New immigration issue: Youths say they flee Central American gangs

Anthony Linder on Potter Street. He fled Honduras at age 15.
Anthony Linder on Potter Street. He fled Honduras at age 15. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 29, 2014

When Anthony Linder was 15, he says, he received a deadly invitation.

Members of a violent street gang known as Mara-18 surrounded him near his grandparents' house in the Honduran city of Choloma, and demanded that he join them.

"They told me I could make a lot of money. I told them I don't want to be part of it, because I would have to assault, and I would have to kill, people - and I don't like hurting anybody," he said through an interpreter.

He said he was given 10 days to change his mind or face his "sentence" - effectively, death. Instead, his mother in Philadelphia paid a smuggler about $5,000 to bring him to the United States.

So Linder became one of thousands to undertake a journey across the border that would ultimately land him here - and put him at the nexus of two startling immigration trends: an exponential increase in both the number of asylum-seekers claiming persecution by Central American gangs, and the number of unaccompanied minors caught crossing the border in the last several years.

The influx has spurred debate in Washington; Vice President Biden has been meeting with officials from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to discuss ways to address it. And the federal government has opened temporary shelters across the country to house the thousands of children pouring in.

"For people of Anthony's age, there's a really difficult choice that one has to make at 12 or 13 years old: Either join a gang and stop being harassed constantly on the way to school, or resist, with all the consequences of that," said Brennan Gian-Grasso, a Philadelphia immigration lawyer who is representing Linder. "The escape, for a lot of people, is to try to come to the United States. So what we've seen, especially over the last few years, is huge numbers of 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds coming to the United States to try to avoid this."

Last year, 36,026 people from Central America caught at the border claimed they had reason to fear returning home; that's up from just 5,000 five years ago. And 24,668 unaccompanied juveniles, mostly from Central America, were caught at the border in 2013, up from an average of 6,775 per year from 2004 to 2011, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The number is expected to reach 60,000 this year.

Like many others across the country, Philadelphia's immigration court in June 2013 introduced juvenile dockets, which encourage judges to be more cognizant of minors' needs.

Still, representation is not guaranteed, noted Philippe Weisz, managing attorney at the immigration legal nonprofit HIAS Pennsylvania. And the flood of young asylum-seekers also has overwhelmed the immigration lawyers who take pro bono cases.

"The demand far exceeds our ability to serve people," he said. "These are very complicated proceedings for somebody who speaks English, let alone for minors who don't speak the English language and aren't familiar with legal proceedings. . . . We strongly feel that children in these situations should be granted not only the right to seek counsel but also the right to have counsel."

In immigration court last year, Linder, then 18, watched as a judge ordered the deportation of two 16-year-old girls who were unaccompanied and unrepresented, and who said they were fleeing domestic abuse.

At the time, Linder was not represented either. Nicole Kligerman, who works with the grassroots New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, learned of his case the day before his court date, and showed up to plead for time to find Linder an attorney. She is convinced that without that intervention, he, too, would have been deported.

Instead, the New Sanctuary Movement connected him with Gian-Grasso, who is helping him seek asylum and is piecing together the history of Linder's encounters with the street gangs, who assaulted him in the street during recruitment efforts, he said, then finally issued the ultimatum.

After the threat, Linder said, he dropped out of school and went to stay with an aunt in another city. He lived in hiding, leaving the house only to go to church, waiting for a smuggler to bring him into the United States, he said.

He made it to the U.S.-Mexico border in December 2012, but in the Texas desert, Border Patrol agents appeared.

He was sent to a detention facility in Florida, then was released to stay with family temporarily, because he was a minor. On his 18th birthday, he arrived in Philadelphia, where his mother and two aunts live. While he seeks asylum, he's taking English classes and has a job. On his cellphone, he proudly flips through photos of his workplace, a scrap-metal processing facility.

Back in Honduras, he said, things have deteriorated. In 2012, two men on a motorcycle with their faces covered drove up to a cousin's house and knocked on the door. "As soon as he opened the door, they shot him and killed him," Linder said. Another cousin survived by jumping out a window and fleeing.

Any asylum case poses challenges, particularly in documenting incidents of harassment, threats, and violence that took place far away, and weren't necessarily logged in police reports.

Linder's case also comes with a special political hurdle.

"The problem is the government is very concerned with the jurisprudence about opening the floodgates, quote-unquote," Gian-Grasso said. Whether gang resisters can be protected under asylum law - which was created to protect refugees who fear persecution for racial, religious, or political reasons - "is still being fought out in the courts every day."

Immigration opponents argue that fraud may be driving the influx of such cases. They say word has gotten out that, even though the majority of asylum cases are unsuccessful, they can take years to move through the court system, buying the applicant time to live and work in the United States.

Weisz said that's a boilerplate criticism that accompanies any wave of asylum-seekers.

"That allegation has always been there, and I don't think it's particularly different with gang-related cases. Clearly, there's potential for fraud, as in any kind of case," he said. "You're trying to document something that has little, if any, documentation."

Obama: Children at Risk

Under fire from Republicans for failing to stem the recent flood of young immigrants, President Obama is delivering a message to Central American parents considering sending their children to the U.S. to escape violence and poverty at home: Don't risk it.

"Our message absolutely is don't send your children unaccompanied, on trains or through a bunch of smugglers," Obama told ABC News on Thursday. "We don't even know how many of these kids don't make it, and may have been waylaid into sex trafficking or killed because they fell off a train."

"Do not send your children to the borders," Obama said. "If they do make it, they'll get sent back. More importantly, they may not make it."

The administration says an estimated 52,000 unaccompanied minors have been detained since October, driven from their homes by violence and false rumors that they'll be allowed to stay.

Republicans argue that the Obama administration's lax deportation policies and gaps in security at the border have fueled the rumors. Some have called on Obama to send the National Guard to address the crisis.    - Tribune Washington Bureau

215-854-5053 @samanthamelamed

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