- Associated Press - Monday, July 28, 2014

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) - Jacky Van Loh’s journey began when she left Guatemala and illegally crossed the border into Arizona.

On Monday, 15 years later, she’ll take the test to become a U.S. citizen.

Her story has the kind of ending envisioned by frantic parents who currently are sending unaccompanied children by the tens of thousands from Central America to the U.S. It amounts to flinging them hopefully toward a life featuring something better than grinding poverty and violent death in their home countries, based on little more than fervent belief in vague promises from illegal transporters that if the children can reach this country they can stay.

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So far this year, more than 50,000 children from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have been intercepted by Border Patrol agents. At this rate, the number will reach 90,000 by the end of the year, and an estimated 150,000 might attempt to enter the U.S. next year, according to Sen. John Thune. He, Sen. Tim Johnson and Rep. Kristi Noem agree this is a humanitarian crisis that begs for a solution from Congress and President Obama.

Parents hope children they send north will be met by relatives already in the U.S. and become members of a society where there is adequate food, the opportunity for education and employment and where gangs of narcotics traffickers don’t drag the next generation into their business or kill those who refuse to join. The U.S., though, beckons Central Americans of all ages who see only a bleak future in their own countries and who are willing to make a last-ditch effort to change their fate.

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Jacky Van Loh was Everilda Marroquin in 1999, a 26-year-old mother of five ranging in age from 9 years to 6 months, and their lives had come to a desperate pass.

She owned a small restaurant that served the workforce of a Guatemalan banana plantation. When a hurricane destroyed the plantation, the company replanted the land with palms, a biofuel feedstock. Their cultivation and harvesting required only a fraction of the workers needed to operate the banana plantation. Marroquin found herself without a livelihood, with parents and siblings only marginally better off economically than she was, and with the fathers of her children unwilling or unable to support them.

“There was just no money there,” says her husband, Jerry Van Loh, a Sioux Falls native. “If she would have stayed, she would have had to take one or two of her children to the river and drown them. What else was she going to do?”

The U.S. beckoned. Marroquin was from a large family. She had brothers in California and South Dakota. But joining them legally would have taken years if it was possible at all, and she had no idea how to even go about starting immigration proceedings. She did know where to find a coyote, though, a guide who illegally brings people across the U.S. southern border.

“I thought it was the only way to get up here,” she says.

For two months, she made her way from Guatemala and up Mexico. She washed clothes and cooked for other illegal immigrants. The night the coyote finally took them across the border, she ran into an electric fence and suffered scratches that subsequently became infected and left her sick for two months. A brother who met her hit a deer and destroyed his car on their drive to California. She stayed briefly with his family, then came to Sioux Falls to join another brother.

Once here, as someone without legal employment status, she worked brutal hours for meager pay in menial jobs to earn money to send home to support her children. Some of the people who were housing those children stole money from her at every turn.

Sister Janet Horstman hears countless versions of this story. She is among the Presentation Sisters of Aberdeen who came to Sioux Falls about a decade ago to begin a Hispanic ministry, Caminando Juntos - Walking Together.

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