|'Welcome' to Laredo, Texas|
Drug gangs have destroyed people's homes in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and victims are fleeing for their lives by foot, bus, car, train, boat, or by any means necessary.
US president Barack Obama has declared this flood of children a "humanitarian crisis".
At an emergency shelter in Laredo, Texas a group of Central Americans - two women and two boys - are clutching their temporary asylum papers.
They have just been released from a white van with no windows, used by the Department of Immigration to transport migrants, and this is their first hour of freedom on American soil.
Days earlier, after crossing the Rio Grande river from Mexico, they were captured by US authorities and have been held in detention until their initial claims can be processed.
|Guatemalan immigrant Delmi and her two boys reached Laredo|
after swimming across the Rio Grande river.
"It's been a month, it's been a month since I had fresh clothes," she said.
She has travelled more than 2,000 kilometres from her home in Guatemala, all with her six-year-old and 20-month-old sons in tow.
The six-year-old cried out "Mama" when he spotted a pair of shoes he would like to keep.
The family heads for the showers where their old clothes will be put in a bin – clothes that were contaminated by the Rio Grande's polluted waters.
Her youngest boy has a rash all across his chest and stomach.
|A volunteer helps pack a bag for new arrivals at the Laredo emergency shelter.|
"With all my force I kept going, I fell over and got hurt using my body to protect them. We lost all of our things."
Like many others she could no longer risk living with the drug gangs of Guatemala.
"Lots of young people are fleeing from so much violence and nothing will change," she said.
"The gangs threaten to kill the boys unless they join them, they threaten to kill their parents, their sisters.
"The boys will end up being violent as well, that's not what I wanted as a mother."
Delmi is not alone in the risks she has taken.
|First shower in weeks: Johanna brushes her hair as she recuperates in the immigrants shelter.|
"The father of my child was attacked (by the gangs)," she said.
"They shot him in the shoulder and kept coming to his hairdressing business wanting him to pay them money, that's why we left the country, for our baby as well."
Johanna risked everything riding for hundreds of kilometres on top of a train known as The Beast.
"We made it onto the top of the train to get to Laredo but it didn't stop, my boyfriend got down and when he tried to catch me I fell and hit my stomach," she said.
"I begged God to protect my baby, that was the most important for me and the father was worried, but I didn't bleed thank God [and] eventually the pains went."
Johanna is now three months pregnant and alone because her boyfriend was not as lucky and was held in detention. He may be deported.
Becky Solloa runs Catholic Social Services in Laredo and sees traumatised women and children almost every day.
"A mother had a three-week-old baby and she found herself in neck deep water (crossing the Rio Grande) so she had to swim ... she put it over her head," she said.
"The baby was so flexible that she balanced the baby over her head and she swam across."
Amid these stories of survival there are the tragic tales of deadly border crossings.
"People seeing other people drown is not uncommon," Ms Solloa said.
"A child saw this man fall over the boat and drowned."
She said the trains are equally deadly.
"They worry, 'how can I stop myself from falling off the train? If I relax I can fall off any time'," she said.
"Then there's the hours of walking crossing from Guatemala, crossing mountains, take rafts, tubes to get into Mexico, then walking through the deserts. It's perilous and dangerous."
Ms Solloa said charitable services like her own offer much-needed hope for exhausted immigrants.
"As they come in they're pretty depleted. After a few hours [with us] they see a future, they see a goodness," she said.
"Our volunteers, our staff, things begin to change for them pretty quickly."
Across the Rio Grande
Nuevo Laredo in Mexico is the last stop for many seeking asylum before entering the US.
Drug cartels once fought for its streets but now gangs target immigrants, kidnapping them and ransoming them off to family.
American and Mexican Catholic bishops from 10 border towns have met at a local hotel to discuss the abuse of the migrants.
"They're coming in such large numbers because they have nowhere else to go, they're fleeing," Bishop Mark Seitz, of El Paso in Texas, said.
"They're not just looking for an opportunity to have a bigger house or better car.
"They're leaving without preparation, selling their houses and coming because they feel that if they stay they will die, or be raped ... in their country of origin."
Bishop Seitz said he has seen evidence more than half the women and girls on the journey are sexually abused.
"I've met a large number of children between 12 and 15 who are pregnant by the time they get to the United States," he said.
|Gustavo Rodriguez Vega, Bishop of Nuevo Laredo in Mexico, |
says "children are treated like criminals"
It is surreal that across the brown deadly waters is the United States – less than a 50-metre swim.
The US border patrol's air boat patrols up and down the river, while heavily armed agents maintain a vigilant watch.
|Border patrol boat on the Rio Grande River|
There is also anger amongst the clergy at the treatment of those who do make it to the US.
"I think it's a big big crisis, even more in the United States where the children are treated like criminals," Bishop of Nuevo Laredo Gustavo Rodriguez Vega said.
"And all the churches - Catholic and other churches - are working for these children.
"They are innocents. They are going out from their countries because they are menaced to death, they are going out looking for the life, unfortunately they find injustice everywhere."
|Bishops lead a mass on the banks of the Rio Grande River in Nuevo Laredo.|
"The United States has been challenging other countries on refugees, countries like Honduras for instance which is the second most dangerous place in the world to live ... and we don't seem to see that the same rules apply to us," he says.
Mr Obama had flagged that he would bypass Congress and take executive action to change immigration policy.
The reforms could give America's 11 million existing undocumented immigrants expanded relief from deportation and greater access to working legally.
But it became too politicised with this wave of Central Americans seeking asylum.
"If we responded to the need then we could control the border and also care for these people they are not mutually exclusive," Bishop Seitz said.
"When this began I thought that people would see that this is a different reality to the general immigration question which we have to deal with.
"They're fleeing, and they need to be treated differently especially because they're the most vulnerable of people, children and mothers with young children."
Tickets to a new life
Those who survive the perilous border crossing are a beacon for others to follow.
Delmi and her boys have been resting before their next big journey, which begins late at night in the Laredo Texas Greyhound bus terminal.
Johanna also got a ticket.
They have a 48-hour ride ahead of them, and there is no guarantee of a permanent place in the US.
In four weeks they will all have to present to a judge to have their refugee status confirmed, or be deported.
And for every lucky person who makes it this far, there are thousands more along the US border who languish in detention.
This is a very difficult dilemma for American immigration. To open the floodgates means half of Central America would invade the US, including it's gangs. To close it's borders is to ignore the suffering of millions of people at the hands of criminal gangs. That is not what a Christian country does.
So what is the answer? I suggest that the US invest some considerable money and resources into Central America to help the police and military to clean up the streets, and to also invest in job creation and education. I think it would be surprising how little money it would take to turn these countries around and make them livable again.
At some point in this process, some incentives for Central Americans to return home might repatriate many of today's refugees.
It might also help if women and girls in CA knew that the risk of being raped was higher on the journey to the US than it is where they live.