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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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Iraqis Who Aided U.S. Military Seek To Resettle Here Amid New Violence

By Jeremy Redmon, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ATLANTA — Terrorists sought to kidnap and kill Hadi Lazim when he served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Baghdad during the war in Iraq.

He fled to the United States with a special visa in 2010 and has steadily helped his five sons legally immigrate here since. Now the Stone Mountain, Ga., resident is scrambling to get his daughter and son-in-law out of Iraq as their native country splinters amid sectarian violence.

Lazim’s son-in-law — who also served as a U.S. military interpreter — is among about 1,700 who have applications pending for Special Immigrant Visas for Iraqis who assisted the U.S. government during the war, according to the U.S. State Department. Like Lazim’s son-in-law, some have been waiting for years for a decision. One applicant filed a lawsuit last month, seeking to force the government to act on his 2-year-old application.

State Department officials declined to comment on the lawsuit and the status of specific applications, citing a federal privacy law. But they said they have speeded up the process so that it now takes eight months on average. They are seeking to make it faster under pressure from Congress, which voted last year to extend the application deadline to Sept. 30.

The U.S. government is grappling with the backlog of visa applications as hard-line Sunni militants are battling to create an Islamic state straddling the border with Syria. In recent weeks, Iraqi security forces have abandoned their weapons and fled as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — an offshoot of al-Qaida — has seized large swathes of northern and western Iraq and imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law.

Since the beginning of June, at least 1,531 civilians have been killed, 1,763 have been wounded, and 600,000 have been displaced as a result of the violence in Iraq, according to a recent report by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq Human Rights Office. The report documents executions and other violence committed by both the Islamic militants and Iraqi security forces.

Lazim, who worked with the U.S. military as an interpreter and cultural advisor for seven years, worries terrorists will harm his daughter because of his past work with the American government. He said he has contacted a U.S. senator’s office for help.

“She is afraid for herself because everybody knows she is the daughter of that spy — they call me a spy for the U.S. Army,” said Lazim, a former Iraqi airline pilot who now works for an Atlanta area refugee aid group.

Another former U.S. military interpreter, who asked that his name not be used for his family’s safety, said he has been waiting for more than two years for his visa application to be processed. With the help of pro bono attorneys working in the United States — including one with the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project — he filed a federal lawsuit last month seeking to force the government to take action on his application. The lawsuit says more than 1,000 interpreters who worked for the U.S. military and allied forces during the war in Iraq have been killed in combat or assassinated.

The plaintiff — who has also investigated and exposed torture, killings, and secret prisons in Iraq as a translator and researcher for Human Rights Watch — said he narrowly escaped a kidnapping attempt during the war and recently received a death threat from an Iraqi government official. He fled to Istanbul with his wife and two young children last month.

“How can you prove that your life is in danger? Should I get shot to prove that to you?” he said in an interview through Skype from his hotel room in Turkey last week. “Should I get kidnapped and pay money and get out so you can be convinced?”

Congress created the resettlement program for Iraqis and their spouses and children in 2007, allowing up to 5,000 special visas to be issued annually. To be eligible, Iraqis must have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Iraq for a year or more between 2003 and 2013. They must also submit a letter of recommendation from their supervisor and demonstrate they are experiencing “an ongoing serious threat” because of their work with the U.S. government. Interviews and background checks are part of the process.

Last year, Congress extended the application deadline to Sept. 30 and required the government to process applications within nine months, though it gave the government extra time to deal with “high-risk cases” involving national security concerns.

Since fiscal year 2008, 11,979 Iraqis have come to the U.S. with the special visas. State Department officials said the majority of the 1,700 pending cases are still awaiting decisions because the applicants have not filed all the required information.

“We are committed to supporting those who — at great personal risk — have helped us,” the State Department said in a prepared statement. “An internal State Department review that began last year showed that we could, and should, do better. And we have. We identified inefficiencies that were causing delays, and cut the average waiting period for an SIV in half.”

More than 30,000 other Iraqis with U.S. affiliations have resettled in this country as refugees since 2007, according to the State Department. Thousands of applications are pending for this program. On average, it takes the government 18 to 24 months to process each one.

AFP Photo/Ali Al-Bayati

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