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Saturday, November 18, 2017

By Jeremy Redmon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

CEDARTOWN, Ga. — It didn’t take Shad and Connie Ayers long to decide Alex Gomez Carrillo should join their family.

The couple spent a few days determining they had enough income to support the 17-year-old Guatemalan along with their two children. They could convert their unused dining room into a bedroom for him. Above all, they decided taking in Alex was the right thing to do.

Alex is among tens of thousands of Central American children and teens who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without their parents since last year. Many say they are fleeing deprivation and gang violence in their native countries.

The surge of juveniles has prompted angry protests across the country. Saying the children would be a burden on taxpayers, U.S. flag-waving demonstrators in Murrieta, California blocked busloads of the children and their parents from entering their town in July. That same month, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal fired off a blistering letter to President Barack Obama about the hundreds of immigrant children and teens who have been placed in the care of sponsors in Georgia this year. Deal told Obama that Georgia has received a “disproportionate number of refugee placements over the past few years.”

In contrast, the Ayerses have welcomed Alex with open arms. Their Baptist faith and their immigrant ancestry — her forebears migrated to the United States from Mexico and he is the descendant of Irish immigrants — also figured in their decision to welcome Alex. Connie Ayers thought to herself: “What if I was in that situation and I needed help, would there be somebody there to help me?”

Ayers is now seeking in court to become the teenager’s guardian, which could allow him to obtain legal status here.

“I can’t sit back and watch someone suffer or be sent to a place where they are going to be hurt when I can do something about it,” said Ayers, who was born in Texas and grew up, like her husband, a few hundred miles north of the Mexican border.

Alex said the Ayerses have quickly become his family.

“Connie treats me like I am her son,” he said in Spanish with Connie Ayers translating for him. “I have shoes. I have clothes. I have everything … not like in Guatemala. It’s a different life.”

Connie Ayers first met Alex while attending a local church during the summer of last year. Alex told her he grew up in poverty in Guatemala, living with eight other siblings in an adobe house with dirt floors and no indoor plumbing. Food and clothing were scarce. He started working as a young boy, selling candy and ice cream to help support his family while missing years of education. He described a troubled relationship with his father. And he said a local gang member threatened to kill him.

Fearing for his life, Alex set off for America in May of last year, paying coyotes — or smugglers — to help him along the way. He traveled with a group of strangers by car across Guatemala and then set off on foot at the Mexican border. At times, the coyotes concealed him in a barrel and in a refrigerator. In all, it took him more than two weeks to finally cross the Rio Grande.

Federal immigration authorities apprehended him on the other side of the river. They put him in deportation proceedings before releasing him last year to the care of an older brother, who is also living without legal status in Cedartown.

So far this fiscal year, authorities have apprehended 66,127 unaccompanied children and teens like Alex on the southwest border, or nearly twice the number arrested by the same time last fiscal year. The surge of children has jammed immigration court dockets and prompted Obama to ask Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to respond to the crisis. Congressional Republicans have pushed for a lower figure.

After befriending Alex, Connie Ayers drove him to his deportation hearing in downtown Atlanta in the summer of last year.

The judge scheduled a new hearing for Alex so he could find a lawyer. Ayers quickly found Rocky Rawcliffe, a local immigration attorney. Rawcliffe persuaded the judge to continue Alex’s deportation case until April while the teen seeks relief from deportation.

Meanwhile, with the help of another attorney, Tracie Klinke, Ayers is asking the Polk County Juvenile Court to declare Alex dependent upon the state and to approve her as his legal guardian. If the court grants that request, Alex could apply for a form of relief for children who are unable to be reunited with their parents. He could get a green card through the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status program.

Ayers giggled about how she had impulsively offered to take in Alex before consulting her husband.

“I was like, ‘Wait a minute. Stop. Timeout,’ ” Shad Ayers recalled, laughing about his wife.

He thought about it for a few days, wondering whether Alex would fit in with their family and if they could afford to care for him. Then he and his wife invited Alex to their modest home for a cookout. Sitting in their den, they told Alex they expected him to respect them, go to school, and stay out of trouble. He agreed and moved in with them in July.

The transition hasn’t been easy. Shad Ayers works full time for a telecommunications company. And Connie Ayers is taking nursing classes while caring for Alex and her 13-year-old daughter, Alexis. After helping them with their lessons, she sometimes doesn’t get to her nursing homework until after midnight. The Ayerses’ 20-year-old son, Bobby, and Alex take turns sleeping on the couch. And their home has only one shower, so “the bathing schedule is awful,” Connie Ayers said.

So far, Alex has kept his promises. He’s doing well in school. And he voluntarily helps around the house, cleaning dishes, doing laundry, and sweeping.

“Nobody bothers me,” he said. “It’s a happy life.”

Asked about his future, Alex said he wants to become a U.S. citizen, go to college, and study to become a teacher. He also wants to become a professional soccer player. And an architect. He has lots of plans. And the Ayerses say they will be there to support him along the way.

AFP Photo/Mark Ralston

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