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‘Border children’ struggle to adjust to life in Charlotte

Ligsdenis Ochoa, 10, has had counseling to help her cope with nightmares and aggression, says her mother, Yessica Ochoa.
Ligsdenis Ochoa, 10, has had counseling to help her cope with nightmares and aggression, says her mother, Yessica Ochoa. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

It was just last year that a 9-year-old Honduran girl named Ligsdenis Ochoa waded across the Rio Grande into the United States, as part of a flood of 67,000 Central American children seeking asylum from gang violence in their home countries.

She eventually reunited with a long-lost mother in Charlotte, becoming one of nearly 500 children who settled here while awaiting immigration court hearings. At that time, Mecklenburg County had the nation’s 13th-highest population of unaccompanied minors linked to the crisis. The number is now up to nearly 640.

An estimated 25 percent to 30 percent of those 640 will find a way to stay legally in the country.

Ligsdenis, who was profiled in a July 2014 Observer article, is among the lucky ones, thanks to Charlotte attorneys who took her case at no fee.

The attorneys’ work is one example of a broader initiative called the Charlotte Compassion Action Network for Children, created by community leaders to support the hundreds of unaccompanied children who suddenly showed up with no money and few belongings.

Charlotte CAN members say they’ve had many victories in the past year, including successful court petitions that permanently reunited families. But there have been heartbreaking moments, too, including kids who brought report cards to legal meetings, desperate to believe good grades would win them a right to stay with their parents.

I had to tell her that she was just a child and she had to learn to live like a child.

Maria Portillo, talking about her daughter Erika

Advocates also have seen kids at the opposite end of the spectrum, who told immigration officials they’d changed their minds and did not want to stay here, no matter the dangers that faced them back home. In such cases, the children have 120 days to leave and their family must find a way to pay for the trip home.

“Some have come to court with their plane tickets in hand. They just want to go back home,” said Kathryn Coiner-Collier of the Immigrant Assistance Project at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.

“America wasn’t what they thought it would be, all rainbows and butterflies,” she said. “Imagine being reunited with a family member you’ve never met, living in their homes, following their rules, having to respect them. And then (the children) are thrown into a school where they don’t speak the language.

“Can you imagine taking ninth-grade biology when you don’t speak English? And then they go home at night and nobody can help them with their homework?”

Emotional cost

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a factor, experts say. The children fled countries where they often were terrorized by gang violence and drug-related killings. And the journey to the United States too often included more violence, including sexual assaults at the hands of men paid to smuggle the children across the border.

Many are adjusting quickly to their new life in Charlotte. But the emotional fallout of PTSD is causing problems for some children who’ve become rebellious or combative. Others have even run away from home before the courts decided their fate. By running, they are likely to face automatic deportation if caught.

Experts believe most of the runaways are living with family or friends. However, it’s possible something criminal happened to them, such as being taken in by the sex trade or forced labor. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is ultimately responsible for their well-being, but doesn’t have enough staff to keep a close watch on the cases, officials said. In July, ORR instituted a hotline so children could call to report abuse.

Legal Services of Southern Piedmont recently had cards printed up with the hotline number, which it passes out to children at immigration court.

“I don’t want to say they are getting trafficked and abused, but some of them are,” said Coiner-Collier, who fears the missing children have unknowingly put themselves in danger.

“I think some are getting harmed, but is that harm better or worse than what they received in the country they came from? I’m not saying that justifies it. For some of them, a bad situation here is better than what they came from.”

Optimistic but troubled

Ligsdenis Ochoa is 10 now, living with her mother and stepfather, and attending fourth grade at Idlewild Elementary.

Ligsdenis Ochoa is 10 has learned to cope in school by getting friends to translate what the teacher is saying.

Her English is still not good, but she has learned to cope in school by getting friends to translate what the teacher is saying. Her dream is to be a “hairdresser for the stars.”

She loves the United States, thinks McNuggets are heavenly and believes grade school is the best idea ever.

She was aggressive to her little brother and she would wake up in the middle of the night crying from nightmares.

Yessica Ochoa, on her child’s need for counseling

But like so many other children caught in the crisis, her optimism masks deep troubles. Counseling has been required, says her mother, Yessica Ochoa. “She was aggressive to her little brother and she would wake up in the middle of the night crying from nightmares,” Ochoa said.

Parents of other children profiled by the Observer report similar problems, including the mother of Erika, 11, and Nelson Portillo, 15. The two came to Charlotte in February 2014 to find a mother they hadn’t seen in seven years.

