The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America
Andrew Pielage Immigration attorney Gladis Molina of the Children Right's Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
One day, a 13-year-old boy stood up on the train. Because he didn't see a power cable, he got electrocuted. Another day, a young girl jumped off the train, afraid that a group of chiquinarcos (young thieves) would rob her.
Andrew Pielage Immigration attorney Golden McCarthy, also of the Florence project, represented Peña in immigration court last November.
Three days after the beatings in Nogales, he got ready to jump the border fence. He asked friends in Honduras to send him another 2,500 pesos. A kid his age offered to help for that much.
They put up a ladder. It was about 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. On the other side was a rope to rappel down. Peña burned his palms from the friction and fell, landing on a rock that cut one of his hands.
They hadn't run far before Border Patrol caught them. It was August 20, 2013.
Peña spent a couple of days in a Border Patrol cell in Tucson. Immigrants call them hieleras, or "coolers," because they're as cold as a freezer. The Border Patrol transferred him to a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Phoenix. That's when his headaches started.
Peña lived for three months in a shelter in Phoenix. The place is run by Southwest Key, a nonprofit organization that has several facilities for youth like him across Arizona. A social worker tried to find a relative he could live with.
On a rare phone call to his mom, Peña found out he had an uncle in New York. But when the social worker called, his uncle said he couldn't help and hung up immediately.
It stung. He was alone -- though not completely, because in the shelter he found new friends he could relate to. They were as young as 4 and as old as 17, like him. Many were Central Americans.
They all had scars -- some of which he could see.
He met Jessica, a girl from El Salvador. Everyone thought she was his girlfriend. The shelter was like attending a fun school. They had classes and parties and a "store" for clothes for which he didn't have to pay. People were kind.
He met Claudia Gonzalez, an immigration attorney from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides free representation to minors in immigration court.
Gonzalez did a one-on-one interview with him to determine whether she could help.
"What struck me about him is that he was so open, calm, and mature," says Gonzalez, who now works as public defender in Yuma County. "He's essentially been an adult since he was somewhere around 8."
Gonzalez knew right away that Peña was an abused, neglected, and abandoned child, which meant he could qualify for special protection. But she didn't want to give him false hope without talking to the rest of the team of attorneys who meet to discuss such cases.
Sometimes it is a frustrating experience, says Gladis Molina, managing attorney for the Children's Rights Program at the Florence Project.
"There are children who go through horrible things in Mexico," she says. "You can't apply for asylum because [the abuse] didn't happen in their home country."
Molina and the other attorneys go through a list of immigration options. But sometimes no option applies.
"A little girl who was raped [on her journey through Mexico]. How do you repair that child's heart?" Molina asks. "There's a human cost to the kid. Now she's traumatized."
Molina, 34, beams when she speaks of Peña -- because he got a chance. Most of those she works with are 15 to 17 years old. She's had clients she had to carry in her arms to court.