My husband and I have been going to Guatemala for the past eight years with friends to build homes with Habitat for Humanity. The organization, founded in 1979, has built more than 60,000 homes in Guatemala for people who would never be able to afford to own their own home without Habitat’s help. It’s so rewarding to go back year after year and see how the families have made their house their “home.”

Recently, however, the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of children crossing our border who are not accompanied with their parents or with an adult. I’ve wondered why the rapid increase in number. And as I looked at all the beautiful children that we see and work with in Guatemala, I wondered how anyone could send their young children off to a new country without the parents.

While I don’t speak the language, I found the people very eager to share their stories. It was nothing short of heartbreaking. The children do not want to go; they don’t want to leave their parents. They really don’t understand why they are going.

Eighty percent of the kids have some family in the U.S. Many of the young kids are carrying babies in their arms. Twenty percent of the kids are under five years old. No wonder they don’t want to leave. So why do they?

Why the sudden increase?

The first thing I wanted to know was, why now? Why the huge increase in kids crossing the border?

It is very simple: The people are just finding out about U.S. legislation that will not allow children unaccompanied by parents to be sent back to their country without a hearing. They know there is a huge backlog and so the people are convinced the children will not be sent back. They think any place in the U.S. would be better than what they would have in their country.

What does that mean? What is so horrible in their country that they can send these beautiful children on such a journey by themselves?

The answers were almost always the same: the violence, the gangs, terrorists, no possibility of employment. Parents feel that the children will have a better life in the U.S. They see the American Dream on the TV and that’s what they want for their children.

The government provides education up to the sixth grade, after which the parents must pay. The cost is 300 quetezales (or Qs) a month (or $38.31). Now the average worker does not make 50 Qs (about $6.39) a day. The professional masons that we worked with used to make up to 100 Qs a day, but with construction so slow they are lucky to make 75 Qs (less than $10) a day. That’s certainly not enough to pay for several children’s education.

The average child completes the fourth grade and then he/she must try to find some work — usually it is in the fields — to help with the family expenses. Parents don’t see the value of education and don’t have the funds to pay for it.

A nightmare journey

The trip is anything but easy. It costs between $5,000 and $10,000 to hire a coyote to help them cross the border. Parents don’t have that kind of money so they borrow it and are paying the coyotes for many years. Some of the families in the U.S. pay for the coyotes.

The coyotes warn the young girls about rape and give them condoms. They say 80 percent of the girls will be raped. The coyotes can put them in trains, stacked on top of one another, or even on the top of train cars. They can be there for 13 to 16 hours. When they stop it is frequently 2 or 3 a.m., and so there is no food available. Then they might have to get back in those conditions for another 10-12 hours.

Sometimes they are stacked so tightly many just die. The week I was there a group was sent back; they didn’t make it across. The coyotes will try again, and again. I can’t imagine those conditions for one trip, let alone two or three.

Sometimes they get phony visas and then they get to ride across Mexico on a bus which is much safer than the trains. If they do make it to the border, they must walk from there. That adds more hours to their journey. Many don’t make it. They even hope to be caught because they might get food and water, and they believe they won’t be sent back.

What do people think of parents that send their children on such a journey? It’s amazing, they all understand. Things are so bad in Guatemala that the parents are desperate to give their children a chance at a better life. They understand the risks, but the adults think it is worth it.

In Guatemala, where gangs and drugs are rampant, there is no hope. Parents are so afraid of what will happen to their kids. They hope the children will get jobs in the U.S. and be able to send some money back. Professionals can make in one to two months in the U.S. what they might make in a year in Guatemala. No wonder the parents are hopeful.

One of the masons I spoke with talked about his attempt to get to the U.S. He now heads an organization that is trying to help make life better in Guatemala for kids that stay. The organization is trying to teach children English, computers and other skills which will provide a better opportunity for them. When I asked him what we in the United States could do to help, he insisted that Guatemala’s economic situation must improve; they need jobs to give the youth some hope.

With the poor economic, health care and educational systems, and the fact that 1.8 million people here don’t have adequate housing, it is no wonder that the parents want something better for their children. As I looked around at the innocent children, I couldn’t help but wonder what would become of them.

Betty Odello, RN and MSN, is a member of the archdiocesan Life, Justice and Peace Commission. She teaches philosophy and bioethics at L.A. Pierce College, Woodland Hills, and attends Our Lady of Malibu Church, Malibu.