Susan Terrio’s research on the unaccompanied children in U.S. immigration custody has led her to places few others witness. The Office of Refugee Resettlement granted Terrio rare access to 20 federal facilities and six foster-care facilities between 2009 and 2012, where she conducted in-depth interviews with 40 formerly detained young migrants.

In this piece for Politico, she presents rare interviews with the children of America’s border disaster:

Consider the case of Ernesto. He told me he fled horrific abuse in Honduras and migrated with two friends, hitching rides and traveling by foot through Guatemala and Mexico. They avoided cargo trains because people can fall off them and die. “I mean, you just don’t care about the odds or you wouldn’t do it,” Ernesto says of his journey. “How did I decide? It was the American Dream.” Ernesto worked his way north until he was seized by members of the Zetas cartel outside a Mexican border town. He was starved and beaten, while the Zetas extorted $4,000 from his family back home. He escaped, but three companions were killed when they balked at the cartel’s demands.

Carlita, a 13-year-old Salvadoran girl, fled gang violence. She told me she was also kidnapped by the Zetas in Mexico, used for sex and forced to be a drug mule for them, before escaping and ultimately making it to the border. Carlos, who grew up on a small Salvadoran coffee plantation, fled the country at age 15 after being abused by his father. He hitchhiked and walked his way to the U.S.-Mexico border and joined six migrants, with whom he crossed the Rio Grande River at night. A pregnant woman in the group was swept away and drowned. The others made it but were surrounded by Border Patrol agents within minutes.

Susan Terrio’s forthcoming book from UC Press, Whose Child Am I? Unaccompanied, Undocumented Children in U.S. Immigration Custody will be released in May 2015.