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After the Border Patrol van departed carrying the boys who did not run fast enough, Carlitos whistled, the sound echoing in the park beneath sun-glazed downtown office towers. A dozen youths emerged warily from the trees: homeless illegal immigrants who earn a living in a verdant corner of Balboa Park where the cars circle day and night.
Where the drivers in business suits and BMWs seek out children who survive by prostituting themselves and selling drugs. Unfazed by the Border Patrol raid, the diminutive Carlitos, 14, led the way through the brush as he described the suburban home of a man who picked him up recently. Carlitos reached a freeway interchange that cuts through the park and gestured at a row of blankets in the dirt where he sleeps beneath a concrete bridge.
As young as 9, they wander the streets of Tijuana and Southern California, slipping across the U. They move along a trans-border circuit of Border Patrol detention centers, juvenile halls, homeless shelters, cheap hotels, police stations--institutions that they have learned to survive in and to manipulate.
Every day, dozens of teen-agers and children end up alone in Tijuana--recently returned or deported from the north, recently arrived from the south, with desolate pasts and uncertain prospects. Illegal immigration by unaccompanied minors has declined, officials say, peaking three years ago because of a surge in youths trying to reunite with relatives legalized under the Immigration and Reform Act.
Nonetheless, the growing number of illegal street children who are arrested repeatedly has alarmed diplomats, social workers and law enforcement officials in both nations. Abused, visibly malnourished, addicted to drugs, their families wrenched apart by poverty and migration, the children are part of the ubiquitous problem of homeless children in the urban Third World, from Manila to Lima to Tijuana.