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Family Takes In Guatemalan Teen Who Crossed Border

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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Texas Schools Pressed To Accommodate Influx Of Young Immigrants

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

HOUSTON — A year ago, the Las Americas Newcomer Middle School in the low-income Gulfton neighborhood started the semester with 150 immigrant and refugee students. When the new school year began last month, enrollment skyrocketed to 325 students, most of them newly arrived from Central America.

“It’s put a burden on me because I’ve run out of space,” Principal Maria Moreno said of the school’s dozen portable classrooms set up behind another middle school. She hired five new teachers and a social worker, converted a teachers lounge and school police office into classrooms, and used surplus money to buy projectors, laptops, and desktop computers.

But she still had to turn away more than 100 students.

“That’s not going to stop,” Moreno said. “Since I can’t handle them, they’re going next door. But is next door equipped to handle them?”

That’s a question facing educators across the country. School districts from California to Georgia and Maryland have had to add bilingual programs and social services to help new immigrants, with Oakland hiring an “unaccompanied minor support services consultant.”

Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida, home to one of the country’s largest Honduran communities, has requested federal assistance after enrolling 1,469 Central American students since the past school year, including 901 from Honduras.

But nowhere is the impact of the recent surge of immigration felt more strongly than in Texas.

More than 66,000 unaccompanied young immigrants crossed into the United States illegally in the past fiscal year, most entering through Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

Of those, 37,477 had been released to sponsors across the country as of July 31, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. California received 3,909 children, while the largest number — 5,280 — went to Texas. Of those, 2,866 have been placed in Houston and the surrounding county.

Texas had long served students who were in the country illegally, and a 1982 Supreme Court case held that the state could not deny them an education. Texas also absorbed 35,000 students after Hurricane Katrina.

The current wave, though smaller, presents special challenges to educators. Many of these students, Moreno said, are fleeing countries in turmoil and need counseling and other social services.

There’s the 12-year-old student at Las Americas sent north by her mother from El Salvador after her cousin was gang-raped. The 11-year-old Salvadoran girl who persuaded a priest to smuggle her north without her mother’s consent. And the 14-year-old Honduran boy whose mother brought him as far as Guadalajara, Mexico, and then ran out of money and told him to hop cargo trains the rest of the way.

Most students don’t speak English. Some indigenous children barely speak Spanish, like the Honduran boy who spoke Mayan Quiche and kept asking Moreno in Spanish, “How do you say this in Spanish?”

The Las Americas school, which serves grades 4 through 8, has students from 23 countries who speak 17 languages. Arabic, Nepali, and Swahili were more common than Spanish until recently. Houston public schools, which plan to expand the Newcomers program, have already enrolled 1,825 new students from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Some Texans fear that the schools cannot afford the newcomers. But Texas Education Agency officials, who oversee the state’s more than 1,200 school districts and charters, say they already budgeted to cover the extra students and can draw from a state fund with a $263 million surplus if new costs arise.

Agency officials estimate that it will pay districts $9,473 to educate each bilingual student this academic year. That’s $1,573 more than it paid for the typical student.

If most of the young immigrants placed in Texas enroll in school, the total cost of educating the newcomers could top $50 million.

Federal officials say that it’s difficult to estimate how many of the young immigrants have enrolled in schools. The U.S. Department of Education has released guidance to schools, but has not tallied costs.

“The financial impact of unaccompanied immigrant children is an incredibly complicated number to calculate in a particular state, district, or school, much less nationally. It depends on a range of local factors,” department spokeswoman Dorie Nolt said.

Those factors include the number of English-as-a-second-language students already in a school and the level of community programs and state support. Also key is existing enrollment, Nolt said, adding that some urban districts are underenrolled and may have extra capacity.

“There was this concern at first that there was going to be this flood of kids,” Nolt said. “Some urban districts have seen a lot, but the vast majority have not.”

But Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and other Texas conservatives complain that the migrants will place new demands on already overcrowded schools.

“Regrettably, American taxpayers will be asked to foot the bill for the burden on these school districts,” Smith said.

In the Houston area, Liberty and Galveston counties and the cities of Magnolia and League City recently passed resolutions condemning federal efforts to house migrant children in temporary shelters, or directing officials not to cooperate with federal authorities to maintain the facilities. One resolution branded a shelter a health risk.

Moreno has spoken to conservative community groups and tried to allay such concerns, noting she screens birth certificates and proof of immunization.

“What’s better than having an educated child who can get a job and pay taxes?” she said. “You want them to be educated and fend for themselves.”

As Moreno walked among classrooms recently, she stopped to talk to the 14-year-old Honduran boy who rode the trains north and has transformed himself, in a few short weeks, from class clown to dedicated student, she said.

In a math class of 30 students, a girl with curly brown hair and dangling gold earrings gave Moreno a shy wave. It was the 13-year-old Salvadoran who had been struggling with her father.

Moreno bent low, whispering to the girl that she would catch up with her later. The girl’s father had not telephoned the principal for help this weekend. Moreno took that as a sign of progress.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Molly Hennessy-Fiske

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Nearly 300 Women, Children Deported From Immigration Detention Centers

By Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times

TUCSON — Nearly 300 Central American women and children have been deported from family detention centers that opened in the wake of a recent influx of people illegally crossing the Southwest border.

