The most controversial person in Charlotte right now could be a 9-year-old who wears plastic flowers in her hair and refuses to leave the house without a teddy bear she calls Linda.
Her name is Ligsdenis Ochoa, and she is the first child known to be in Charlotte as part of the government’s effort to deal with a flood of immigrant children from Central and South America streaming over the U.S. border.
She arrived in Charlotte last month to be reunited with her mother, after a trek from Honduras that had her hiking for days, crossing rivers and clinging to the tops of freight trains. She was accompanied by her grandmother, a woman in her 50s who is being held in a Texas detention facility.
“I saw a lot of other children on the way, without parents,” Ligsdenis said last week through an interpreter. “We would not talk a lot to each other. I did not make friends. When we did talk, it was to compare our cuts and bruises. ... I was tired, hungry.”
The government says up to 90,000 children will arrive on their own in the United States this year, compared with about 39,000 the Border Patrol detained last year. Many are coming in hopes of being reunited with parents or relatives already established in the U.S.
It’s being called a humanitarian crisis for a federal system ill-prepared to feed and shelter tens of thousands of children, many of whom are said to have health problems.
But beyond that, the surge appears to have sparked a long-simmering anger in the nation over the inability to prevent people from crossing the border at will – or to send them home once they’re caught.
Protests have erupted in a number of towns against federal attempts to bus children into those communities for housing, and governors of states such as Nebraska, Maryland and Connecticut have challenged immigrant relocations involving their states. On the other side, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said this week he was prepared to shelter up to 1,000 kids there.
Gov. Pat McCrory said he recently told federal officials that North Carolina wants to be notified if groups of unaccompanied children are to be sent here. “We need to be able to approve whether or not they come here because we have to do an evaluation on the cost on our Medicaid, education and foster home community,” he said.
Mecklenburg County officials also are asking questions, believing it’s just a matter of time before groups of children begin arriving.
“If they plan on asking me whether I would accept them, the answer is a clear ‘ no.’ Not one,” Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James said.
Yet, one child already is here, and immigrant advocates are poised for more to follow.
They may not come in bus loads, as some fear, but one by one, released to their families from federal holding facilities while awaiting deportation hearings that could be years away.
Extortion and rape
In April, Ligsdenis says she and her grandmother grabbed what they could and fled the town of Atlantida on the north Caribbean shore of Honduras. It has had the highest murder rate in the world since 2010, resulting in consistent travel warnings for U.S. citizens.
Yessica Ochoa, the girl’s mother, says the family has been victimized by criminals for years in Honduras because Ligsdenis’ dad is a police officer who participated in arrests of gang members.
Ochoa says she ended her relationship with the girl’s father and came to Charlotte for work in 2006, but gang members tracked her down by phone. “They told me that if I didn’t pay them, they would hurt my daughter. I started making deposits of $200, and the price kept going up.”
When the cost became unaffordable, she stopped paying and changed her number. However, she says threats then escalated against her mother in Honduras. Ochoa says it became clear her daughter was at risk for the same beatings and sexual assaults that had befallen other family members.
“I left my daughter in Honduras thinking I would only stay gone long enough to earn enough money for us to find some place else safe to move, but then it became too unsafe for me to return,” Ochoa said.
“When the men (extorting her) couldn’t find me to get their money, my worst fear is that my mother and my daughter would be killed. I told them to do whatever it takes to get to the United States. Leave now and come to me.”
When Ligsdenis tells stories of the journey here, it’s less about the details and more about the extremes she and her grandmother experienced.
The worst of times, she says, had them living without food and water, and walking for days in the hot sun until their feet bled. At night, she said, they slept under bushes, covering themselves with plastic or big leaves.
Occasionally, they took a bus, she said. However, much of the trip was spent riding atop freight cars on a northbound train, the infamous La Bestia (The Beast).
It is estimated that nearly half a million migrants a year ride atop the train in an effort to reach the U.S. Many get killed or seriously injured on the trip, explaining the train’s other nickname “El tren de la muerte,” or The Death Train.
“We would get hurt running to jump on the train. I got a lot of cuts,” Ligsdenis said. “On the top, we held on to whatever we could grab, trying not to fall off. It was very windy.”
The trip took weeks and came to what she hoped would be a happy ending when the pair were ushered into the Rio Grande by men who got in the water and helped them across. Ligsdenis is not clear on whether the men were paid to smuggle them in, as has been the case with many of the children.
“When we were caught (by border patrol agents), I was relieved, but then they didn’t treat us well,” she says. “They locked us up, and I saw they had guns, and I wondered if they were as bad as the ones we left behind in Honduras.”
