To Help a Dreamer, Why Do We Have to Hurt Her Cousin?

by Sonia Nazario   on October 27, 2017   publication:

Last August, Lesli Gonzalez, 22, got a phone call at 6 a.m. Did she know Doralinda Lopez de León, a Guatemalan girl who said she was running from danger and had been caught by border patrol agents entering the United States? Yes, Lesli said, she’s my cousin.

Doralinda, 17, had crossed into the United States alone, without a parent. That meant she was “unaccompanied,” a designation that triggers special, well-deserved protections for children who were once routinely targeted by traffickers at the border. Instead of being quickly deported, Central American minors are allowed to enter the United States and make their case that they qualify to stay in this country legally before an immigration judge.

This month, President Trump told Congress that to give legal status to Dreamers like Lesli, whose Mexican parents brought her to the United States unlawfully when she was 3 months old, they must strip protections from children like her cousin Doralinda.

To Lesli, this cruel Catch-22 is not a trade-off that Congress should be forced to make: securing legal status for people like her while throwing Doralinda to the wolves. It’s not just a choice for Congress. This moment should force a reckoning for everyone in this country. Are we going to use child refugees running from harm as a negotiating chip?

Doralinda told me that despite desperate circumstances growing up, she always preferred to stay in the land she loves: Guatemala.

Her father died when she was 7. Her mother then severely neglected her six children, forcing Doralinda to quit school after the sixth grade to clean houses so that her brothers could keep studying. Often, all she could feed them were tortillas with salt, which Doralinda cooked over firewood she collected in the forest.

When she was 14, her mother sent her to wash clothes for a man she knew from church. When Doralinda entered his home, he chained the door shut. As Doralinda screamed for help, the man, twice her size, threw her on the bed, ripped off her clothes and raped her. Then he brandished a gun. “Don’t kill me,” she pleaded. If she told anyone, the man warned, he would hunt her down wherever she was, rape her again, and kill her and her brothers.

The girl’s grandmother insisted on taking her to the nearest police station to report the crime. The rapist, whom Doralinda soon learned was part of a drug-trafficking family, told Doralinda’s mother to withdraw the report or he would exterminate everyone in her family.

“I was very scared,” Doralinda said. She fled; each time she felt someone was watching her, she moved again, first elsewhere in Guatemala, then three more times in Mexico. She battled nightmares: Her rapist was shooting, drowning, stabbing her, lurking under her bed. She became suicidal. She was living with her aunt’s family in Hermosillo, Mexico, when five men surrounded her cousin’s husband and stabbed him in the heart. Was the hit ordered by her rapist? This time she ran to the United States. “I came because I lived in fear of being killed,” she said.

Now Doralinda’s fate is tied to her cousin’s. The president is pitting Dreamers, one group of vulnerable children brought here by their parents, against perhaps the most vulnerable group of children, those who arrive here alone. Most of this population — around 60,000 young people, apprehended in fiscal year 2016 — are children fleeing horrific gang and drug cartel violence in one of the most dangerous places on earth, in Central America, and who often make terrifying, sometimes lethal, journeys to beg for safety at our border.

The move has rightly set child advocates’ hair on fire. “We are going to trade little children fleeing violence for older children who have lived their whole lives in America. It’s disgusting,” said Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice program at the Women’s Refugee Commission.

The United States is in the throes of a great debate: Do we want — can we afford — to remain a safe haven for people who, unlike economic migrants, come here running for their lives? This year the administration slashed the number of refugees the United States will allow by more than half.

We are at risk of becoming a country that turns its back on the most vulnerable: children from neighboring countries who show up at our border with no parents and no place to turn. And yet, in a response to a renewed uptick in the number of these children arriving at our border, that’s who we are turning our backs on first.

Lesli is desperate to not lose the temporary legal status she received when she applied four years ago for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It changed everything. She no longer had to live in fear of being stopped by police or ICE agents in her hometown, Loganville, Ga. She could drive. Working as an elementary school teaching aide, she managed to save enough to start a year at Kennesaw State University, even though Dreamers in Georgia must pay out-of-state tuition, which can be more than twice as much as in-state tuition. Stressing that her father worked 14-hour days picking tobacco so that she wouldn’t have to, she says, “I won’t let anything stop me.”

Still, she refuses to believe that Doralinda — who crawls into bed with Lesli when she wakes herself up screaming with nightmares — must be harmed by this country’s policies if Lesli is to be helped, that one woman could be happy and the other could be left fighting for her life.

“A country like ours should say: We value your life, we value you as a human. We are going to help you,” she told me.

Instead, the opposite is happening. An administration that came to power fueled by anti-immigrant fervor has increased arrests of immigrants who are in the country illegally by 43 percent. Just in the past few days, a 10-year-old girl — certainly not one of the “bad hombres” Mr. Trump once spoke of — was detained after undergoing emergency surgery.

In September, the administration said it was ending DACA, which had allowed Lesli and nearly 800,000 others brought unlawfully to the United States as children by their parents to temporarily legalize. Now their target is children who migrate alone and are seeking safety — boys are often fleeing forced gang recruitment; girls are escaping the clutches of gangsters who force them to be their girlfriend.

The Trump administration is doing away with protections for these children on multiple fronts.

The president has proposed that Congress scrap a 1997 legal settlement that requires these children be detained in the least restrictive setting and quickly released to a parent or guardian. He would no longer allow children to go to more child-sensitive asylum officers, and they would instead face adversarial immigration court hearings. He wants to severely restrict visas for children who can show they have been neglected or abused by a parent — a remedy that has been the most successful path to legalize these children.

