As a toddler, Michael Bardales developed acid reflux so severe he couldn’t keep food down. The reflux also caused asthma, affecting his breathing. Doctors in his hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, prescribed an asthma inhaler and three different medications each day.

But an asthma inhaler costs the equivalent of $200, more than the average monthly salary in Honduras. His mother, Maria Sabillon, could have worked three full-time jobs just to pay her son’s medical bills, and she still would have fallen short.

Her husband, Ivan Bardales, an auto mechanic, had left for New Orleans a few years before and already was sending money home for Sabillon and their two children. But it wasn’t enough to cover both the costly medicine and other household necessities.

She requested a humanitarian visa to be able to travel to the United States with her children and make money to care for their needs, but she was refused. And so late in 2006, Sabillon’s brother agreed to take in her children so she could move to New Orleans by herself and send money home for her sickly child.

Her daughter Yerlin, who was 9, remembers her mother was wearing a green shirt and carrying a backpack when they said goodbye. “It was a day with a lot of crying,” she said.

From then on, her mother became a constant presence on the phone. “I never left my children,” Sabillon said. “I called them every morning and every night.”

Yerlin recalled more than that. Their mother would check in throughout the day, she said: to see if they’d eaten breakfast, if they’d completed their schoolwork or slept well.

The arrangement worked well until last year, when reports from home got progressively worse.

Violence mounts

San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second-largest city, is now characterized as the world’s most murderous city in a non-war zone. The city has long had a frail economy, and it never recovered from 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, which flooded several neighborhoods and ruined much of the region’s agriculture.

In recent years, drug gangs have taken advantage of the region’s unstable economy and government. They now have a stranglehold on most of San Pedro Sula, where — as in other Honduran cities — each gang controls a territory and collects a cut of every resident’s money in so-called “war taxes.”

In New Orleans, as the post-Hurricane Katrina recovery slowed, so did the jobs for Sabillon. She is still able to work occasionally, cleaning houses, but the main wage earner is her husband, who works long hours to make enough money to send home for the children’s expenses.

A couple of years ago, the couple was forced to add a war tax to their weekly remittance, to protect their children and extended family. But the money didn’t ensure safety for anyone, it seemed. At one point, gangs threatened to kidnap Michael if they didn’t get more money. And Maria’s 76-year-old father was tied up and robbed of his entire harvest while he was picking beans.

Then last fall, gangs shot up Sabillon’s brother’s house, saying he hadn’t paid enough war tax. Without telling Sabillon what they planned, her family moved quickly to get the children out of Honduras and into the United States.

Two days later, Michael and Yerlin became part of a growing group of child migrants from Central America that experts say could top 90,000 this year. Most of them are fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. A large number come from San Pedro Sula.

Between January and May, the Department of Homeland Security found that city was the top point of origin for unaccompanied child migrants. During that time period, the Border Patrol apprehended nearly 2,500 children from San Pedro Sula, twice the number from Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital.

Because of New Orleans’ long ties to Honduras, many of the children have been placed with relatives in the metropolitan area while they await immigration proceedings. Between January and July, 1,071 child migrants were placed in Louisiana, which ranked ninth in the nation for placements.

Differing responses

The flood of children has posed a dilemma for policy makers. White House officials said last month they were considering setting up a refugee-screening process in Honduras that would be similar to programs set up in East Asia after the Vietnam War. On the other hand, many Republicans demand tougher measures to keep out illegal immigrants. U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, introduced a resolution — which did not pass — urging the governors of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California “to immediately deploy units of the National Guard forces under their jurisdiction” to seal off the nation’s southern border.

Up until about a year ago, the Bardales children say, they could be kids. Michael could play soccer during recess. His older sister, Yerlin, an avid student who’d won a scholarship to a top school, could walk to classes every morning.

But about a year ago, Michael said, the maras — the gangs — arrived during recess and assaulted some of his schoolmates. His older classmates had become prime targets for the narcotics gangs, which conscript boys to become lookouts or messengers.

