With the American economy failing to produce jobs in the wake of the recession, and the dangers for undocumented workers along the route to the United States increasing, the rewards of making the long trip north from Central America are lower than ever. But there are many still willing to risk their lives for a better future.
At a safe house for migrants on the Guatemalan border with Mexico, more than two dozen Central Americans are preparing for a new day on the move. The group has just eaten the breakfast provided for them, perhaps their last complete meal for many days, as they prepare to cross the river just blocks away, and head north through Mexico.
Before anyone sets out, the house's resident social worker reminds the migrants once more of the dangers that await for them on the rest of the journey.
The social worker explains what these men, along with a group of three women traveling with a two-year-old child, can expect on the long trip north. Robberies, rapists, and even wild animals pose serious risks to those who attempt to cross Mexico illegally.
That is before allegedly corrupt immigration officials and police enter the picture, says Angel Santos Gonzalez, who works with potential migrants in the border town of Tecun Uman , Guatemala.
To add to the obstacles faced by the migrants, Gonzalez says organized bands of criminals have recently ramped up their operations along the most frequented routes. Gonzalez says these gangs kidnap migrants and extort money from their families back home in Central America. The criminal bands have even been known to kill their captives in order to harvest their organs, which Gonzalez says have a high street value in the United States.
With the danger constantly growing along the route, and job prospects in the United States worse than they have been in decades after the fallout from the financial crisis in 2008, the payoff of embarking on this risky journey is lower than ever. Nevertheless, scores of migrants continue to pass through Tecun Uman, a gateway to the Mexican border post at Ciudad Hidalgo.
One such person, a Salvadoran who chose to identify himself only as Jose, says he has been deported from the United States four times. Motivated by his joblessness back home, and the potential income of working in the U.S., this will be his fifth trip north through Mexico.
"Always when I go to the USA , I do not have money. Always, you know. I come from Salvador. When I was in the USA , I get money to buy my house in my country, so that is very good, you know. But at this moment, I have one year unemployed. My situation is very hard right now," Jose said.
Like most of the migrants passing through the area, Jose says he understands that the United States is also suffering hard times economically.
Many of Tecun Uman's residents say they have seen a decrease in the number of migrants attempting the trip, and they suspect the slowdown in the American economy could be part of the equation leading fewer Central Americans to migrate north.
Adrian Mendez has worked in town for 20 years, driving a bicycle taxi.
Mendez says he thinks the flow of immigrants has decreased over last few years. He attributes the drop to the increased dangers along the way, stepped up controls on the Mexican side of the border, and a storm which washed away the railroad heading north from Ciudad Hidalgo, formerly a major conduit for migrants.
Back at the migrant house, Jose agrees that the flow of would-be immigrants has decreased in relation to his four previous trips along this route, the first of which he made in 1998.
"The times before, it is a lot of people. I do not know what happened. I remember my first time, I found maybe 700, or maybe 1,000 people, they go on train. But now, a few; it is nothing. This house, the time before, it is full, maybe 70 people, 80 people," he said.
Jose says he and other migrants realize finding work in the U.S. in the midst of a recession will be difficult. But those facing the trip unanimously agree that they will find some sort of employment north of the Mexican border, and that the risk of the trip is justified.
Juan, another Salvadoran on his second attempt to reach the United States, says he knows his chances of finding a good job when he arrives will be far better than those in El Salvador.
"Remember something - the situation in Central America is hard. I understand, somebody said, the situation, it is hard in USA.. But you cannot compare it to Central America. Never. I know it is hard, but it is more hard in my country," he said.
The number of undocumented workers in the United States peaked at almost 12 million in 2007, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center. Of that population, more than 10 percent is believed to come from Central America.
Researchers say the population of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. has begun to drop from that peak over the last two years, a decrease which coincides with the onset of the 18 month-long recession.