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.

Walter Cruz sits down on the rocky river bank in Nuevo Laredo, watching the Rio Grande, his back turned to Mexico and to the long trail leading to his native Honduras. He feels cold, gripped by a familiar hunger that comes from weeks of uncertain meals and days of hiking through rough terrain and thick jungle. Walter is 17, though his beardless face and small frame, made thinner by the long trip, make him look even younger.

From the shore, he sees lights twinkling on the American side, like so many promises of food, warmth and work. He has been waiting for three days, sleeping in hidden corners, afraid of the Mexican migra, ruthless immigration officers who follow no rules but their own. Yet he is more afraid of the treacherous undercurrent he's about to face: In the United States, it's called the Rio Grande, the great river; south of the border it's el Rio Bravo del Norte, bravo meaning rough, but also furious, as if the river were angry at those like Walter who attempt to cross its waters looking for a better life.

Long before he left his home in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on January 15, Walter heard the stories of immigrants who survived the arduous journey from Central America only to lose their lives or their families to the pull of the river. He knows of other teenagers, even adults, who turned back at this point, but he has come too far. There is too much riding on his success.

His mother had lost everything she owned to Hurricane Mitch: the house they lived in, the furniture, even their clothes. Now, she watches over his seven-year-old brother and eight-year-old sister in the crumbling rooms that were left standing, wearing the clothes he had bought for her before he left. She is depending on him, praying for him, waiting for him to call and say he is safe on the other side.

He has watched scores of other men crossing the river in the past few days; he knows he must strip down to his underwear, stuff his clothes and shoes in a plastic bag and close it tightly so they will stay dry. Going with him is Victor, another Honduran teenager he met along the way. The boys tie the bags to their backs and plunge, shivering, into the murky water.

The rushing river is nothing like the Caribbean Sea that Walter swam in as a child; it drags the boys along, and they panic, kicking against the push-pull of the current. In the struggle, the river rips open Walter's carefully bound package, tearing away his shirt, shoes and pants. In a final lunge, he manages to grab his pants. Exhausted, he saves his last breath to make it to the shore. Later he will learn that even while el Rio Bravo had let him go, others had been less fortunate: Not far from where he had crossed, five men from El Salvador had drowned that same day.

It is early morning when he crawls out onto the American bank, wet, tired, without shirt or shoes or money, and he knows nothing of the failed plans and the stillborn dreams of others. He is happy, crouched by the river for what seems like hours, while his friend finds a church willing to donate clothes. He has time to plan his next step: finding his aunt somewhere in faraway Dallas.

At last, dry and dressed, the two boys are ready to walk into Laredo. Strolling down the streets that early February, smiling to himself in his ill-fitting clothes and too-big shoes, Walter is a textbook example of the new indocumentado.

Now it wasn't just young, able-bodied men who were making the hazardous journey north, but children, boys no older than 17 and as young as ten, orphaned by Hurricane Mitch or left homeless or jobless and unable to fend for themselves or their families. These children had grown up watching American shows on television, listening to stories passed down by their mothers about the men in their family who had gone before them.

If they survived the journey, if they made it across the river, they had no idea what the future and the United States government had in store for them. Would they be allowed to stay, having nothing to return to -- no home, no family, no life? Or would they be sent back, deported, treated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service like the undocumented immigrants they were, with no consideration given to their tender age or dire circumstance?

When the border patrol drove by Walter and his friend on the streets of Laredo, the officers didn't hesitate to stop them.

"They asked us where we were from, and we said Honduras," recalls Walter, in his clipped Honduran Spanish. "They asked if we had documents to be here. Of course we didn't, so we said we didn't, and they put us in their truck. There we were, caught, just like that, after weeks of suffering."

They hadn't even been in the United States for a day.

