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Legal hurdles ahead for child refugees in Charlotte

Mecklenburg County now has the nation’s 13th-highest population of unaccompanied children linked to the Mexican border crisis: nearly 500, federal officials say.

The impact is easily seen in Charlotte’s U.S. Justice Department Immigration Court, which revealed this week that 200 pending cases involving unaccompanied kids have been added to the docket since July 18.

Among the 200 are children such as Nelson Portillo, 14, and his sister, Erika, 10, who waded across the Rio Grande in February on their way to Charlotte to find their mother, who they hadn’t seen in seven years.

Experts say most of the 62,000 kids who’ve crossed the border this year will end up deported. But Nelson and Erika may be among the lucky ones.

Charlotte immigrant advocates have launched a large-scale legal initiative that has already recruited more than 50 attorneys to work at no charge for immigrant kids, using an assembly-line style strategy to win their cases.

That’s only part of the plan, however.

What began as a legal effort has since evolved into the Charlotte Compassion Action Network for Children, a community initiative that intends to cover a variety of needs of unaccompanied kids, including health, financial and educational aid.

Charlotte’s Latin American Coalition is a driving force behind the network, which is so new it wasn’t officially named until Friday. Fourteen area churches and religious organizations have joined so far, alongside key players such as Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, the Council for Children’s Rights and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Supporters also include Charlotte City Council member John Autry and Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham.

The effort is attracting national attention, with United Nations officials calling it a “model of compassion” for new gateway cities contending with fast-growing immigrant populations.

Charlotte’s immigration court is reportedly among the 10 busiest in the nation when it comes to cases involving unaccompanied children from Central America.

Like Nelson and Erika, the children have arrived largely over the past 10 months, with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

A long journey from Honduras

Most of the children who made the trip across the border are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, countries that are in upheaval from gang violence, human traffickers and drug cartels.

Neighborhoods there have become battlegrounds, immigrant advocates say, and the children are facing a choice of fleeing to the north or dying in the streets.

Nelson and Erika are part of the contingent from Honduras. Both speak only Spanish but have enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, which reported double the number of immigrant students registering for classes this spring compared with the year before.

The Portillo children arrived without telling their mother they were coming.

She’s a widow and says she left her children in the care of relatives seven years ago so she could come to Charlotte and earn money for their upbringing by painting houses. Maria is herself undocumented but is not facing deportation at this time.

Nelson says their lives in Honduras were nightmarish, with regular beatings, sparse food and an expectation that the two siblings would earn their grandmother money by working in the coffee fields and kitchens of their hometown. United Nations officials say about half the unaccompanied children they’ve surveyed have told a similar story.

It was Nelson’s idea to flee to the U.S. He began planning months in advance by skimming dollars from the money his mother was sending to his grandmother in Honduras. He intended to use it for bus tickets.

“When the time was right, we got up early one morning, put on two layers of clothes and sneaked out,” Nelson said through an interpreter. “We had just enough money to get to the next town. Then we got off and asked people for money until we had enough to buy another ticket.”

This went on for a month, with the two panhandling their way across four countries, sleeping on buses and eating only when they had spare change. To keep from getting lost, they tagged along behind sympathetic adults headed in the same direction, Erika said.

“I got scared, but when I started to cry my brother would hug me and kiss me and tell me it was going to get better,” she said through an interpreter. “When we finally got to the river (Rio Grande), I couldn’t swim, so my brother put me on his back, and he took me across.”

They walked out of the water and surrendered to border agents on Feb. 28, at which point Nelson presented their mother’s phone number. The pair were then taken to a shelter in Los Fresnos, Texas, run by the nonprofit International Education Services.

Maria Portillo, 33, says she was first in disbelief when an agent called her, then furious her children took such a risk. It took two months for the family to be reunited at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The norm is for parents to raise the money for the plane tickets, attorneys say.

“If they told me they were coming, I would have tried to stop them,” Maria said through an interpreter. “My anger changed when I saw them at the airport and noticed how small Nelson is. He doesn’t look 14 because he didn’t have enough to eat.”

Nelson and Erika are now part of the immigration court’s accelerated docket program, which is ushering unaccompanied children to the front of the line.

Maria Portillo knows it’s possible they will be deported back to the same relatives who had abused them. But she’d like to believe that won’t happen, thanks to the Charlotte Compassion Action Network.

Nelson already has big ideas to learn English and become an attorney.

Erika’s dreams are simpler: an endless supply of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets.

‘Rocket docket’

One of the nation’s busiest immigration courts sits just off Albemarle Road, in a corporate park where all the concrete buildings look the same.