Perhaps most important, he has called on Congress to undo a 2008 law requiring that instead of being quickly deported, children who aren’t Mexican or Canadian are allowed into the United States and spend about a month in child-friendly detention shelters or foster care homes as authorities vet a parent or guardian the child can be released to while they wait for their case to go to court.

Instead, the president would have a border patrol agent decide whether a child faces danger if turned away. The problem: Studies show that border patrol agents, who have always been asked to play this role with Mexican unaccompanied children, have failed to identify hardly any children at risk. A 2015 Government Accountability Office report found that border patrol agents returned 95 percent of Mexican children, even when there were signs some had been trafficked.

In August, the administration partially canceled a program that allowed children deemed in immediate danger in Central America to apply for a chance to travel legally to the United States. Some 2,700 children who had been approved were left stranded. In September, the administration announced an additional phasing out of a refugee program for these children.

The administration has sought to discourage the flow of children arriving at the border by asking the ones who do show up to provide the address and name of their parents — and then using the information to go after the parents and deport them.

In the midst of all of this, the administration is also trying to redefine who should be considered unaccompanied. In a radical reinterpretation of the 2002 Homeland Security Act, a September memo by the Executive Office for Immigration Review told judges they had the right to strip away the protections if a minor turned 18 during court proceedings that can drag on for years or was reunified with a parent in the United States. Child advocates fear the next step — the administration’s ultimate intent — is to begin expedited removal of children, says Jennifer Podkul, director of policy at Kids in Need of Defense, a group that recruits lawyers to represent unaccompanied migrant youth pro bono. (I am on the board of that organization.)

To be clear, it is, at this moment, legal to present yourself at our border and ask for safety. Our government has not lost all decency: We still treat innocent children with some kindness. We demand border patrol not lock them up for more than 72 hours in jail cells, transfer them to child-friendly detention shelters and let them make their case to a judge that they qualify to stay here legally. But we must do more: Six in 10 unaccompanied children — some are toddlers — are standing in immigration court alone, with no legal representation to help them make their case for asylum. I watched a 7-year-old stand before a judge, shaking like a leaf, because anything he said could send him hurtling back to the danger he just fled.

Dreamers, despite having the most to lose, have been most adamant in rejecting Trump’s proposals. “It’s a white nationalist racist wish list,” says Cristina Jiménez, executive director and co-founder of United We Dream.

Democrats must stand by unaccompanied children. They cannot negotiate away the rights of people like Doralinda and 13-year-old José Geovanny Mejía Lopez, who recently arrived from Honduras.

Brenda Aviles, 25, a Dreamer who lives in Los Angeles County, cannot accept any deal that would legalize her but harm José, the nephew of her partner.

Both of José’s parents — first his father, then his mother — abandoned him when he was very young to live in the United States. José was doing all right until his father, who is violent, drinks and uses drugs, was deported back to Honduras. His aunt Kenia Lizeth Mejía Peña, Brenda’s partner, looked after José, but she left for the United States in 2012 to make money to buy medicines for her mother, who had diabetes and cancer. When Kenia’s mother died in 2015, only José’s grandfather, an alcoholic, and José’s father were left to care for him.

José’s father beat his son often. He once whipped the boy with a belt so hard that he left José’s legs and back bleeding.

“The neighbors were afraid of him. No one did anything,” the boy said, his voice cracking, his almond-shaped eyes brimming with tears when I met with him at the family’s cramped one-bedroom apartment. “He treated me like I was nothing,” He would leave José alone at home for weeks. Often there was no food to eat. At 12, weighing 62 pounds, his face looked emaciated. José feared telling anyone. But his Aunt Kenia noticed something was wrong: When she called from Los Angeles, he was home during school hours, and was alone last Christmas.

Worse, the Ultra Fiel gang had moved into José’s neighborhood. They saw in José a boy who had little parental supervision, someone ripe for recruitment.

A dozen gangsters began to surround José as he walked 30 minutes to school each day. “I thought they could hurt me,” says José. “They kill and rape people.”

José loved school and has handwriting so pristine that it should be made into his own font. But he quit after the sixth grade because his father told him to. In the month before he left Honduras, two people were murdered close to his home.

On May 12, José crossed into Texas, near McAllen, ran as fast as he could for 30 minutes until he came to a big road, flagged down a border patrol cruiser and asked for safety. He was transferred to a detention shelter for immigrant children in New York. After a month, he was released to his Aunt Kenia and her partner, Brenda.

“I love everything here,” says José. “I like school best. I feel safe.” After two months in eighth grade, he has shot to the top of his class.

Brenda, who was brought to the United States when she was 12 by her Mexican parents, doesn’t think it’s fair that Mr. Trump has proposed trading the well-being of children like José for her legalization. DACA allowed her to leave an $8-an-hour job packing vegetables and fruits in a warehouse, where she sometimes had to put in 30 hours straight with no overtime, for a much better job that pays 50 percent more.

Four months ago, she started studying to be a phlebotomist. Next: classes to become a nurse. “If they take DACA away, I won’t be able to pay for my car, to study, to have a good job,” Brenda says.

Then, she glimpses José, playing and laughing outside in the family’s outdoor patio. “He has gone through so much,” she says. “It would have been his death to stay in Honduras.”

Every day, before each meal, José reads the Bible. He thanks God for what this country has given him. He always thanks God for four specific things: being with a loving family, that he is safe and feels free, that he has food and that he can go to school again. Above all, he always pauses over his plate of food and says, with a big smile, “Thank you, God, for letting me study.” 

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