No one knows exactly how many children have made their way into this country. They are the most fragile and overlooked link in the long chain of immigrants connecting Central America's underprivileged to the possibility of work in the United States. In the months following the hurricane, however, the number of undocumented Central Americans caught entering the country exploded to four or five times the usual number apprehended. The Laredo and Del Rio border patrols experienced nearly a 500 percent increase in the number of Central Americans, mainly Hondurans, who were detained.

The INS could not offer an exact figure for how many minors were among them, but there are approximately 400 unaccompanied minors under INS custody nationwide right now. They are housed in temporary INS-contracted shelters, where they usually stay for only a couple of weeks. Many caught entering the country illegally are soon released to relatives or friends in the United States. There they wait for the immigration proceedings that will lead to their removal, the INS's euphemism for deportation. The central INS region that encompasses Texas holds about 200 of these kids, says Mariela Melero, INS regional office spokesperson.

Those numbers, however, do not begin to tell these kids' stories or reflect the magnitude of the problem, as the count includes only the children who were caught by the INS. All the kids who are never caught and never counted remain free to try to live out their American dream, disappearing into this country's pool of approximately five million undocumented laborers as one more construction worker, janitor or kitchen helper.

When these boys -- and they are mostly boys, since the possibility of rape and assault during the long trip scares most girls away -- are too young to interest contractors looking for day labor, they may turn to crime, says Mark Zwick, founder of Houston's Casa Juan Diego. The shelter has one house set aside for minors, many of whom had turned to prostitution to survive.

"I would see cars driving around the blocks, looking for these young boys. If they go down that path, they get lost; they can turn to drugs," Zwick says. "We wanted to offer them a place to stay and an opportunity to go to school."

Others -- the lucky ones, if ever an orphaned or abandoned child can be deemed lucky -- are caught and released to nonprofit agencies such as Dallas's Proyecto Adelante (Project Onward) or Houston's GANO/CARECEN and Casa Juan Diego. If they can prove they are indeed orphaned or abandoned, they may, after years of court proceedings, win the right to stay in the United States and perhaps even find an adoptive family. If they lack the proof, they may be deported.

Thomas Brannen, a lawyer with GANO/ CARECEN, says his agency hopes to establish a third alternative. It wants to start a program to help these kids apply for political asylum. To be eligible, the child has to prove persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political affiliation. The idea of opening the possibility to abandoned children is a new one, but it is starting to happen, says Brannen.

"In a lot of these countries, there has been an increase in the abuse of homeless kids," he says. "Offices down in the Valley have seen an increase in the number of kids applying for political asylum, because there are groups, even the police, that persecute them in their home countries. Now, with Hurricane Mitch, you are probably going to see an increase in the amount of kids that are homeless and an increase in the persecution of these kids."

On December 30, the U.S. government did offer these children as well as the adults already in the United States a brief reprieve, when the INS granted Hondurans and Nicaraguans Temporary Protected Status. This designation meant that the 90,000 undocumented Hondurans and 60,000 undocumented Nicaraguans who had entered the country before December 30 and were being held in jails while their cases were pending would be released. For an 18-month period they would not be subject to deportation, because their governments, busy digging their countries out of the mud, were not able to receive them. They would be allowed to work in the United States and send money home to help rebuild their ravaged countries.

Salvadorans and Guatemalans were granted only a 60-day stay of removal and no permission to work (INSofficials did not feel those countries had been as severely affected by the storm). Texas alone had an estimated 8,400 Hondurans, 2,600 Nicaraguans, 9,500 Guatemalans and 48,100 Salvadorans, all undocumented, who would be eligible for these privileges.

But the children moving north know nothing about new deadlines and developments in immigration law or the legal implications of crossing borders. Their concerns are more about leaving home, surviving the journey and avoiding capture.

Despite these hazards, the immigration of minors is rising. Even before Mitch struck, the trend was alarming: In 1994, 1,188 minors were caught and processed by the INS; by 1998, before Mitch, there were 4,295.

