She says she ended up living with friends of her godmother: a young couple and their two older relatives. After two months, these people "kind of forgot" about charging anything for Leticia's room and board, she says. "They were a very united family," she offered by way of explanation. She helped with babysitting, household chores, and the family's business of selling clothing, and the young woman found Leticia a birth certificate that had belonged to an acquaintance. "She told me to take good care of it because people pay up to 1500 pesos for a real birth certificate like that." Leticia later moved in with another friend of this family, an older woman who lived alone and wanted someone to help her out. Armed with the birth certificate, Leticia got a job working in a factory that churned out bronze angels, gorillas, and soldiers. She says she was happy there; her coworkers were friendly. In all, her sojourn in Tijuana lasted about a year.
"Why didn't you stay?" I asked. "It sounds as though you were doing well."
"Because I wanted to study," Leticia replied. She thought her best chance of doing that would be north of the border. She planned to work until she'd saved up the $2000 she'd been told it would cost to hire a dependable smuggler. The ill-fated scheme to drive across the border arose suddenly -- the result of a chance encounter with a stranger on the street. This man gave her a false border-crossing card, along with advice that she later rued following. "He told me if I was caught I should never tell my age, my real name, or where I was from, or I would have more problems. He told me to say that I was Mexican and an adult -- so they would deport me back to Mexico."
Things didn't work out that way. Leticia says the immigration officers at the secondary inspection station insulted her, using crude obscenities. Under their questioning, she admitted that the name on the border-crossing card wasn't hers. Instead she gave the officers the name on the Mexican birth certificate she'd been using in Tijuana. Then a couple of Latino officers began bombarding her with questions about Mexico. "And I didn't know some of them," she recalled. She couldn't sing the national anthem or explain the significance of the symbols on the Mexican flag. When they demanded that she tell them the proper cooking time for pozole, Leticia guessed it was an hour and a half, but the officers told her any Mexican woman would know it was at least two and a half hours. She had flunked the test. "I cried all night long," she said.
The consequence of lying about her age was that Leticia was sent to a prison. Operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the prison is located in a desolate section of Otay Mesa, just down the road from the county's George F. Bailey Detention Facility and across a ravine from Donovan state prison. CCA, as people call it, houses men and women who are being deported -- some because they've been caught trying to enter the U.S. too many times; some seeking asylum; others dangerous criminals. Under no circumstances are juveniles supposed to be incarcerated there. But it took Leticia two months to realize this and obtain legal aid. Only after a cousin in her hometown sent a copy of her birth certificate to the immigration office did she finally win a transfer to Southwest Key.
"That was one of my happiest days," Leticia told me. She said Southwest Key was "a thousand times" better than CCA. In CCA the inmates were forced to work and received little or no compensation. No one had any privacy. Personal letters were read aloud in public. But once again, Leticia's response to the bad memories was acquiescence. "It was not agreeable," she said. "But I feel like that's what I get for lying." And on the bright side, "I got to meet people from a lot of other parts of the world."
She could have said the same about Southwest Key. From a balcony that overlooks the interior courtyard where we talked hang flags representing the nationalities of the children who have stayed at this facility over the last six years. There are 38 countries in all, among them Guatemala, Korea, Poland, Afghanistan, Brazil, Israel, Spain, the Philippines, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, China, Paraguay, Honduras, and Iraq. Although Mexico's flag is present, Mexican children seldom are housed here. When they're caught, the Border Patrol returns most of them to Tijuana (close to 3000 a year, according to the local Mexican consulate office). Unlike their adult counterparts, the Mexican kids are not just dumped at the pedestrian gate in San Ysidro. Both U.S. and Mexican officials go to some lengths to make sure each child is delivered into the hands of a responsible relative.
Most of the youngsters from other nations who are sent to Southwest Key are "sad and depressed" upon their arrival, according to Ismael Avilez. Many harbor thoughts of escaping. But only one adolescent has done so in the three years during which Avilez has been the facility's program director. That's not because of draconian security measures. Doors are locked, and staff members keep a close eye on the residents, but Avilez says the main deterrent is that the children enjoy life at Southwest Key. "They're usually sad and depressed when they leave."
It's easy to understand why. The ceiling of the inner courtyard is painted sky blue with puffy white clouds. Strong colors brighten walls, and overstuffed furniture encourages daydreaming. The chambers where the kids sleep resemble dorm rooms, while the living room holds a big-screen TV, a Sony PlayStation, and a bank of computers. "We don't give them too much TV time," said Avilez, " 'cause we like to keep them active." Most engage in an hour of structured physical exercise per day, and all the kids are required to work in a large organic garden located in one section of the sprawling property. They're shepherded on weekly educational trips to places like the zoo and Cabrillo National Monument, as well as on more purely recreational outings. "Like for example last Sunday they wanted to go see Shrek 2," Avilez said. "The interesting thing is that a good part of the adolescents throughout the world enjoy American culture and movies. So they know about Shrek. They enjoyed Shrek 2. They're still talking about it."