangers of the northbound journey and the low chances of staying in the U.S. for good.
It's a tough sell for Central American migrants who say life at home has become intolerable.
As Gladys and her companions boarded the train Thursday night, Natanael Lemus, a 30-year-old mechanic from El Salvador, dragged his 10-year-old son, Edwin, and 12-year-old daughter, Cynthia, by the hands as he ran alongside, asking those already aboard for help getting them onto the roof.
On the crowded and slippery roof, Lemus cut black plastic trash bags into raincoats for his wife and kids and tied them to the train with ropes so they wouldn't fall off. He explained that he wanted to leave behind his workshop in the capital, San Salvador, because extortion made it impossible to earn a living.
"If you buy a car, they come to extort you. A machine for the workshop, they come to extort you. If they see you put on some nice pants or sneakers, they come to extort you," Lemus said. "You can't work like that. You go bankrupt."
He said that after taking his wife and children safely north he would wait in Mexico for a chance to cross on his own and hopefully not get caught.
But most important, he said, was getting his wife and children into the hands of the Border Patrol, the first step in what he hoped would be a new and better life.
Associated Press writers Marcos Aleman in San Miguel, El Salvador; Sonia Perez in Guatemala City; Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Michael Weissenstein in Mexico City contributed to this report.