"How can you expect these kids not to look to other countries to find their futures if they are not given any choices down there?" asks Nelson Reyes, director of Houston's CARECEN. "So they make this decision, and it is a big decision, because they can die during the trip, and they know it. They are young; they have no experience, but they have no choice --the situation in their country forces them to do it."

Hurricane Mitch tore at Central America for almost a week in late October and early November, lashing the mountainous and already waterlogged region with 180 mph winds and torrential rains. Some areas suffered as much as two feet of rain in a six-hour period as terrified citizens saw rivers rise and devour the world they had known. Whole villages and crops were washed away by the sudden floods; rotting corpses were buried in the mountains of mud, and the stagnant water brought the certainty of disease: malaria, dysentery, typhoid. The fragile infrastructure of these developing countries, destroyed or overwhelmed by the worst hurricane to hit the region this century, collapsed; whole communities had to be relocated, water and electrical connections reinstalled, roads and bridges rebuilt.

Honduran president Carlos Flores, calling for help right after the disaster, announced that 70 percent of crops in his country had been destroyed. With a population of only 5.7 million, all of Honduras grieved the 5,600 dead and the 8,000 who were still missing and presumed dead; Nicaragua was in a similar state of disarray with 2,100 dead and 950 missing.

In the middle of this devastation were the children. Some of them were orphaned by the storm; others, who had already been abandoned and made their living in the streets, could no longer depend on the charity of strangers who were now too destitute to help; still others, like Walter Cruz, had to shoulder the responsibilities of an adult, without having the strength or the experience to compete in the gutted job market.

"If you saw the way our country looks, you'd understand," says Walter. "There is nothing there. Nothing. Before, it was hard; there was little work. But now ... Hurricane Mitch destroyed everything. It took everything, the banana plantations where the people in the country worked, so now those people need work too. They come to the city, where there is nothing for them. They build shacks and take any jobs that come up."

Walter had been working as a welder since he was 12, and it shows in the scars that mar his hands and face. He saved up enough to buy his own welding and sanding equipment and was able to support his mother, brother and sister. Without his tools, also lost in the flood, he could work only in construction, competing with bigger and stronger men for an occasional day's work.

As if that weren't enough, Walter says, he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. "And even worse than that," he says, "her father found out too. He was after me, and he was angry." Without a job, Walter had no way to support a child.

He learned his uncle and cousin had saved up some money and were going to look for work in the United States. With so many mouths to feed, Walter knew he had better find work, and this was his chance. He left with them, only to be separated along the way.

Eleven-year-old Jose Lopes had no family to help support; he doesn't remember his parents or how long he'd been fending for himself on the streets of Honduras. Also small for his age, this soft-spoken boy with large, brown eyes has never been to school and can't read or write; if he can name rivers, cities or deserts, it is knowledge he acquired by being there, crossing the rivers, walking for days and grabbing tight to the outside of rattling old cargo trains.

But the excitement he shows for talking about the dangers of the trip disappears when he talks about what his life was like in Honduras. He looks down, hunched over, staring intently at his nails.

"I spent a lot of time alone. It gets very ugly being alone if you're small, but a lot of the older boys took drugs, and I didn't like being around them. I never had enough to eat. For a while I lived with a woman. She let me spend the night at her house, but during the day I had to stay out and find my own food. When I started getting bigger, I had to go."

He met two older boys who told him they were headed to the United States. "They told me life here was very good. I didn't know anything. I thought it was close, the way they talked."

He took buses for pennies and hitched rides through El Salvador and Guatemala, and now counts the cities he passed on his fingers, rattling off their names in his rapid-fire Spanish: Salvador, Escuintla, Mazatenango, Quezaltenango. At Tecun Uman, a Guatemalan border town facing Tapachula on the Mexican side, the Suchiate river, calm and shallow, forms a natural border between the two countries, providing the only easy crossing point in an otherwise thickly wooded region.

