Kids arrive alone in San Diego from Honduras. Then what?

Young immigrants lose hope

"We try to accommodate everyone, but it can be difficult. With music. If we have a wide range of countries, how are we going to play the radio? "
  • "We try to accommodate everyone, but it can be difficult. With music. If we have a wide range of countries, how are we going to play the radio? "
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

The 18th Street gang, now notorious for terrorizing areas of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, "is actually named after 18th Street in L.A."

The 18th Street gang, now notorious for terrorizing areas of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, "is actually named after 18th Street in L.A."

They hopped trains, took buses, spent long days walking. When their path took them through remote areas, they went hungry. Every week a sheet of paper rolls off a fax machine at the Casa Cornelia Law Center on Laurel Street. It contains a list of two or three dozen names, each followed by a date and country of birth. A prosaic document, it's an accounting of children who've been apprehended by local immigration authorities. These are youngsters who've wound up in San Diego County alone, unaccompanied by their families, thousands of miles from their homes. To get here, many have endured hair-raising journeys. All of them thought they were about to make a new life in America.

One day in 2003, toward the end of the school year, five youths grabbed him by his school uniform and demanded that he dance.

One day in 2003, toward the end of the school year, five youths grabbed him by his school uniform and demanded that he dance.

For Leticia, that illusion shattered just moments after she arrived at the San Ysidro checkpoint. Leticia, driving an old car, had stopped to present identity papers to the inspector at the head of her lane. He announced that her documents appeared to be false. Leticia may have looked nervous; she'd never driven alone before and had been behind the wheel only once or twice with a friend. But a man in Tijuana had convinced her this was her best hope of crossing the border. "You look Mexican," he had argued. "And la migra would never imagine that a 16-year-old Honduran girl would be driving a car across the border." Leticia had stifled her skepticism and agreed to try.

Upon each child's arrival, he or she takes an entrance exam and starts school the following day.

Upon each child's arrival, he or she takes an entrance exam and starts school the following day.

And why not? So many things had happened to her in the 16 months since she'd left her Honduran village. On a sunny morning last summer, she agreed to talk about what she'd gone through. We were sitting in the main interior courtyard at Southwest Key, the East County facility where she was living while undergoing deportation proceedings. Since some of the children at Southwest Key are hiding from smugglers who would like to collect their money or prevent the children from testifying against them, the building's exact location is a secret. Moreover, multiple layers of bureaucracy prevent most outsiders from setting foot here. It took me more than two months to get the necessary permissions from various federal employees in Washington, D.C. Then I had to agree to interview Leticia in the presence of staff members of both Casa Cornelia and Southwest Key. Her attorneys also asked me to change her name, to protect her from potential judicial backlash. A slip of a thing, Leticia looked hesitant when we sat down together, but her words (all in Spanish) revealed a quiet self-assurance. She wore her silky black hair pulled back, revealing a delicate face dominated by doelike eyes and a wide smile. When she decided to leave home, she had just turned 15 and was six months short of graduating from her local school. But she wanted to keep on learning; she dreamed of studying medicine. In school she'd heard about how America was la potencia mundial (the world power). "In Honduras," she added, "people say if you know how to speak English, you're valued as if you were two people." Asked what her family thought of her decision to head for the United States, Leticia trembled. Her home situation wasn't good, she whispered. Her father had disappeared when she was 7, leaving behind his wife, daughter, and two sons. The older boy had left home, and Leticia had lost touch with him. The younger one was a violent drug addict. To escape the chaos caused by him, she'd been sent when she was 12 to live with an aunt and uncle. But the aunt had beaten her, deriding her educational dreams and carping that the girl should find someone to marry. In the winter of 2002, Leticia had heard about two older girls from her town who were heading north. She had asked if she could join them, and they welcomed her company.

In her pocket, Leticia carried 300 lempiras (about $17), money she'd gotten from her uncle on the pretext of needing school supplies. Rather than purchasing northbound tickets, however, the three girls began their odyssey by catching a ride on a freight train. "Were you scared?" I asked.

"A little," Leticia reflected. "It's very hard. But it's an unforgettable experience." The lawyer, administrator, and I burst out laughing in agreement with that.

Every time the train approached a station, the girls jumped off to avoid being caught. They then made their way to the outbound tracks, purchasing food and drinks to stash in their backpacks for a ride that might last 16 to 48 hours. If they were clinging to the side of the train, "We couldn't sleep because we might fall," the girl recalled. Hour upon hour, they stared down at the passing crossties. Depending on their nerve, they might try to climb on top of one of the cars, but the risk of being knocked off was high. Between cars, the motion was so violent it could make a person dizzy. Once in a while, kindly crewmen let them ride in one of the engines. Others demanded money for this privilege.

