Oscar, a baby-faced 18-year-old, spends his time tinkering with an old computer at his new home in South Florida. He learned everything about computers from his dad, an electrician who opened an internet cafe in their home garage in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, to supplement the family's low income. After school, Oscar worked at the shop hoping to one day apply what he learned towards a career in computer engineering.
But everything changed in 2008 when the violent MS-13 gang began demanding a tax payment on their business, which started at 100 Lempiras ($5) and doubled every time they didn't pay.
Then Oscar's life took an unexpected turn when gang members kidnapped his older brother in 2009 to extract payment. His father quickly sold the business to pay the ransom but gang members were not satisfied with the amount they received and in 2010 they killed Oscar's dad. Eleven months later they killed his brother. They were coming after him next.
With the family torn apart by violence, his mother made the fateful decision to send Oscar to the U.S. to escape the gang's wrath. With no other way out and barely any money, Oscar started his northbound journey alone.
It took him a month and a half to reach the US/Mexico border at the beginning of 2012 using every mode of transportation available-- buses, cars, walking, and on the train well-known among immigrants as "the beast". It cuts across Mexico in a brutal and dangerous northbound route in which riders have to evade muggers, rapists, kidnappers and most frightening of all, falling off the train and getting ran over by it.
Oscar used a human smuggler to cross the border but they were apprehended by immigration authorities in their attempt to enter the U.S. He was sent to a detention center, from which he was transferred to an immigrant youth shelter in South Florida, where an immigration attorney opened an asylum request case.
Like Oscar, an unprecedented number of children under the age of 18 are migrating to the United States fleeing gang violence, domestic abuse or poverty in their home countries.
An estimated 20,000 unaccompanied minors, traveling alone or with strangers, are expected to cross the border in 2013. This is more than double the 8,041 children apprehended by Customs and Border Patrol in 2008.
The majority of them are from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
This trend worries immigration attorneys like Aidil Oscariz, who represented Oscar in his asylum request case. Oscariz, a staff attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice who specializes in unaccompanied minors' cases, says that when she started working with this population in 2008 there were six beds at an immigrant youth shelter in Miami. This year so far, that number has swelled to 106.
In response to this influx, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the agency tasked with the care and custody of these children, has opened several emergency shelters along the southern border. But advocates worry that the needs of unaccompanied minors' still aren't adequately addressed.
"We still have concerns about how they are treated at the border," says Jessica Jones, a fellow at the NGO Women's Refugee Commission and author of the report "Forced From Home: The Lost Boys and Girls of Central America" published in October of 2012.
Jones, who traveled to the US/Mexico border on a fact-finding mission in 2012, says there are lingering concerns of whether children under 18 apprehended at the border are getting access to council and whether they are screened properly for valid asylum claims before they are deported back to their home countries.