Michael no longer felt safe at school. “And after I saw that, I didn’t want to come outside to play,” he said. Instead, he and his friends would sit inside and talk or play cards. Gang members increasingly showed up on school grounds with guns, targeting some children with extreme pressure.

Some who refused the gangs’ demands were killed. A close friend of Michael’s took his own life rather than join.

Yerlin, too, was terrified. Three times within that year, she was robbed, once by assailants armed with knives and twice by gunmen. The third time left her particularly rattled. A man held a gun to her head and threatened her life. After that, she would rarely set foot out of the house, even to go to school, her “favorite place in the world.” By the end of the year, she’d lost her scholarship because of poor attendance.

Seeking a haven

In September, after gunmen sprayed the house with bullets, their uncle told Sabillon and Bardales that he was taking the children to the mountainous Santa Barbara region, where they couldn’t be reached by telephone. Then he brought them through Guatemala, leaving them with an escort, who tried three times to get them across the border to Mexico by car but was forced to turn around each time because Mexican immigration police were ahead.

Eventually, the children crossed the border over a river on a raft, then walked through rough terrain for about 30 minutes until they arrived at a big windowless truck. About 20 people climbed in the back of the truck, which drove to a house in another town. After that, there was more travel through Mexico: an all-day bus ride, and night spent in a bus station, before a second, 30-hour bus ride that they endured without eating or sleeping.

All along the way, the children had been moving along with other groups of migrants, unaware of who was leading them and who was merely taking the same path, they said.

Periodically, their groups would be stopped by Mexican immigration agents, who would pull out random people, arresting them. That took a toll. By the time Yerlin and Michael arrived at Reynosa, a Mexican city across the border from Texas, they were the only people left in the group who had boarded the second bus with them.

The siblings got off the bus alone at 2 a.m. and stood in the rain, hungry, scared and trying to figure out what to do next. A few hours later, an older man arrived, saying they were supposed to accompany him to a house, where they stayed before they were escorted to the Rio Grande, the border between Mexico and Texas.

Yerlin and Michael got into the water and swam to the United States across the river. Though Yerlin is a good swimmer, Michael is not, and the siblings were glad to discover that the river was wide but not deep. At some points, he was stretching to touch the bottom, he said.

After a few hours’ walk, they were apprehended by the Border Patrol and eventually taken to a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is charged with taking care of unaccompanied minors under an anti-child-trafficking law passed in 2008.

Tears of joy and agony

When Sabillon got a call from immigration officials, asking if she was the children’s mother, it was like a bolt from the blue. She told them at first that these couldn’t be her children — that they were in Santa Barbara, Honduras, with their uncle. Then the reality sunk in.

She hung up the phone and cried, happy that her children were in the U.S. but agonizing about what they must have endured.

The two children technically face deportation proceedings, though their attorneys hope they’ll be allowed to stay because they have well-founded fears for their safety if they return to Honduras. In October, the children were flown to Louisiana to be reunited with their parents while they await deportation proceedings in New Orleans’ immigration court.

“It was something so beautiful to see them again for the first time,” Sabillon said, noting that her children couldn’t wait to return to school.

Last fall, around the same time the children arrived, immigration officials in New Orleans dramatically ramped up traffic stops and raids at known Latino gathering spots, from employers and groceries to nightclubs and neighborhoods.

Fifteen days after the children arrived, Bardales was driving home from work when he was stopped by immigration agents, who asked for his papers. The two children were in the car with him and watched as their father was handcuffed and arrested. He could be deported later this year.

Yerlin is now 17 and Michael is 13, an age at which many kids are shy about showing affection for their parents. But at a recent birthday party for their mother, both children walked up to their parents and gave them hugs and kisses.

At other times, the two siblings sat close together, arms around each other. “We’re safe here,” Yerlin said, ruffling her brother’s unruly head of hair.

Michael nodded. “It’s my favorite thing about living here,” he said. “We can just go anywhere without fear.”