Ligsdenis was eventually separated from her grandmother and flown to a holding facility in Michigan. She was held there three and a half weeks before being released into the custody of her mother, who is herself an undocumented immigrant, not legally in the country.
When the pair reunited at Charlotte Douglas International Airport on June 18, it was their first meeting in eight years.
Ligsdenis now awaits a deportation hearing that could send her right back to Honduras.
Refugee vs. immigrant
Don’t call Ligsdenis an immigrant, advocates for such children say.
“She and the other children are refugees,” said Armando Bellmas of Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition. “Her life was in danger in a lawless home country. She was fleeing and she has come here seeking asylum.”
Coalition officials say their organization stands ready to aid those children who make it to Charlotte, including helping them find family members in the area. The coalition also is making plans to coordinate rallies, forums and political crusades in support of the children.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama asked Congress for $3.7 billion to deal with the crisis.
His request has been coolly received by many in Congress, with critics insisting he already has enough money and authority to secure the border. Plus, they say, the $3.7 billion includes millions of dollars for unrelated things such as fighting wildfires along the border.
“The president has done a brilliant political tactic in making it look like he needs more money to re-enforce the border,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, who represents part of South Carolina just south of Charlotte.
“If you support the supplemental request, you’re buying into his narrative that the only reason he’s having difficulties is that he doesn’t have enough money. That’s false. If you vote against it, he can say you are not for enforcing the border. It’s a lose-lose situation.”
As for the children pouring across the border: “Send them home immediately,” he said. “I know that sounds heartless to some people, but ... the only way to stop people from showing up at the border is to have pictures of children getting on airplanes and going back to Central and South America.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina agrees that most of the children should be returned but is less specific about how fast.
“While these children should be treated humanely and with respect, we have a responsibility to uphold the rule of law in our country, and most of the children will ultimately have to be sent back to their home countries,” she said in a statement.
Republicans are working on a proposal to stem the tide more quickly by changing laws that many agree have contributed to the crisis.
One of those laws, passed in 2008 under the Bush administration, was intended to protect immigrant children from being brought into the country by sex traffickers. It applies specifically to children from countries that don’t share a border with the U.S.
Under the law, Central American children picked up after crossing the border are turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services and given extra legal protections (including a hearing before a judge) that makes it harder to return them home quickly.
Republicans want to speed up that process, but immigrant advocates oppose that move, claiming the U.S. would be abandoning the children most in need of protection.
Republican U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson of Concord is co-sponsor of a bill that would enable unaccompanied children to be returned promptly to Central America, by applying the same guidelines used for unaccompanied kids from other nations.
“My heart breaks for these children who are forced to trek hundreds of miles while being subjected to unimaginable hardships and abuse,” Hudson said in a statement. “It is imperative that we reunite them with their families in their home countries to ensure their safety and discourage other unaccompanied minors from enduring this dangerous journey.”
U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, supports changing the law. He also doesn’t believe most of the children are refugees seeking political asylum.
“I don’t blame them for coming, but can America service the whole world?” he said. “We’re already going bankrupt. Whether it’s Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, every social program we have is in deep want of funding that we don’t have. ... We don’t have the financial capacity to take on the world.”
Burden of proof
It could be four years before Ligsdenis actually has a deportation court hearing, because of a backlog of 350,000 cases, experts say.
That may sound like good news for her mother, but those same experts say it will be extremely tough for Ochoa to prove her daughter is a refugee.
“They have to prove that the child had a well-founded fear of harm, abuse or incarceration based on race, religion, nationality or membership in a social group,” said immigration attorney Miguel Manna in Raleigh.
“There is no doubt these countries are bad. They’re failed states. But in this case, it’s about their government’s inability to protect its citizens from crime ... not persecution as part of a social group.”
It’s possible, he said, that an attorney might argue Ligsdenis’ father was part of a persecuted social group because he was a cop. But again, the family would need to show proof they were being threatened, Manna said.
Ochoa, who works as a house painter, remains determined. She hired an attorney and is working to raise $3,500 for a bond needed to get her increasingly fragile mother out of detention in Texas and moved to Charlotte.
Meanwhile, Ligsdenis is adapting quickly to the new world of Charlotte, despite continued nightmares about her journey.
Mother and daughter are now inseparable, and Ligsdenis has fallen in love with Chicken McNuggets, the Discovery Kids Channel and Carowinds amusement park.
She’s also infatuated with the Disney animated movie “Frozen,” even to the point of singing its songs to people she meets around Charlotte.
“Frozen” is the story of a young girl who goes on an epic journey in the snow to find her only sister. Ligsdenis can relate, though Charlotte has yet to supply the most important ingredient.
“I want to see what snow is like,” she says. “When is it going to start snowing here?”