There are no big signs for the court, no grand entrance and security guards don’t appear until you get to the fourth floor.

Justice Department officials are tight-lipped about much of what happens with juveniles, but some Charlotte attorneys paint a picture of kids being herded before judges and given instructions as a group.

“Rocket docket” is the term critics use for the approach, which is aimed at speeding up deportation proceedings to discourage more children from coming.

Word has spread and hundreds of immigrants have begun dodging court proceedings, rather than risk surrendering their children. On Monday of last week, 39 of 80 cases were no-shows.

Attorney Mark Bowers of Legal Services of Southern Piedmont says the no-shows also may be a matter of parents not even knowing they had a court date. “Things are moving that fast,” Bowers says. “Normally, we have two dockets (for children) a month. In August, we had nine.”

He believes the vast majority of the unaccompanied children in the country don’t have legal grounds to stay and will be eventually deported. However, he says Charlotte’s legal community has found a promising argument that could help hundreds such as Nelson and Erika stay.

It’s called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, a term for kids under 21 who can prove in a state family court that they were abandoned, abused or neglected by one or both of their parents. If the state chooses to award custody to a sponsor or relative in the U.S., attorneys can use special status to fight deportation and win permanent residency. (The parent is not required to have legal status to be awarded custody.)

The plan, organizers say, is to have one group of pro bono attorneys pursue the state court ruling, then pass the cases off to immigration attorneys for arguments against deportation in immigration court.

There is a downside, however. Only cases deemed “winnable” are being taken, Bowers says.

“I wake up in the middle of the night sometimes, wondering if by focusing on one child instead of another, we’re dooming them to go back to the unthinkable,” he says. “I wonder if they’ll likely die, or have to kill somebody.”

Being ‘abandoned’ a boon?

Tin Nguyen is the attorney representing Nelson and Erika for their mother at a reduced rate, and he believes they have a shot at Special Immigrant Juvenile Status because their father “abandoned” them in Honduras when he died.

On Sept. 2, their most recent immigration court date, the two were among 100 unaccompanied children on the docket. At least a third were no-shows.

The biggest challenge, Nguyen says, is convincing immigration judges to give children more time to make their cases. It can take weeks to coax children into opening up about the beatings, rapes and human trafficking, he says.

Nguyen’s firm, Central Law Group, is handling 15 cases so far, five at no fee.

“We’re being given two months to build a case that takes six months,” says Nguyen, who is chair of the pro bono committee of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “They are getting due process, but it’s due process lite, with everything sped up. It’s not the judges’ fault. They are following directives from above.”

The government has made no secret of its intent to accelerate cases for unaccompanied children. Lawsuits have been filed on the West Coast, claiming the children should get class-action status and their legal bills covered by the government. Charlotte advocates are closely watching those cases, realizing it could be a game-changer. For now, they’re operating under the assumption that any aid they get will be private dollars.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Bill James has been among the most outspoken critics of giving public aid to unaccompanied children.

James said Wednesday that the commission should deny a pending CMS request for $12.2 million in extra money because the school district is “spending millions of county tax dollars to educate illegals.”

Ron Woodard of the immigration reform group NC Listen says that organization also stands against giving federal or state dollars to help anyone not legally in the country.

“Tens of millions are standing in line as we speak around the world to migrate legally to the USA. We already allow more legal immigration to the USA each year than any other country on Earth,” he said in a statement. “We do not need to apologize for asking people to obey our immigration laws.”

Charlotte stepping up

It was Nguyen’s idea to start recruiting attorneys to work pro bono, after he learned free legal aid programs at Legal Services of Southern Piedmont were overwhelmed and turning away unaccompanied children.

Legal Services, a nonprofit, had been working on its own to find more attorneys. But Nguyen decided to go big and ask both nonprofit and private legal firms for help.

The Latin American Coalition learned of his efforts and came up with the idea of expanding it to cover a variety of critical needs for unaccompanied children.

Lacey Williams of the Latin American Coalition says crowds continue to grow at weekly meetings of the Compassion Action Network, suggesting to her that plenty of Charlotteans support helping the kids during what may be a short stay in the U.S.

“This isn’t necessarily about money,” she says. “It’s about Charlotte stepping up in a crisis, with different groups offering to do whatever they can. ... We’re all human, and we wouldn’t wish this on our own kids.”

Parents such as Maria Portillo are hoping for the same kind of compassion from immigration court judges. But she already has a backup plan.

“I didn’t want them to make that trip here, but my biggest fear is they will be deported back,” she says. “If they try to take my children, we would go to another place, another state, even another country. We would leave and start over.”

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