Leticia says once she and her companions entered Guatemala, they traveled by bus. In Mexico, they hopped trains, took buses, spent long days walking. When their path took them through remote areas, they went hungry. When it poured rain, they froze. "I swear to you," Leticia murmured, "you wouldn't like trying it."

It took about three months to reach Mexicali. There, on a broiling day, she and her companions got lucky. A woman who ran a snack shop let them sleep on her kitchen floor, and the next day she asked a customer, a man of about 60, if he might give her "daughters" a ride to Tijuana. Leticia says this gentleman, who turned out to be a Guatemalan married to a Mexican, lived in the United States. Eventually he extracted the girls' true story and promised to call Leticia's godmother, who lived in Los Angeles. The godmother sent her husband to Tijuana to help Leticia find someplace to stay.

She says she ended up living with friends of her godmother: a young couple and their two older relatives. After two months, these people "kind of forgot" about charging anything for Leticia's room and board, she says. "They were a very united family," she offered by way of explanation. She helped with babysitting, household chores, and the family's business of selling clothing, and the young woman found Leticia a birth certificate that had belonged to an acquaintance. "She told me to take good care of it because people pay up to 1500 pesos for a real birth certificate like that." Leticia later moved in with another friend of this family, an older woman who lived alone and wanted someone to help her out. Armed with the birth certificate, Leticia got a job working in a factory that churned out bronze angels, gorillas, and soldiers. She says she was happy there; her coworkers were friendly. In all, her sojourn in Tijuana lasted about a year.

"Why didn't you stay?" I asked. "It sounds as though you were doing well."

"Because I wanted to study," Leticia replied. She thought her best chance of doing that would be north of the border. She planned to work until she'd saved up the $2000 she'd been told it would cost to hire a dependable smuggler. The ill-fated scheme to drive across the border arose suddenly -- the result of a chance encounter with a stranger on the street. This man gave her a false border-crossing card, along with advice that she later rued following. "He told me if I was caught I should never tell my age, my real name, or where I was from, or I would have more problems. He told me to say that I was Mexican and an adult -- so they would deport me back to Mexico."

Things didn't work out that way. Leticia says the immigration officers at the secondary inspection station insulted her, using crude obscenities. Under their questioning, she admitted that the name on the border-crossing card wasn't hers. Instead she gave the officers the name on the Mexican birth certificate she'd been using in Tijuana. Then a couple of Latino officers began bombarding her with questions about Mexico. "And I didn't know some of them," she recalled. She couldn't sing the national anthem or explain the significance of the symbols on the Mexican flag. When they demanded that she tell them the proper cooking time for pozole, Leticia guessed it was an hour and a half, but the officers told her any Mexican woman would know it was at least two and a half hours. She had flunked the test. "I cried all night long," she said.

The consequence of lying about her age was that Leticia was sent to a prison. Operated by the Corrections Corporation of America, the prison is located in a desolate section of Otay Mesa, just down the road from the county's George F. Bailey Detention Facility and across a ravine from Donovan state prison. CCA, as people call it, houses men and women who are being deported -- some because they've been caught trying to enter the U.S. too many times; some seeking asylum; others dangerous criminals. Under no circumstances are juveniles supposed to be incarcerated there. But it took Leticia two months to realize this and obtain legal aid. Only after a cousin in her hometown sent a copy of her birth certificate to the immigration office did she finally win a transfer to Southwest Key.

"That was one of my happiest days," Leticia told me. She said Southwest Key was "a thousand times" better than CCA. In CCA the inmates were forced to work and received little or no compensation. No one had any privacy. Personal letters were read aloud in public. But once again, Leticia's response to the bad memories was acquiescence. "It was not agreeable," she said. "But I feel like that's what I get for lying." And on the bright side, "I got to meet people from a lot of other parts of the world."

She could have said the same about Southwest Key. From a balcony that overlooks the interior courtyard where we talked hang flags representing the nationalities of the children who have stayed at this facility over the last six years. There are 38 countries in all, among them Guatemala, Korea, Poland, Afghanistan, Brazil, Israel, Spain, the Philippines, Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, the United Kingdom, China, Paraguay, Honduras, and Iraq. Although Mexico's flag is present, Mexican children seldom are housed here. When they're caught, the Border Patrol returns most of them to Tijuana (close to 3000 a year, according to the local Mexican consulate office). Unlike their adult counterparts, the Mexican kids are not just dumped at the pedestrian gate in San Ysidro. Both U.S. and Mexican officials go to some lengths to make sure each child is delivered into the hands of a responsible relative.

Most of the youngsters from other nations who are sent to Southwest Key are "sad and depressed" upon their arrival, according to Ismael Avilez. Many harbor thoughts of escaping. But only one adolescent has done so in the three years during which Avilez has been the facility's program director. That's not because of draconian security measures. Doors are locked, and staff members keep a close eye on the residents, but Avilez says the main deterrent is that the children enjoy life at Southwest Key. "They're usually sad and depressed when they leave."

