LOS ANGELES | At 1-year-old, a wide-eyed, restless Joshua Tinoco faces the prospect of deportation to his native Honduras, one of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last year.
While his teenage mother has been allowed to stay in the U.S. and seek a green card under a federal program for abused, abandoned and neglected children, Joshua has been classified as an enforcement priority by immigration prosecutors, his lawyer said.
“I fought so much for him to be here with me and now they yank him from my hands,” said Dunia Bueso, the boy’s now-18-year-old mother. “How is the child going to go there alone, and with no one to take care of him?”
Today, like Joshua, many of the children who arrived from Central America still have cases churning through the immigration courts and don’t know what the outcome will be. Those fleeing gang violence and domestic strife have applied for asylum or the government’s program for abandoned children and are waiting for an answer.
Those who have won the right to stay in the country still face challenges in reuniting with family they haven’t seen in years, attending school in a foreign language and coping with the trauma they fled or debts owed to relatives or the smugglers who brought them.
More than 57,000 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras arrived on the border in the last fiscal year, and since then another 18,000, government statistics show. Immigration courts have fast-tracked the cases in a bid to stem a growing backlog.
It’s difficult, however, to know how many are winning; so far, roughly 6,200 of the children who arrived since July have been issued deportation orders, mostly for failing to attend court, but as many asylum applications were filed by children between October and March.
Immigrant advocates fear too many children are hard-pressed to find lawyers and say many are bona fide asylum seekers fleeing gang violence and rape. But border enforcement supporters doubt those handed deportation orders will be sent home as the Obama administration would face political backlash from putting children on a plane, especially when their family is here.
“Once the kids were let into the United States, the game was up,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants more limits on immigration.
Bueso can’t believe the United States would make her send her son somewhere no one will care for him; Joshua’s father is not involved in his life, she said, and her grandmother is ill.
While busing through Mexico with her infant son was difficult, Bueso said things are looking up now that she can stay. She is living with her uncle in a Los Angeles neighborhood lined with liquor stores and bail bond businesses, where she is attending school for the first time since she was 10.
While obtaining legal status is a huge relief for many of the children, it doesn’t solve all of their problems, especially those still running from memories of violence.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles, another teen relishes her newfound safety from the drug traffickers who abducted her on her way home from school in Guatemala at age 16, held her for weeks in the forest and repeatedly raped her until a ransom secured her release. She now has asylum, but sleeps no more than two hours at a time each night due to near constant nightmares, making it difficult to focus in school.
“I remember something, and my dreams kill me,” she said. The Associated Press does not name sexual assault victims.
Children reuniting with family they haven’t seen in years may have a hard time adjusting, as well as those staying with distant relatives or family friends who expect them to pay their way. Some teens strike out on their own or may wind up in a youth shelter.
In Southern California, Marvin Velasco, now 15, was kicked out of a family friend’s home after the man didn’t want to feed him. The Guatemalan teen, who arrived on the border last fall after his parents had sent him to work selling clothes instead of school, sought help from a local church, and a woman there took him in.
In Central Florida, many teens have jobs picking oranges and berries in the fields to cover living costs or pay off smugglers, and few attend school, said Kira Romero-Craft, director of the children’s legal program at Americans for Immigrant Justice, a nonprofit immigration law firm.
The U.S. government agency that screens sponsors before releasing children to their custody doesn’t track how often family relationships break down. But officials recently started a hotline for kids to call if they run into trouble or have nowhere to stay.
Immigration lawyers say they expect more rulings on children’s deportation cases to start coming this summer and fall. Whether that will translate into more children returning to their countries remains unknown.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they reach out to children with deportation orders whose cases are considered a priority and encourage them to follow the court’s instructions, but that only works if they can find them.
So far this fiscal year, the agency has sent 1,325 unaccompanied children back to their countries, mostly boys in their mid-late teens, government statistics show. Most were in the government’s custody since arriving here or asked to go home, officials said, adding that younger children usually traveled with a teen parent or elder sibling.
More than 95 percent of children who arrived on the border last fiscal year were released to family or other sponsors, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
So were Joshua and his mother, who were flown to California after a few weeks at a Texas shelter. In June, the boy’s lawyer asked an immigration judge to put his case on hold, especially since Bueso can seek a green card for him in a few years.
For now, Bueso and her uncle must keep going to immigration court hearings to determine the boy’s fate. Joshua, who refused to sit still during his last court appearance, has been allowed to stay home.