Every two days an old freight train arrives in Tapachula, loaded with everything from corn and beans to gas. After sundown, it heads north again, empty except for the human cargo clinging to its sides. Immigrants with little or no money, like Jose and Walter, wait in the shadows for the train to pick up speed, then run fast and jump, reaching for one of the ladders that go up the side, swinging their legs out of the way of the boxcar's wheels.

"I was a little afraid of the trains at first, but then I got used to them," recalls Jose. "If you fall, you fall, and maybe you die, but if you don't, then you get a little closer to where you want to go.

"In Tapachula it was nice because there were so many people there; there were hundreds just from Honduras. The men there told me not to get on the train when it is going fast, but the immigration in Mexico will watch the train and catch anyone who tries to get on. If you get on when it is going fast, they don't want to go after you, and they leave you alone. The men in Tapachula told me they had seen a man fall and lose his legs under the wheels of the train. I was afraid, but when I heard the train coming -- Toot! Toot!" he says, pulling an invisible whistle, "I forgot my fright and the man who lost his legs, and I just ran and jumped and held on."

Sometimes trains will run for a whole day -- 12, 15 hours -- without stopping. Those holding on can't eat, drink or rest. Some of the boys say their hands feel numb after clenching the rattling boxcars for so long. That's when it gets really dangerous, says Elmer Delgado, a somber, curly-haired 14-year-old Salvadoran who also doesn't know where his parents are, doesn't even know whether they are alive. Elmer left El Salvador after being taken in by relatives who beat him, he says, and kept most of the money he made working.

"When I arrived in Tapachula, I met these men who were going to get on the train that same night. Later on, I saw them again, and they were dead. They had fallen because when the train goes very fast, the air currents suck you down, toward the wheels, and there you're killed. In the tunnels also, you can be crushed if you are not careful.

"Sometimes you can see the dead," he says, then stops himself. He is visibly uncomfortable talking about his journey, as if haunted by it.

Though Elmer made it out of Tapachula on his first try, many immigrants don't. Just like those hiding along the rails, waiting for the train, the Instituto Nacional de Migración -- the Mexican immigration service -- knows the attraction of the border town. Most of the 150 agents who patrol the 650-mile border with Guatemala and Belize are concentrated in Tapachula. They were the first to be overwhelmed by the growing numbers of Central Americans, especially Hondurans, who were leaving their countries in the wake of the storm.

Walter and Jose were among those captured in Tapachula and then deported to Tecun Uman, just over the river. After three days of being detained in a room with other immigrants -- adults, men, women and children -- eating only "really bad food," says Jose, he was released. "Then all I had to do was swim across the river again, and I was gone!"

So he left Tapachula for the second time, falling off the train once when his hands slipped and he wasn't strong enough to pull himself back up. Mostly he traveled alone, but sometimes he joined groups of children -- as many as seven -- for protection. Even so, he says, "they came after us."

"They," to Jose, means any number of the adults, usually men, usually in uniform, whom he has learned to fear: Honduran police, vigilantes, Mexican immigration officers, the Mexican police ("the meanest in the whole world," he says) and the border patrol. All his stories about running from these men blend together in his mind and expose him as the scared, small boy he pretends not to be. Though he is safe now in the United States, he is still afraid "they" will take him away.

Grupo Beta Sur, the southernmost sector of an organization established by the Mexican government to protect transitory immigrants from exploitation, reported that in December 1998 it had handled nearly 3,000 cases of assaulted, robbed or raped immigrants. In a usual December, there were fewer than 500. With only 16 agents, Grupo did what it could, but it was not prepared for the vulnerability of this particular group: Where once they had seen only young men prepared for the journey, now they were encountering young women, older men, mothers with babies, and unaccompanied children, all ignorant of the dangers ahead.

"Once they tried to steal my clothes and my shoes," says Jose. "They told me to take my clothes off, but I just ran. The other boys I was with, they were older, but they didn't run as fast, so I lost them. I was just trying to get away."