It's easy to understand why. The ceiling of the inner courtyard is painted sky blue with puffy white clouds. Strong colors brighten walls, and overstuffed furniture encourages daydreaming. The chambers where the kids sleep resemble dorm rooms, while the living room holds a big-screen TV, a Sony PlayStation, and a bank of computers. "We don't give them too much TV time," said Avilez, " 'cause we like to keep them active." Most engage in an hour of structured physical exercise per day, and all the kids are required to work in a large organic garden located in one section of the sprawling property. They're shepherded on weekly educational trips to places like the zoo and Cabrillo National Monument, as well as on more purely recreational outings. "Like for example last Sunday they wanted to go see Shrek 2," Avilez said. "The interesting thing is that a good part of the adolescents throughout the world enjoy American culture and movies. So they know about Shrek. They enjoyed Shrek 2. They're still talking about it."

A tall man in his early 30s who wears his long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Avilez seems laid-back and benevolent. Most of the children arrive at his facility after a difficult journey, he says, and at that point "the most important thing for them is getting the opportunity to have a shower and food, and to make some phone calls to their families, to let them know they're well. That's our initial priority." Throughout their stays, the residents are allowed to make two ten-minute calls per week anywhere in the world, at the facility's expense. "You can imagine what our phone bill is like."

Upon each child's arrival, he or she takes an entrance exam and starts school the following day. Southwest Key's teachers (one full-time, two part-time, and an aide) cover every subject that would be found in any school: math, science, literature, social studies. The children also get a daily hour and a half of English as a second language, and they receive instruction in citizenship. "We're hoping there might be a happy ending down the road." Alvilez says the average child's stay is 24 days, but the residencies have ranged from a single day to more than a year, in the case of one six-year-old Indian girl whose case was unusually complex.

That little girl left speaking a fair amount of English, Spanish, and Mandarin, in addition to her native Gujarati. The mishmash of languages and cultures presents challenges not just in the classroom, the director says, but also in the routines of daily life. "We try to accommodate everyone, but it can be difficult at times. For example, with music. If we have a wide range of countries, how are we going to play the radio? So we keep it safe. We play English throughout the week, and then we'll give them an opportunity on Saturday to listen to other music; for example, Spanish or Brazilian Portuguese."

"Unaccompanied minors" (as the federal bureaucrats refer to these children) haven't always had such a pleasant experience when they've been caught by the Border Patrol. Twenty years ago, a group of lawyers, citing the "deplorable conditions" of minors in the government's custody, filed a class-action suit against immigration officials, and that lawsuit resulted in a 1997 settlement under which the Immigration and Naturalization Service made a number of promises. Instead of being locked up with juvenile delinquents or incarcerated with adults, the INS promised, detained minors would be treated with respect and dignity, placed in the least restrictive settings possible, and whenever possible, released to family members.

Since then the federal government has contracted with social service agencies to operate detention facilities that conform to the settlement-agreement standards. Southwest Key, which houses 15 children, is one, as is the Casa San Juan, a Normal Heights institution that houses another 15 or so juveniles. But both places are full "approximately 95 percent of the time," according to Mario Ortiz, a juvenile coordinator with the local office of the Department of Homeland Security. In an e-mail response to a question about what happens when there are more children than beds, Ortiz wrote that unaccompanied juveniles may be sent to "detained shelters" outside San Diego County. He added that "if the unaccompanied juvenile requires housing in a secure facility," he or she may be placed in Juvenile Hall.

Child advocates deplore the latter option. "You shouldn't criminalize a child," declares Marisa Ugarte, the executive director of the Bilateral Safety Corridor Coalition. "They're not criminals, so why victimize a person who is already a victim of so many circumstances? The only crime these children have committed was to find safety for themselves or go to a family member in the pursuit of their dreams." Ugarte asserts that at Juvenile Hall the unaccompanied minors are treated like criminals. "Psychologically that affects them a lot. The jail system teaches them a lot of things that shouldn't be learned. A lot of what these children have suffered is endless: domestic violence in their homes, being raped on the way here. And a place like Juvie just intensifies their suffering."

John O'Toole, director of the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, asserts that the unaccompanied minors who are sent to juvenile jails are often strip-searched. "So you can have some 13-year-old girl from another country who's already a little bit scared and fragile and vulnerable, and she's being sent to a place that's a prison and being strip-searched by strangers," he says. "The judge was outraged by that before and ordered them to stop it, and they're still doing it." As a result, O'Toole says his organization, along with the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles law firm of Latham and Watkins, returned to court in January of 2004 to try to force the government to do what it had promised to do in the 1997 settlement agreement. "The government is putting more energy into fighting what's going on now than they ever did in actually trying to comply," the attorney contends.