As of Wednesday evening, 280 women and children had been deported from the Artesia Family Residential Center in Artesia, N.M. Another 14 had been removed from Karnes County Residential Center in Karnes City, Texas.

Most of them have been repatriated to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

In late July, immigration officials stopped receiving and deporting women and children from the Artesia facility after a chicken pox quarantine. They resumed immigration removal flights to Central America on Aug. 7.

Since then, officials have deported 71 mothers and children from the Artesia center, said Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman with Department of Homeland Security.

Immigration officials halted the intake and removals of detainees at the facility “out of an abundance of caution,” after a resident was diagnosed with chicken pox.

“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement takes the health, safety, and welfare of those in our care seriously and is committed to ensuring that all ICE detainees receive timely and appropriate medical treatment,” Zamarripa said in a prepared statement.

Since the chicken pox case, healthcare personnel have been clearing residents who have immunity to chicken pox, such as those who have already had the disease, or have been fully immunized through vaccination, she said. The health staff is available around the clock for those detained at the facility.

“Once medically cleared, residents who have a final order of removal and a valid travel document may be repatriated,” Zamarripa said.

Aside from having to contend with a few cases of chicken pox, the facility and other similar centers have been plagued by other difficulties. For instance, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general report has cited various other problems — inadequate amounts of food, inconsistent temperatures, and unsanitary conditions — at various immigration holding facilities for children.

Also, immigration officials have been accused of not allowing the mothers and children due process as the U.S. speeds up the processing of the thousands of single parents with children who have fled Central America and entered the United States.

Last week, an immigration attorney said his 11-year-old U.S. citizen client was detained at the facility for more than a month. The boy was released Aug. 12, soon after officials realized he was a citizen.

Currently, more than 1,000 women and children remain in the two family detention facilities — 536 in Artesia and 532 in Karnes.

In the last nine months, about 63,000 single parents with at least one child have been apprehended along the Southwest border, mainly in southern Texas. At the same time, about the same numbers of children traveling without a parent have been apprehended along the border.

Most of the migrants are from Central America — mainly Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Although some have tried to enter the United States illegally, many have given themselves up to Border Patrol officers upon entering the United States. A combination of factors — including escalating gang violence, poverty, and rumors about potential immigration relief — has prompted more people to head north.

The exodus has overwhelmed Homeland Security officials, who have vowed to speed up immigration hearings but have also struggled to house immigrant families and unaccompanied children.

AFP Photo/Stan Honda

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Child’s Detention Despite Citizenship Reveals Immigration Case Woes

By Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times

TUCSON, Ariz. — An 11-year-old boy — one of hundreds who have been shuttled to an immigration detention facility in the middle of the New Mexican desert — was released this week after it was discovered that he is a U.S. citizen, according to the child’s attorney.

The boy spent more than a month at the detention center in Artesia, N.M., before an immigration attorney who happened to be visiting the facility discovered his status last week. The child, whose father is a U.S. citizen, had migrated from Central America with his mother before both were detained.

“I don’t think they asked him the right questions,” said the boy’s attorney, Stephen Manning. “He should never have been there.”

Leticia Zamarripa, a spokeswoman with Department of Homeland Security, described the case as “a complex matter” but said she could not comment on individual immigration cases because of privacy issues.

She did say that if an immigration detainee claims U.S. citizenship, the person could be released from custody while Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials investigate. Ultimately, an immigration judge decides whether a person is eligible to remain in the United States.

The case highlights the difficulties and potential pitfalls federal officials have faced in speeding up the processing of the thousands of single parents with children who have fled Central America and entered the United States through its southern border, said Laura Lichter, an immigration attorney.

Lichter is part of a contingent of lawyers that has been given access to the Artesia facility to provide free legal counsel to the detainees.

“I think the fact that a U.S. citizen was detained and for this long before anyone actually realized that there was even the possibility that they had detained a U.S. citizen shows you just how little respect and attention is being given to people’s cases,” said Lichter, former president of American Immigration Lawyers Association. “What this shows you is that there really is no due process here and that the system is only working in a way to deport people from the country. It is not working to protect people’s claims.”

The boy’s case also reflects what happens when U.S. immigration law collides with the reality of modern, blended families, in which some members may be in the country legally while others are not.

Manning said that according to immigration law, because the boy’s father is a U.S. citizen, his child is too, even though the boy was born abroad.

Once federal authorities were alerted to the boy’s status, Manning said, they acted immediately to release him. His mother also was released, though it’s unclear whether she is eligible for legal relief, Manning said.

Manning was hesitant to release any identifying information on the child — such as the country he had originated from or where he was heading within the United States. He did say, however, that the boy and his mother were on their way to be reunited with family and that the father lives in the United States.

In the last nine months, nearly 63,000 single parents with at least one child have been apprehended along the Southwest border, mainly in southern Texas. At the same time, about the same number of unaccompanied children have been apprehended along the border.

AFP Photo/John Moore

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