From Tapachula, grabbing onto trains, getting rides from strangers or simply walking, he slowly made his way to Mexico City, where all the roads and trains converge. There, he was lost for three days when he got off a train to look for food.

"It is the biggest city in the world, I think, and I had never been there, so I walked and walked till I found other boys that were going north," Jose explains.

After Mexico City, he made it to Queretaro, and then Monterrey. On his way to Nuevo Laredo, again he missed a train. In the arid, rocky rangeland of northern Coahuila, he walked for three days looking for a village. The rough ground, cut by canyons and hills, supports little life and few towns. At first alone and then with people he met along the way, he walked toward the border.

"In the desert, you get so hungry and so thirsty, you want to cry, but you don't, because you're so tired," he says. "But the people I was with, they had a little bit of money, and when they got food, they would give me some of it. When they could, they would go by houses and ask for a little food and give me some of that too. It is very ugly when you are alone."

In Nuevo Laredo, he found the inner tube of a tire and used it to cross the Rio Grande. Now he brags: "The river? It was nothing. I passed it like a cuatrojo," which, he explains, is a fish with four eyes -- two on top and two on the bottom -- so they can see all around. "That is what I was like!

"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."

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."

The relief offered by the TPS designation will be helpful to those who qualify, but in the end it offers "precious little," says attorney Zoltan, adding that "most of them will be deported in the end, since TPS does not lead to permanent residency."

The Salvadorans and Guatemalans who received the two-month stay went back to normal proceedings when their reprieve expired on March 8. For many, it meant they would be deported. By June 2000 the thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans who sought refuge here will face the same fate. Of course, none of these benefits apply to those who arrived in the U.S. after the December 30 cutoff.

Walter Cruz knew nothing of deadlines or American immigration policies when he left Honduras. "I left on the 15th of January, when we saw how much was lost and how many people were without houses and without jobs," he says.

Yet when Lynda Barros tells him that he did not qualify for TPS, Walter is crushed; he had convinced himself that this new rule would somehow apply to him, that somehow he would be able to stay. Sitting in Barros's crowded office, among piles of papers, he asks about Jose, whom he met at Casa Shelter, wondering what will happen to him.

"Jose is little, and he doesn't have parents to go back to, so he will be able to stay," explains Barros.

Walter sits quietly for a while, unable to comprehend why, if they all went through the same dangerous journey, some get to stay, while he has to go.

Barros has no answers and instead attempts to console him. "ANo te quedes tan triste, muchacho! Don't be so sad! If you ask the judge to grant you voluntary departure, he may give you another few months here, maybe as many as four," she says.

Voluntary departure is a judge's order telling an undocumented immigrant he has a certain number of days in which to leave the country. The immigrants have to pay for their own tickets, but the advantage, says Barros, is that it is not a deportation order. "You don't have that bar on your record. Also, it lets people feel they have a certain degree of control over their lives. They can leave when they want, within those days, and they can take their things with them. It is much more pleasant than having INS agents come looking for you."

Because Walter entered illegally, once he leaves he could be barred from coming back into the United States for either three years, if his stay was less than three months, or ten years, if it was more. If he leaves and gets caught entering the country again after he reaches adulthood, he could also be charged with a federal crime.

His other option -- the one Barros isn't allowed to explain -- is to not show up for his June 1 court date. He could try to remain here as an undocumented immigrant, unable to get a driver's license, afraid to go to a hospital in an emergency, always living life in the margins, but at least able to earn in one day what he made in three weeks of working in Honduras. That, however, would mean the INS would come looking for him at his last address with a deportation order. And any undocumented immigrants staying at his aunt's crowded apartment could be taken, even if Walter was no longer there himself.

Still, it is hard to stifle his spirit. He walks out of the Proyecto office, reviewing his options. "I may leave. I don't want anyone to make me leave. I'll go, but I'll come back. Of course I'll come back. What else can I do

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