O'Toole concedes, however, that over the past seven years the government, in addition to contracting with agencies like Southwest Key, has made one other improvement. "They never used to release kids to anyone other than their parents, and now they will release them to other blood relatives who can care for them. That part is good." These family reunifications are complicated, child advocates say. First the relatives must be located. "A lot of these kids don't have any idea how big the United States is," says one woman who has worked with detained minors for years. "They'll say, 'I have an uncle in L.A.,' and you'll say, 'Oh, great. What's his name?' 'Manuel González.' Okay, that limits it to about 1500 people!" Once they're identified, the family members have to fill out a sponsorship packet that must be approved in Washington, D.C. "And the family has to pay a bond that can be anywhere from $1500 to $5000, or sometimes even more. Sometimes the Brazilian kids have very high bonds, because they're considered to be flight risks."

Still, Avilez says about 90 percent of the children placed in Southwest Key depart for the homes of relatives. That doesn't mean they're allowed to live out the rest of their lives in the United States. It just gives them a familial base from which to complete their legal proceedings.

The vast majority wind up having to leave, according to Rose Kasusky, the executive director of Casa Cornelia. Most youngsters who've made their way to the United States in search of a better life "really don't have any legal relief available to them," Kasusky says. "Just like any immigrant who comes here to work or study, they would have had to have gotten their visa back home, prior to coming. Once they're apprehended by immigration authorities, there's no legal ability for them to stay here in the U.S."

But they still deserve legal representation, Kasusky argues. "They still need someone to explain to them what's going on; why they have to go to court and what the purpose is; when they'll be going home." According to Kasusky, the law says individuals facing deportation (or "removal," as the government now calls it) have the right to an attorney. But there's a catch. Because most immigration infractions are treated as civil rather than criminal, the "respondents" (as the children are called) have no right to an appointed attorney. They have to hire one themselves, and that can cost anywhere from $1500 to $5000, Kasusky estimates.

As a result of this conundrum, prior to 2001 many of the unaccompanied minors who were caught in San Diego got no representation. Their detention here "would take forever," says Sister Ann Durst. "They'd be told to get a lawyer, and of course they couldn't get a lawyer. And they could be detained for months and months before finally being deported." Durst, an attorney and the former president of a small Pennsylvania college, came to San Diego to found the Casa Cornelia Law Center in 1992 at the direction of her religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. She says at first she set up programs to serve battered immigrant women and children, as well as immigrants who were seeking asylum. It took her a while to become aware of the plight of unaccompanied minors. But in the year 2000, the American Bar Association "raised the issue of what was happening to these detained children. And I said to myself, 'We've got to take a look at this!' "

Since then, Casa Cornelia has come to the aid of more than 400 young people. About 85 percent of them have come from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico. Chinese names also show up often on the weekly rosters of new detainees, but Kasusky says the Chinese youngsters "normally won't talk to us.... The idea we have is that their smugglers, who are known as 'snakeheads' in China, basically tell the kids, 'Don't talk to anyone. Tell them you have an attorney in the U.S., and when you bond out, you'll be helped.' Most of their lawyers are in New York, for some reason, which is very bizarre."

Kasusky says local immigration officials have supported Casa Cornelia's efforts to provide legal assistance to the children. For one thing, the San Diego immigration court agreed to consolidate the children's cases on two dockets per month, normally the second and fourth Fridays. This has made it easier for the nonprofit organization to recruit a cadre of volunteer lawyers, according to Kasusky. "Instead of having ten kids on ten different days, you've got ten kids all on one day. Logistically it's immensely helpful." She says the number of volunteer attorneys for the children's program has grown over the past three years to include about 40. With only 6 attorneys on the Casa Cornelia staff (and 2 of them handling administrative tasks), "We couldn't do the volume of work we do without volunteers. The large firms in San Diego have been very supportive of our work with unaccompanied children."

Also crucial has been the government's willingness to fax that list of detained children to Casa Cornelia every week. Using it as a guide, a Casa Cornelia staff member goes out to each facility where newcomers are being held and interviews them. "We talk to the kids and determine whether there's any [legal] relief," Kasusky said. "Some of the children are coming to the U.S. looking for family. In the '80s and '90s in Central America, everything was in an uproar. Sometimes the parents have been gone for several years, and the kids don't really know where they are." Other youngsters come seeking work so they can send money home.

Marco, as I'll call him, fell into the second category. A round-faced 17-year-old with a broad nose, a broad grin, and deep dimples, he'd been living at Southwest Key for one month and five days on the morning I visited. Born in a tiny Guatemalan village a couple of hours by car from the Mexican border, he was one of four boys. Two of his brothers had been working in Connecticut for a couple of years. When they asked him to join them, he thought it sounded like a good idea. "In Guatemala there's no work," he explained. You might make 40 quetzals [five or six dollars] a day working as a field hand. Maybe twice that in construction. "But here," Marco said with a smile, "you could make a lot per hour."

