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.

This is the long, often capricious process Jose must face before he's allowed to stay in the United States. But sitting on the floor of Juana Manzanares's living room, Jose seems oblivious to his uncertain legal status. Like any curious little boy thrown into a new situation, he is pestering the grown-ups for answers to his can't-wait questions. Manzanares humors him; she has raised five daughters of her own, and one child's impatience is not going to disturb her easy chatter. Her daughters are grown now, and their pictures cover the walls, mingling with old-fashioned hand-painted portraits of the parents and grandparents she left in Honduras 15 years ago.

"Five daughters, and I never had a son," she says, explaining why she decided to become Jose's foster mother. When she heard there were children from Honduras in need of a foster home, she volunteered immediately. Jose fit right into the bustling household, and although she has known him only a few weeks, she thinks that if the legalities work out, she would like to adopt the boy.

Jose himself is guarded about his feelings. He has believed too many promises of home, only to see them broken. It will take Manzanares time to convince him to let his guard down, if he ever does.

"Yes, I am happy. I like it here. I used to not have a place to sleep, and now I do, and I can go to school," he says.

Elmer also has found a family through Proyecto Adelante: Estela and Herculano Espinoza, whose son Camilo works at Proyecto. They have taken him in and want to adopt him.

Yet Elmer still can't get rid of the anxiety brought on by the death and devastation he has seen in his short life. The counseling he is receiving from Patsy McNatt, Proyecto Adelante's clinical coordinator, is helping. She believes Elmer, like many of the minors who have made the trip north, exhibits symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, caused by surviving life-threatening events or seeing others die.

"It is hard going through what he went through then finding yourself in a country you don't know, where you have no friends, no family, you don't speak the language," says Herculano Espinoza. "Your goal is just to make a better life for yourself, but that is not easy."

The couple, however, is willing to walk Elmer through the legal procedures and help him adjust to the rhythms of a normal 14-year-old's life. He has started attending school and gets excited talking about the soccer team he's on. Estela Espinoza, like any proud parent, says that he is good, that "maybe he can even get a scholarship." Now the Espinozas are waiting for Elmer's birth certificate to be sent by the mayor of his hometown, the first step in the process of declaring him an orphan.

If the court determines Elmer has no parents, Proyecto then files for a special immigrant juvenile status with the INS. The petition for residency may languish for more than a year, says attorney Zoltan.

Last year three kids qualified for special immigrant juvenile status with Proyecto's help. This year by April the organization had already identified six who are eligible.

"Mitch destroyed everything, and it killed a lot of children's parents," says Barros. "Six kids may not seem like a large number, but it is a lot of work. These clients don't come to us.... We have to find them. With children, we have to find all the paperwork, birth certificates, do all the legwork."

Barros helps those she can; she's accredited by the board of immigration appeals to represent Proyecto's clients the same as any attorney would. She also finds pro bono attorneys for others, as the three who work for Proyecto full time have their hands full. Some of these cases can take years, and they severely tax Proyecto's limited funds.

"I think these kids have a chance, but with the immigration service, nothing is a guarantee," Barros says. "We do everything we can, but there is a dearth of lawyers that can do this kind of work."

Jose already has an attorney; Barros represents Walter, and Elmer is having his case handled by Proyecto while he waits for an attorney to represent him. "That is the story of most of the folks here," says Paul Glasser-Kerr, executive director of Proyecto Adelante. "How to do the most that you can do, without being too frustrated by the fact that we can never do enough, that we don't have the resources to even hold a candle to the need that is out there."

In December Proyecto Adelante's staff was taking advantage of the Christmas holidays to move to new, larger quarters in northwest Dallas when the news came that the INS had granted Hondurans and Nicaraguans Temporary Protected Status. When the organization opened its new office on January 7, it found a line at the front door.

"We are handling about 700 applications for Temporary Protected Status right now, and we have answered legal questions for about 1,000 since January," says Glasser-Kerr. "People were in a real rush to apply."

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