Both children have needed counseling to overcome the impact of abuses suffered back in Honduras, including beatings and being forced to work in coffee fields to earn money for relatives.

Nelson had long ago assumed the role of being Erika’s parent to keep her alive, and he even carried her during parts of their journey on foot to the United States. But he couldn’t let go of that responsibility, even after they were safely in Charlotte.

“He was strong-willed and tried to control the entire family,” says his mother, Maria Portillo, who pays the family’s bills by working with her husband as a house painter. “If we wanted to go out to eat, he would tell us ‘No, you can’t go.’ It was his way or no way. He drove me crazy.”

Erika was just the opposite, acting overly submissive. She insisted on doing the cooking for the household, which was part of her routine back in Honduras.

“She would come into my room at 5 a.m. every morning, expecting to start cooking tortillas,” says her mother. “I had to tell her that she was just a child and she had to learn to live like a child. There would be no working in the morning. I was not going to beat her for not getting up to cook for everyone. It was hard for her to understand.”

Resilient children

Attorney Tin T. Nguyen, who is handling the family’s case pro bono, said many of the 40 immigrant children helped by his firm, Central Law Group, have exhibited symptoms of trauma. He’s heard stories of children demanding to go home, but it hasn’t happened with his cases, which include Ligsdenis Ochoa.

Nguyen says he’s optimistic about the future of the children in the United States, after noticing how Erika mastered English in just a few months. His own parents were unaccompanied minors from Vietnam who came to the United States in the 1970s as a result of the Vietnam War. He says they succeeded thanks to the kindness of Americans, and he wants the same for children like Erika and Nelson.

I’m impressed with the resilience of these children and their courage in facing these challenges square on.

Tin Nguyen, immigration attorney

“I believe in the United States and the opportunities here,” he says. “And I’m impressed with the resilience of these children and their courage in facing these challenges square on.”

This region has been a major destination for the unaccompanied minors, partly because of a growing Hispanic population and also because this is home to the state’s immigration court. The city was even under consideration as a shelter site for unaccompanied minors awaiting court proceedings, but that step was later deemed unnecessary.

Nguyen was a founder of Charlotte CAN, which had an early mission of recruiting attorneys to work pro bono on the children’s immigration cases. That’s still a need, but the coalition has broadened itself to be a resource for public and private programs that will help the children get basics such as food and medical care.

Complex challenges

Schooling has emerged as a new front in the cause.

Communities In Schools, which is part of Charlotte CAN, recently hired four people to be immigrant services coordinators at schools with a high population of recently arrived immigrants. The schools include Albemarle Road Elementary, Eastway Middle, Garinger High and Harding High.

Federico Rios, who directs immigrant services for Communities In Schools, said CMS finds itself dealing with children from countries where mandatory education ended at the fifth grade. In some cases, the children were living in areas so isolated that they didn’t go to school, he said.

And getting good grades is only one of the hurdles they face, he said.

“Yesterday, one of our site coordinators conducted a home visit and the person who is functioning as a sponsor for one of the children told us the child’s parents back in Guatemala didn’t want the child going to school. They wanted the child to work and send money back so the rest of the family could eat,” said Rios.

If you were that child and you knew your family was going to starve, what would you do?

Federico Rios, immigration services director for Communities in Schools

“If you were that child and you knew your family was going to starve, what would you do?”

That student is just 16 years old.

The border crisis

An estimated 67,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America traveled to the United States in 2014, in an attempt to escape gang violence and some of the world’s highest murder rates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Most voluntarily presented themselves to border patrols on arrival, in hopes of relying on a special “anti-trafficking” statute created to thwart criminals who trafficked in minors.

The influx overwhelmed border patrols, immigration courts and shelters. The flood has dropped by nearly 40 percent this year. However, the immigration courts are so backed up that experts predict it could take years for the children’s cases to be settled.

Nearly 640 are living with parents or relatives in the Charlotte area, and the number continues to grow, as the flow of children crossing the border continues, though at a slower pace. Those of school age are required to be enrolled in the school system.

How to help

The Charlotte Compassion Action Network for Children (Charlotte CAN) is in need of the following:

  • Attorneys to take on a child’s case pro bono. Sign up with the Legal Services of the Southern Piedmont: www.lssp.org/volunteer You do not have to be an immigration attorney to help. Training will be provided.
  • Mental health professionals (Spanish-speaking preferred). Email Laura Camillo at LSSP: laurac@lssp.org
  • Creative ideas on how people and organizations can help the children get involved in extracurricular activities such as arts, sports and music. Email Kathryn Coiner-Collier at LSSP: kathrync@lssp.org.
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