He got a fake visa for his Guatemalan passport, and someone drove him to the Mexican border. From there, he made his way to Villahermosa, where he caught a northbound plane. But in the Tijuana airport, Mexican officials pounced on his documents as crude forgeries. Marco told me he was sent to a Mexican juvenile detention facility for two days, then was transported on buses first to Mexico City, then to Chiapas, and finally to the Guatemalan border.

A little under a month later, he was ready to try again. For his second venture, his father borrowed a genuine passport and tourist visa that belonged to someone else. Marco didn't think he looked much like the picture in the passport, but his relatives back home told him not to worry. For this attempt, he would bypass Mexico altogether, flying from Guatemala City directly to Los Angeles. But once again, he was stopped by immigration officials, this time American ones, who declared that the documents were genuine -- they just weren't his. Clapped in handcuffs, Marco was taken somewhere in Los Angeles to be interviewed. Two days later, he was sent to the Federal Building in San Diego, where he was held for about an hour before being delivered to Southwest Key.

When I asked what he thought of life there, Marco enthused that it was a "quality" place. He'd been given regular meals! Classes! A toothbrush! A snappy flattop haircut, with even the gel to keep his stiff black hair standing at attention! "It's like a home," he said. "The only thing it's missing is your family."

And he did miss them, he added, along with his old friends. He said he felt happy at the thought of seeing them soon. I wondered aloud if he would try again to come to the U.S. "The truth, yes," he said. The next time he would secure a legitimate visa, he vowed. Both his brothers had entered the U.S. legally and then had stayed beyond the time permitted by their visas. He didn't feel sad about his failure to reach Connecticut, he said, but rather, "tranquilo."

The paralegal from Casa Cornelia pointed out that Marco would be leaving soon. He'd already appeared in court, where his attorney had asked for and received what is known as "voluntary departure under safeguards." That fate is different from a deportation, or removal, order, according to Kasusky. Someone who's ordered to be deported cannot apply to immigrate for at least five years, she explained, whereas a voluntary departure leaves the door ajar. "Some of these kids have parents here who are legal," Sister Ann Durst said. If those parents are awaiting the processing of visa applications for their children, then "You don't want a deportation order on those kids," Durst explained. "And in addition, the law could change! You never know. So you want these kids to have a clean slate." Although the government pays to fly deportees home, it normally requires those who depart "voluntarily" to pay their own airfare. However, in the case of juvenile detainees, San Diego immigration officials have been making a humane exception and absorbing the cost.

"Not all the kids get the voluntary departure," Kasusky told me. "It's up to the judge's discretion as to whether he's going to give it to you." Factors taken into consideration, she said, include "Is there a criminal history? Is there a prior deportation? Did the child tell the truth about his name, age, nationality, when apprehended -- or did he lie? Is the child a smuggler, or did the child use a smuggler to come here to the U.S.?' " I wondered why using a smuggler would be considered a black mark. "The argument is that when someone has engaged a smuggler, they're clearly showing a higher level of maturity and knowledge of the system," Kasusky replied. "In other words, we're not talking about some sweet, innocent little child.... That kind of thinking."

Kasusky told me that whenever a Casa Cornelia attorney feels that a child doesn't meet the criteria for voluntary departure, he or she won't ask the judge for it. "Because otherwise, as an attorney, you're really compromising your ethics. So usually what we say to the child is, 'If it makes you feel better to have us there, next to you, then we will do that. But you're not really going to benefit.' And some of the kids will say, 'Okay, I'll just represent myself.' "

At the other end of the spectrum, Kasusky says, the Casa Cornelia legal team sometimes is able to argue that a child ought to be allowed to stay in the United States. Two broad circumstances may permit this: if the child qualifies for either asylum or "special immigrant juvenile status."

The special immigrant juvenile status, established by Congress in 1990, is "for abused, abandoned, and neglected children who don't have anywhere to go," Kasusky told me. Although it might seem as if a girl like Leticia -- abandoned by her father, turned out of the house by her mother, told by her abusive aunt that she wasn't welcome to return -- would fit that description, Kasusky explained that the Casa Cornelia lawyers had run into a catch-22 in San Diego. "The problem is the jurisdictional element," she said. When children are apprehended by the Border Patrol, they fall under federal custody. But the government's regulations say that before a child can apply for the special immigrant juvenile status, a state juvenile court must find that the child is abused, abandoned, or neglected and is eligible for long-term foster care because family reunion is not possible. The child must then be made a ward of the court. Furthermore, filing a petition to initiate the dependency proceedings "is not something that a private individual can do," Kasusky says. "It has to be filed by the county." At the time we talked, Casa Cornelia had been unable to persuade any San Diego County officials to get involved in the children's cases. Kasusky opined, "I think they are in a budget crisis. They don't have the money to really help these kids because, of course, anything they do costs money. So we've got these kids that are in limbo."

