A young girl found dead at a migrant shelter in northern Mexico this month may have been making her way from Ecuador to the United States to join her parents.
The story highlights the growing phenomenon of children crossing into the U.S. without a parent or guardian, and the terrible price that some pay in the process.
The girl, now believed to be 12-year-old Jocelyn Nohemí Álvarez Quillay, was found on March 11 hanging from a shower curtain rod in a bathroom at the shelter, located in Ciudad Juárez.
The details surrounding the girl’s identity and her trip from Ecuador are murky.
Mexican authorities said that they initially encountered the girl with an alleged smuggler, a 52-year-old Mexican man.
Police took the man into custody and brought the girl to the shelter, where she was found dead later that day.
Mexican authorities called her death a suicide and an autopsy found no signs of foul play or abuse. The alleged smuggler, Domingo Fermas Uves, was later released on bail, and the case is still being investigated.
Uves told reporters that he isn’t a smuggler and that the girl was left in his custody by a neighbor’s brother. Mexican authorities say he was caught with the girl while urinating in public near the border, according to reports. But Uves disputes that claim, saying he was at home watching television when police entered his house.
The girl’s identity remained unknown until a week after her death, when the Ecuadorian government reached out to Mexican authorities with a tip.
More than 2,200 miles away in New York City, an Ecuadorian couple had been awaiting notification of their daughter’s arrival in El Paso, the Texas city that sits across the border from Ciudad Juárez. According to Ecuadorian officials, Quillay had left her home in Ecuador’s Cañar Province in early February with the intention of joining her parents.
The consulate informed the couple that a girl matching her description had been found dead in Mexico. Looking at photos, the couple identified her as their daughter. Ecuadorian officials told reporters that a DNA test, which would provide final confirmation, is underway.
The couple asked the consulate for discretion regarding their case. "They only wanted to be reunited with their little girl and give her a better life,” the Ecuadorian general consul in Monterrey, Francisco Torres, told the El Paso Times.
The grandfather of Jocelyn Nohemí Álvarez Quillay, believed to be a girl found hanged in northern Mexico, holds up a recent photo of his granddaughter. (Source: El Telégrafo)
Janina Smith, the Ecuadorian consul general in Washington, said that it’s hard to fathom the circumstances that would drive a family to send their child to the U.S. with a smuggler, but that there are powerful motives.
“It’s very difficult to judge in these cases, because you can’t know the level of desperation that someone has to bring their family together,” she told EFE, a Spanish-language news agency. “They must have been desperate.”
Child migration is on the rise. The number of unaccompanied child migrants entering the U.S. has spiked in recent years, with more than 24,000 arriving in the 2013 fiscal year, according to a report by the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings College of Law. That’s nearly double the amount from the previous year.
Child migrants face myriad dangers on the way to the U.S., including sexual abuse and violence, and experts believe the growth in migration will continue.
Source: Center for Gender and Refugee Studies
Over the course of one week, from March 17 to 24, Mexican authorities say they found 370 migrant children who had been abandoned by smugglers.
The motivations for Quillay’s reported suicide are unknown, but suicide among young children is relatively uncommon. Looking at children ages 10 to 14 in the U.S., one child in every 100,000 committed suicide in 2007, according to government data. The national average was 11 suicide deaths per 100,000.
The case is being investigated by Mexico’s National Commission of Human Rights. In New York, Assemblymember Francisco Moya, a Democrat who represents a sizable community of Ecuadorian immigrants in the Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights, vowed to follow up on the case and offer support to the girl's parents.
"I will do what’s in my power to ensure that the young woman is properly identified," Moya said in a statement to Fusion. "If she did, in fact, die in her attempt to reach the United States, we must look critically at how we can prevent such tragedies in the future.”
The Cañar Province in Ecuador, where Quillay had lived with her grandparents, is an impoverished area with a high rate of migration to the U.S.
Reporters from Mexican and Ecuadorian newspapers have interviewed her grandparents, who live near a town called El Tambo.
“She was like my daughter,” her grandfather, Cipriano Quillay, told an Ecuadorian newspaper. “She had been with me since she was three years old.” The report noted that despite the news, he continues to work on his land, cultivating quinoa.
He said his granddaughter Nohemí had tried to head to the U.S. in July 2013, but had been turned away by migration authorities in Panama. This time, he sent her to meet a smuggler in the country’s capital city, Quito. “The parents called me to tell me to send my granddaughter to Quito by bus,” he said.
The decision may seem reckless — sending a young child off to navigate international borders. But Nohemí was not an exceptional case in her town, according to one resident interviewed by an Ecuadorian outlet.
"Migration is no longer the old, now they are children,” Manuela Pinguil said. “Parents want them and there’s no way to say otherwise."
Update, 2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from New York State Assemblymember Francisco Moya.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.