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Children of the Border: Caught in a Makeshift Life : Immigrants: Youths eke out a living in San Diego's Balboa Park. Drugs, prostitution are means of survival.


SAN DIEGO — After the Border Patrol van departed carrying the boys who did not run fast enough, Carlitos whistled, the sound echoing in the park beneath sun-glazed downtown office towers.

"They're gone!" he shouted in Spanish, inhaling a blast of Octane Booster--a gasoline additive and makeshift drug--from a Coke can. "I chased them off."

A dozen youths emerged warily from the trees: homeless illegal immigrants who earn a living in a verdant corner of Balboa Park where the cars circle day and night. Where the drivers in business suits and BMWs seek out children who survive by prostituting themselves and selling drugs.

Unfazed by the Border Patrol raid, the diminutive Carlitos, 14, led the way through the brush as he described the suburban home of a man who picked him up recently.

"He has Super-Nintendo, a video, a big television, a pool," he exclaimed, black hair falling in his eyes. "Like the movies."

Carlitos reached a freeway interchange that cuts through the park and gestured at a row of blankets in the dirt where he sleeps beneath a concrete bridge. "We're from Tijuana, Sinaloa, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Honduras," he said. "This is our new house."

Carlitos and his friends are the children of the border.

As young as 9, they wander the streets of Tijuana and Southern California, slipping across the U.S.-Mexico boundary with ease, nomads in the limbo between societies. They move along a trans-border circuit of Border Patrol detention centers, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cheap hotels, police stations--institutions that they have learned to survive in and to manipulate.

"For them, the international line is not a dividing line," said Oscar Escalada Hernandez, director of a Tijuana YMCA youth migrant shelter, who has studied street children in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. "It is like a street that has to be crossed, with certain dangers, certain obstacles, but nothing more than a street."

Every day, dozens of teen-agers and children end up alone in Tijuana--recently returned or deported from the north, recently arrived from the south, with desolate pasts and uncertain prospects. Illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors has declined, officials say, peaking three years ago because of a surge in youths trying to reunite with relatives legalized under the 1986 Immigration and Reform Act.

Nonetheless, the growing number of illegal street children who are arrested repeatedly has alarmed diplomats, social workers and law enforcement officials in both nations. Abused, visibly malnourished, addicted to drugs, their families wrenched apart by poverty and migration, the children are part of the ubiquitous problem of homeless children in the urban Third World, from Manila to Lima to Tijuana.

Although statistics are elusive, experts estimate that as many as 5,000 homeless children live in Tijuana, whose population has swelled to nearly 2 million because of migration and economic growth.

"The phenomenon has overwhelmed the capacity of both public and private agencies," Escalada said.

An unusual binational coalition--made up of the Mexican Consulate, Border Patrol, San Diego Police, a Tijuana border police unit known as Grupo Beta, and social workers in both cities--has formed to aid the youths who frequent Balboa Park.

Authorities have identified up to 50 hard-core youths for whom they say juvenile facilities do not suffice. Mexican officials send some of the children returning from the United States to the Tijuana YMCA shelter, which provides food and lodging while young migrants determine their next move or find jobs to earn travel money.

The trans-border street children tend to be disruptive and even violent, sometimes enticing newly arrived migrants into petty crime. The coalition hopes to set up a more structured residential treatment program in Tijuana geared to this deeply troubled population.

"These are very difficult children," said Francisco Velasco, a Mexican-born doctor at a San Diego health clinic. "They have been treated like garbage. They have suffered everything you can imagine. . . . They tell me: 'Here, I can earn $20 or $40 dollars from a (client). You bring me food, you take care of me if I'm sick. In my country, I don't have anything.' "

Ending the cycle will be difficult for the ragtag residents of the "Four Winds Hotel"--a jocular nickname for the street kids' "home" under the freeway interchange in the sprawling park north of downtown.

To get to the hide-out, the youths dodge with practiced agility through traffic on freeway ramps, clamber up embankments and navigate narrow paths. In the cave-like, graffiti-decorated refuge beneath the bridge, there are blankets and sleeping bags strewn with piles of clothes, a stuffed toy monster and textbooks. A few boys sometimes attend a San Diego elementary school for the homeless.

Empty plastic containers of Octane Booster, known as toncho , also litter the ground.

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