There are only a "tiny number" of them, Kasusky says. "Most of [the detained minors] are coming here to work and send money back home. They're not abused, abandoned, neglected. So just by the definition alone, we're talking about very few children -- only a handful."

In Los Angeles County, the Department of Children and Family Services has established a "special immigrant status" unit. On at least one occasion, Kasusky said, Casa Cornelia has managed to get a candidate for special immigrant juvenile status transferred to Los Angeles. But in the case of Leticia, the lawyers had decided instead to request asylum. This may be granted when someone has "a well-founded fear of persecution," Kasusky explained. "Political asylum is the generic term most people know and understand," she said. But asylum can also be granted for other sorts of persecution. "It includes race and nationality, ethnicity and social group -- which normally includes gender," the attorney explained. "Most of these kids' claims are based on social group."

Most common, she said, is the predicament in which many young boys find themselves: pressured to join gangs and targeted when they refuse. A number of vicious gangs have proliferated throughout Central America, she said. "The interesting thing about this gang problem is that it's something the U.S. has pretty much exported. In the '80s and '90s, we were deporting a lot of criminal aliens for gang activity, be it a drive-by shooting or robbing a liquor store or whatever. These young men would go back home and start the gangs there." The 18th Street gang, now notorious for terrorizing areas of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, "is actually named after 18th Street in L.A." Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a. M.S.) is another L.A.-bred gang thriving in the countries to the south of us.

It was members of Mara Salvatrucha who drove Enrique to his act of desperation. I met Enrique (not his real name) at the Correctional Corporation of America prison. Chris Chouteau, the staff attorney who heads Casa Cornelia's detained minors' program, and I had to make the trip to Otay Mesa three times before prison officials allowed me to conduct the interview we'd prearranged.

On the day we were finally granted entrance, a prison staffer led us through a chilly labyrinth of concrete passages. They looked to be as wide as they were tall, a proportion at once disorienting and intimidating. Inside an inner chamber, we took our places at a shiny metallic table, and Enrique was led in to join us. Enrique was born in a small town in El Salvador 17 years and 9H months before he began his flight to the north. His problems with the gang members had started when he was 16. They were rooted, he revealed in Spanish, in his sexual orientation.

A slender young man with short curly hair, Enrique seemed uncomfortable admitting this but determined to communicate his side of the events that had befallen him. He says "delinquents," whom he identified as members of Mara Salvatrucha, lived very close to his home. Enrique thinks they found out he was gay from the homophobic brother of one of his friends, and they began following him home from school, taunting him and jeering. One day in 2003, toward the end of the school year, five youths grabbed him by his school uniform and demanded that he dance. When he refused, they kicked him and punched his face. Enrique broke away, but in an attempt to recover his backpack, he threw a couple of rocks at the gang. This backfired. The gang members recaptured him, bound his hands, tied him to a tree, and doused him with water. Then they abandoned him. Enrique says he escaped after a stranger came along and loosened his bonds. But the stranger beat a hasty retreat: if he helped too much, he too would become a target.

Another time about eight gangsters forced the lighted ends of marijuana joints into Enrique's mouth, burning his tongue and lips. By the fall of 2003, Enrique was distraught enough to try to file a police report. But the police insinuated that Enrique himself was a gang member, and they threatened to arrest him. A turning point came in December of 2003, when a gay friend of his was murdered by the gang. "Were you close to him?" I asked. "Too close," Enrique said, head down. "Very, very close."

Where could he find a safe haven? His mind turned to his uncle, living in Los Angeles. He would take him in, Enrique felt sure. He says his parents agreed that their son's life was in danger, though they may not have known why. Asked by his father if he liked girls, Enrique had insisted that of course he did. He'd denied having any interest in boys. His mother may have nursed suspicions, Enrique added, but the two of them never discussed his sexual orientation.

So it was that at 3:00 a.m. on January 4, 2004, Enrique's whole family -- two younger brothers, his mom and dad, even the family dog -- piled into a borrowed car and drove two and a half hours to the town of La Hachadura, on the Salvadoran border with Guatemala. Enrique's father bought him a bus ticket, and Enrique had an identification card displaying his true name but an older birthday. He had to pass for 19, he explained, or he would not have been allowed to pass into Guatemala unaccompanied by an adult.

He kissed his parents and struggled not to cry, lest everyone break down. "But I had a knot in my throat," he recalled. In his pocket, he carried $50. (Dollars serve as the de facto currency of El Salvador, according to Enrique; the colon no longer circulates.) His bus arrived in Guatemala City around 7:00 a.m. "I didn't know my way around," he said. "I'd never been out of my village. There were all these strange people."

