Child Trek

The devastation of Hurricane Mitch propelled thousands across our southern border in search of new lives in America. And those were just the kids.

"When we got to the other side, it was Christmastime, and right away we met this man that was really nice and gave us food and warm clothes. He told us to be careful because the Immigration is always looking for people, and it would be best if we left Laredo. We were going to, but we were hungry again, so we asked for money in front of a movie theater. This woman saw us and asked if we wanted to go to her house. We were three, but she made us all lunch. The other two left, but I didn't want to go. She was so nice, so I asked her if I could stay with her, and she said yes."

Jose had been in Laredo for a month, working on losing his Honduran accent, he says, when one day he walked out of the movie theater and they saw him.

"I looked at them, and I knew they were police or something. I was by myself, and they were asking me things in English. I didn't know what to say, because I can't speak English. I think they wanted to know why I wasn't in school, but all I could tell them was, 'Honduras, Honduras.' I couldn't tell them I was staying with this woman from Laredo, so they took me to the immigration office."

Three days later, Jose was delivered to Casa Shelter, one of Dallas's oldest youth shelters. Surrounded by the trees and the grounds of Bachman Lake Park, Casa looks like a summer camp stuck in the middle of northwest Dallas. As a part of the YMCA's community-services branch, Casa offers runaways and other kids at loose ends a place to stay for a while, and it contracts with INS to provide temporary housing for undocumented minors after immigration officials detain them.

Last year the shelter took in 80 kids for the INS; by April of this year it had provided beds for 23. "We usually keep them for up to 30 days and try to contact their home country or village," says Ben Casey, president of the Dallas YMCA. "Most of the time they will somehow, together, send a bus ticket or a train ticket so the kid can go back home."

Within days of their border arrest, Walter and Elmer had also been brought to Casa and housed in its safe, structured environs until the INS could figure out what to do with them. If the agency can locate relatives in the United States, and these relatives agree to take the child in, he will be allowed to stay with them until the conclusion of deportation proceedings.

Walter was placed with his aunt, who lives in a diminutive two-bedroom apartment in East Dallas with up to nine other family members and friends who need a place to stay. Speaking above the din of the tiny television tuned to Spanish-language soap operas, he explains that he lost his first job in construction because he had no papers, but is working 12-hour days with a landscaping firm while he waits for the INS decision.

Jose, on the other hand, is an orphan and has no relatives. He stayed for more than a month at Casa while the nonprofit agency Proyecto Adelante attempted to find him a temporary home.

Finding himself in a clean, secure place with regular meals and caring adults, Jose was content to be at Casa, though he says, with the beginnings of adolescent sarcasm, "What if I didn't like it? It's not like they asked me if I wanted to go."

His experiences have given him ample reason to be defensive, but this time he might be able to break out of his pattern of being handled and mishandled by strangers.

While at Casa Shelter, Jose met Lynda Barros, Proyecto Adelante's legal director, who also coordinates its juvenile program. When Casa Shelter receives an immigrant minor, Barros is contacted, and she explains the different legal options, navigating the child through the maze of technicalities. When kids, even the tough ones, are told they are being sent home after risking their lives to get here, they are devastated.

"All of these kids come with a dream of making a better life for themselves and proving to everyone that a young kid with no money and no family can make something of himself. Unfortunately, for most of them -- I'd say for over 90 percent of them -- there is nothing I can do," says Barros. "All I can do is give them moral support, walk with them into court so they're not entirely alone when they get their deportation notice. That is the part I hate about my job."

There are a handful who can stay, but they must qualify for a special immigrant juvenile status, explains Paul Zoltan, an immigration lawyer who has been taking Proyecto Adelante's cases for free since 1992.

"The process starts in the family court," he says. "First, the court has to find that family reunification is not an option, either because the child is an orphan or because the parent-child relationship was severed due to abuse, abandonment or neglect. If the family court finds that it is not in the child's best interests to return to the home country, then it declares a new arrangement, in which an adult is named managing conservator, or it just declares the child an orphan. Then he can go to a shelter and hopefully be taken in by a foster family down the pike."

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