The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America

Andrew Pielage
Peña speaks with immigration attorney Gladis Molina, who manages Children Right's Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Phoenix.
Molina was a kid like them once. El Salvador's civil war in the '80s was the backdrop of her childhood. She used to write words on the street with gunpowder found in bullet casings and light it.

She never understood the bigger picture, she says, until one evening a helicopter landed in her town's plaza to carry away a little girl whose body had been half blown away after she'd stepped on a mine.

"For the first time, I remember thinking to myself, 'It's not just about grown men; there is a little girl,'" she says. "So children get hurt here, too, and that can happen to me."

Molina got a chance to come to the U.S. with her siblings. Her father, who benefited from the Ronald Reagan administration's amnesty in 1986, eventually was able to sponsor them, though not without detours and complications.

"They gave us the American opportunity," she says. "You get an opportunity, and you see what you do with it."

Darlin got this opportunity.

On Friday, November 1, he sat in Judge John Richardson's immigration court in downtown Phoenix.

It was intimidating to see the silver-haired judge in his black robe. Sitting to the left of the judge was the federal prosecutor whose job was to get Peña removed.

It was just a few weeks before he would turn 18.

Peña took the stand. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth.

He was asked to give his current address at the children's shelter. Before he could blink, the judge stepped down and shook his hand.

"Welcome to the United States," he said.

"What do you want to study?" asked the judge.

"I want to become a journalist," Peña answered with the help of a translator.

On the spot, he was granted a green card to become a legal resident. The actual card came a few weeks later in the mail.

It appeared seamless to him because most of the legal work to get him to that point occurred outside that courtroom.

Peña qualified for what's called Special Immigration Juvenile Status, granted by U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services to children who suffered abuse, abandonment, and neglect by their parents in their country.

Attorneys had to present evidence (including a decision by a juvenile judge) and request it quickly because it only applies before a child turns 18. A juvenile judge had to call Peña's parents in Honduras to ask whether he could return to live with them and what involvement they had in his life.

Peña was worried about what his parents would say when they got a call from the court. They'd barely spoken in a decade. How would they react to being part of a process that implied that they had abandoned and neglected their child?

But they didn't contradict their son's story.

Gladis Molina sees just a few cases like Peña's in a year. Of the 3,000 children who came into contact with the Florence Project, only 60 were granted such special status.

"Each case we take counts for three cases -- juvenile court case, immigration law case, and social services," she says. "Sometimes you have to ask questions like, 'Where is your client going to live?'"

Peña's case is rare because the best interests of the child were considered, Molina says.
Most are uphill battles. One of the other options to protect a child from deportation is to win an asylum case. Since 2011, Molina says, her organization has prevailed in only one.

Peña's case is closed. By the end of 2014, there might be 90,000 unaccompanied kids like him, with open cases and notices to go to court, throughout the country. If the government fast-tracks their removal, many might wind up where they came from.

Not far from where Peña jumped the border fence in Nogales sits a warehouse called the Nogales Placement Center, a short-term facility to house Central American children. It's one of the impromptu solutions the federal government came up with to deal with the flow of children.

Inside, girls with wide, watery eyes look at a pack of reporters with pens and pads. They are behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Their hair stands on end, their skin is burned. Green mats on the floor serve as beds. A few pink teddy bears are strewn about. A pregnant teenager in a zebra print dress touches her belly as she flips through the pages of a Disney princess book.

These are new arrivals. They come and go. The law says they should stay in this temporary facility only for 72 hours.

"There won't be any questions answered," a Border Patrol spokeswoman in a green uniform warns reporters during a tour in mid-June.

Since May 31, the warehouse has been adapted to house about 1,000 children. A week after the tour, Secretary of Homeland Security Jen Johnson holds a press conference outside the facility.

"This journey is a dangerous one. At the end of it, there's no free pass -- no permisos -- for your children who come to the U.S.," Johnson says. "You're placing your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization."

Since the surge of refugees began, Homeland Security has spun a narrative of smuggling organizations promising families that they will get documents when they reach the U.S.
The immigration court system is so backlogged that court dates can get delayed for years. Some parents hope for the delay because it is the only way children can stay here.

Conservatives nationwide, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, blame the Obama administration for granting deferred action to undocumented children raised in the United States (a benefit that would not apply to youth coming now).

"This crisis that America is facing with these unaccompanied children, it is because we have not sent a strong message to these countries that our borders are closed, and we need a better government to step up and secure the border," Brewer said after she toured the Nogales center.

Strange, because the Obama administration has deported a record number of immigrants -- close to two million. Obama also is requesting $3.7 billion in funding from Congress and a modification of laws. His aim is to remove kids faster, provide more resources for border enforcement, and hire more immigration judges.

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