I asked if Enrique had had a plan for how he would get to the United States, and he admitted that he hadn't. That first morning of his journey he bought a map of Central America. It gave him a rough idea of the ground he had to cover, he said.

He spent the whole day fretting about what to do; that night, he slept on a park bench. The next day he figured out where to catch a bus that would take him in the direction of the Mexican border; the two-day journey consumed almost 30 of his dollars. Enrique says his heart sank 15 minutes short of his destination when Guatemalan immigration officials boarded the bus, searched it, and ordered Enrique to disembark. He denied any intention to enter Mexico and told the officials he was just going to visit friends who lived near the border. They fired back a question: with whom was he traveling? At that point, a woman on the bus piped up that he was her nephew. "I'd never seen her before," Enrique said.

Enrique told me that when the bus finally pulled into the border town, this woman offered to help him further, but he didn't feel he could confide in her. Instead he found his way to the deep, swift river that marks the border between Guatemala and Mexico. He didn't think he could cross it while carrying his backpack, which contained a couple of changes of clothing. He spent the night sleeping on a nearby hillside, and in the early morning, he spotted two teenaged boys with a canoe. They offered to take him to the other side in exchange for ten dollars, an exorbitant fee, Enrique thought. But he agreed. Once across, he proffered only five. "They threw rocks at me, but I took off running. I hid until they left."

Enrique had asked the boys if he would find a town across the river, and they told him there was only dense jungle, inhabited by snakes and other dangerous animals. But Enrique says he didn't know what else to do, so he plunged into the pathless undergrowth. He walked for hours in the fetid humidity, flinching at the startling sounds of monkeys and insects. He could smell the animals, he said; he saw snake trails everywhere. When night fell, the noises increased. He climbed a tree and tried to sleep. He says he woke around 5:00 a.m. and descended, then climbed a taller tree to try to find his bearings. He saw no trace of human habitation. Hungry and thirsty, he admitted to himself that he had to turn back.

That first day of Enrique's journey across Mexico was a harbinger of times to come. Eventually he made it out of the jungle and found his way to a town. There he met some Guatemalans heading north who agreed to take him on as a traveling companion. They knew about an "immigrant's bus." But its driver turned out to be in cahoots with machete-wielding bandits, who jumped aboard and demanded money. One of the Guatemalans then pulled out a revolver, forcing the bandits to let them go.

Like Leticia, Enrique covered some of the ensuing miles via freight train. In Veracruz, he fell into the hands of Mexican immigration officials and was teargassed in the jail where they detained him. While being led to a bus that would return him home, Enrique kicked open a door and escaped through a rooftop passageway that led out into a street, where he managed to hide from his pursuers. A kindhearted Mexican girl then paid for his bus ticket to Mexico City. He hitchhiked from there to Tijuana. That leg of the trip took him 12 days.

The final person who gave Enrique a ride told him his brother was a coyote. He could get Enrique across the border for $1000. "I told him I didn't even have $5," Enrique recounted. But this man turned out to be yet another Good Samaritan, and he took the Salvadoran boy to his grandparents' home, where he was fed and given clothes and shoes to replace his ragged attire. The family also found him a false border-crossing card, and they took him to the pedestrian-crossing terminal in San Ysidro. There, 44 days after his journey began, Enrique was foiled by border guards who thought the brown-skinned, strong-browed boy didn't look much like the fellow on the document.

They also didn't believe he was 22 years old, as he was claiming. And Enrique says when he gave them the phone number of his uncle in Los Angeles, he was caught in another lie. Although the boy had claimed to come from Veracruz, his uncle's wife let slip that he was born in El Salvador.

Enrique says he had to admit his nationality, but he still wavered over revealing his age. He says the immigration officials told him if he was an adult he would have to leave the U.S. immediately, but as a minor, he'd be able to stay. Thinking this meant he would be freed to go live with his uncle, he confessed that he had not yet turned 18. Instead, he was packed off to Southwest Key, feeling betrayed. He was living there and waiting for his first court appearance when his 18th birthday (March 20) came along. Not long afterward, he was yanked out of the juvenile center and transferred to the Otay Mesa prison.

When I asked him how life was there, he answered with a single bitter word: "Malo." It was nothing at all like Southwest Key, he said. There he and the other youngsters had been able to play.

Last June, when I interviewed Enrique, Chris Chouteau was working on the boy's request for asylum. In October, the case finally came before Judge Anthony Atenaide, and in the course of that two-hour proceeding, Enrique had a chance to describe in detail the persecution he had endured as a result of being homosexual. To the relief of both Enrique and his attorney, the judge believed the boy and granted the asylum request, giving Enrique the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. Chouteau says Enrique stayed at the Storefront, a local shelter for homeless youth, for about a month, then moved to Los Angeles to be with his uncle.

