Editor’s note: These interviews were translated from Spanish by the reporter. Teen Vogue withheld sources’ last names to protect their privacy.

Valerie Samantha has just begun to walk on her own. The 15-month-old is learning to take her first steps in an overloaded migrant shelter in Tapachula, on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The shelter usually holds 400 people in its bunk bed-lined rooms, but is currently housing some 1,200 migrants. Most of the men are sleeping in the hallways or under trees on the patio.

Valerie’s mother, Jimena, known to her friends as Jime, is an 18-year-old migrant who tells Teen Vogue she carried her daughter on her hip from Nicaragua to Mexico three months ago. Now, during the day, Jime cleans the shelter’s bathrooms, which she says stink from overuse and regularly run out of water. For this she earns a little extra pocket change, which she saves for the journey north or uses to buy cold sodas when it is especially hot. 

Children watching a movie at the Tapachula shelter

Valerie naps on a mat outside, but Jime must not lose sight of the toddler, because her ex, the baby’s father, is looking for them. “He’s a really jealous person and we were fighting, so I broke up with him. Then he left us and went to the [U.S.] border, but he realized he might have an easier time crossing if he had a child with him,” Jime explains. “So, he’s trying to use his connections in the shelter to take [Valerie] from me.” 

As the toddler grows, she unknowingly threatens her own safety, wandering away when Jime’s back is turned. “I don’t like it if she walks around or plays with other children because I don’t know who is talking to her dad,” Jime says. “People give me weird looks and then I get suspicious. She’s really friendly and she likes to walk around and meet people, but I’m scared someone will take her.” 

After three months in Tapachula, scrubbing toilets every day and eating meal after meal of rice and beans (and the rare dish of macaroni with red sauce), this has become the new normal for Jime and Valerie. Sometime in the next few months, Jime and Valerie will leave the shelter and, they hope, Valerie’s father’s surveillance. Jime will plan their route north to the U.S. border and attempt to cross. Above all else, Jime says, she is looking for a safe place to raise her child.

Attempted migration from Latin American and Caribbean countries to the United States has reached record highs this year, with over 1.5 million people from over a dozen countries apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2021 and the end of May 2022. In May alone, over 230,000 people were captured by Border Patrol while attempting to cross the border. 

This group includes tens of thousands of young children, pregnant women, elders, queer people, and members of other potentially vulnerable groups. They have risked their lives traveling thousands of miles on foot and on buses to reach safety and greater economic opportunity in the United States. Nearly all pass through Tapachula to attain humanitarian visas from the Mexican government before continuing on their way. This process can take months.

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