Leticia's application for asylum took an unexpected turn. Chouteau had planned to contend that if the girl were forced to return to her home country, she would become a street child (because Honduras has no foster care for abandoned minors), and as such, she would become a victim of persecution. But around the beginning of October, the Office of Refugee Resettlement moved Leticia from Southwest Key to Michigan, where she was placed in the care of a foster family. She's there now, Chouteau says, attending high school and awaiting an asylum hearing that, given the backlog of immigration cases in Michigan, probably won't take place for a year or more. Chouteau says Leticia also could conceivably qualify for special immigrant juvenile status in Michigan. Either way, she still has a chance of fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor.

Kasusky pointed out that Leticia's and Enrique's cases were among the first full asylum applications that Casa Cornelia has pursued for minors. Although the center's legal staff often starts the work on such cases, most children wind up being placed with family members, who then hire private attorneys.

However, Kasusky did have one other full asylum case, this one involving a Honduran boy who'd been tattooed under duress by members of the 18th Street gang. "He was literally held down by six gang members and told that if he moved, he would die," Kasusky recounted. "They tattooed a huge '18' on his upper left arm, in giant balloon-style lettering." The boy mutilated himself in an attempt to get rid of the unwanted insignia. "His arm is completely scarred. It's a mess," the lawyer said. She added that by the time he left Honduras, several factions wanted to see him dead. Among them were the local police. "They are involved in sort of a social cleansing against gang members," Kasusky says. "They viewed him as a gang member, even though he's not. Secondly, he had the 18th Street gang after him because he tried to remove the tattoo. And then there was the rival gang, Mara Salvatrucha, after him because they thought he was 18th Street."

A San Diego judge nonetheless ruled that the boy was not eligible to stay. That's not an uncommon outcome in asylum cases, according to Mike Pellerin, director of Political Asylum Research and Documentation Service, a Princeton-based research firm that, for a fee, provides assistance to those seeking help with their cases. On his website, Pellerin posts the percentage of asylum claims that 151 U.S. immigration judges granted between 1994 and 1999. One of the striking things about those numbers is the wide variation among them. Whereas one New York City judge granted almost 53 percent of the 1161 asylum applications that came before him, another gave the nod to only 1.2 percent. On average, the 23 New York judges who were listed granted 25.2 percent of the requests. In contrast, the average grant rate for the 6 San Diego immigration judges who were listed was only half that -- 12.7 percent, with the variation among them ranging from 7.5 to 20.2 percent.

That variation, Pellerin says, "suggests there's something wrong. But the chief immigration judge doesn't give a damn who grants and who doesn't, just so long as they process the claims and clear the docket. And of course the attorney general [Ashcroft, at the time of the interview] is right there in the amen corner. Sweeping people out of the country -- that's their principal objective.... Intellectual honesty and the scientific method aren't the basis on which these cases are being decided."

Another factor in the low grant rates, according to Pellerin, is that so many of the asylum seekers can't afford to hire an attorney. Instead they try to represent themselves. He says their lack of sophistication hurts them in court, a contention with which Kasusky agrees. "The law is very complicated," she says. "You could have someone who's totally eligible for asylum, and yet if they are unable to articulate legally what they need to in order to get asylum, they're not going to get it. Also you're talking about people who are very traumatized, who have suffered past persecution and torture." Sometimes adults in that situation "really are unable to talk about the things that have happened to them." For similar reasons, the kids' asylum cases are complicated, Kasusky contends. "For a lot of the kids, their maturity level is not something that remains the same. It's constantly changing. So it can be hard to get a grasp on. And sometimes the kids don't really even understand that, yeah, they should be afraid when the 18th Street gang has threatened them." Sometimes asking them a question like "Are you afraid?" will elicit a "no" answer, " 'cause they're kids, and they don't have any concept of danger and what it all entails."

Kasusky says Casa Cornelia's attorneys have won most of the asylum cases they've represented for adults, and she's now appealing the decision in the Honduran boy's case. Despite the discouraging odds, she will continue taking on children's cases. "We'll do something.... We're talking about the most marginalized, victimized group: children who don't speak English. Who don't have anyone to speak for them. And who don't understand what's happening. It's a very vulnerable group."

Kasusky says when she talks to people about her work, she tries hard to communicate "that we're not making up wild and crazy arguments to get [the children] to stay here. We're not talking about going in there and saving every single person. We recognize that many of them don't have the legal ability to stay here in the U.S. But that doesn't mean their representation should be diminished in any way." Just being in court with them "is a huge, huge benefit for these kids," Kasusky says. "And making sure: Does this child have a safe place to go home? Or is he afraid to go back?" It's easy to depersonalize them by calling them "minors" or "juveniles," she added. But "we try to focus on the fact that they are still children. And they need help more than anyone."

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