Children seek immigration status in North Carolina

Photo by Dalton Cox
Photo by Dalton Cox

by Dalton Cox

She lived in world’s murder capital

A year ago, Miriam was a 13-year-old living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras – reportedly the murder capital of the world. She would never have dreamed back then that she would be living in Durham, North Carolina, today.

At the time it was a daily struggle for her simply to attend school. She was harassed each morning by menacing gang members she could not avoid along the way. She finally resorted to taking a taxi to the private school she attended in San Pedro Sula.

Though the final stretch of her daily commute still had to be made on foot, Miriam would then likely encounter only one group of thugs before reaching her refuge. The threatening men had made a target of Miriam, often claiming they might murder her or take her as one of their wives.

Miriam knew that the gangsters’ threats were not all hollow. Two of her cousins had been members of rival gangs. As retribution for this genetic disloyalty, gangsters murdered the wives of each cousin, leaving the two men to their grief.

Hensley. Photo by Dalton Cox
Hensley. Photo by Dalton Cox

“I’ve worked on a number of cases where the gang threats have stopped children from going to school,” said Derrick Hensley, the attorney handling Miriam’s immigration case. “I’m really surprised Miriam didn’t stop going – at least, she didn’t stop going until the time that led to her coming to the United States.”

In 2013, San Pedro Sula had a homicide rate of 187 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. In April 2014, the city experienced a surge in child murders – Miriam had known several of these victims. Feeling increasingly threatened by gang violence, Miriam decided to risk the journey to the United States to be reunited with her mother, Sophia.

She almost did not survive.

Thousands of undocumented children still wait in North Carolina

Miriam is one of thousands of undocumented alien children who crossed into the United States during the immigration surge of the summer of 2014. They traveled primarily from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. She was also one of 53,518 unaccompanied minors released by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to sponsors in the United States between October 2013 and September 2014; 2,064 of those children were released to sponsors in North Carolina.

A sponsor is a parent or guardian capable of housing and providing for a child awaiting an immigration hearing. Approximately 10 percent of children who cannot identify a sponsor are placed in to federal foster care.

To maintain lawful status to reside in the United States, children typically must prove their eligibility for either asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. If children are unable to make out their claim, then they generally are unable to stay in the United States.


“I think that saying that these children are receiving due process might be presumptive,” said Heather Scavone, director of the Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic (HILC) at the Elon University School of Law. “There have been instances of in absentia deportation orders for some of these kids when they have not been put on notice that they have a hearing. Also, unless they are able to pay for an attorney they don’t have a constitutional right to counsel in the same way criminal defendants do – so you have in some cases, a 9-year-old child who has to defend himself in court without an attorney.”

If a child is exceedingly fortunate, the Office of Refugee Resettlement may refer him or her to a non-profit organization that can offer social services casework or pro bono legal service.

One such organization is the Elon University School of Law’s HILC. It primarily works with individuals who have already been granted asylum or refugee status in navigating the immigration bureaucracy; however, Scavone recently traveled with several students to a Texas detainment center to provide philanthropic service.

“The work the clinic does here is pretty unique,” said Marty Rosenbluth, clinical practitioner in residence at HILC. “The reason we got involved in the immigration surge was out of broader concern for the issue.”

Another one of several organizations that provide casework for undocumented alien children in North Carolina is the social ministry organization Lutheran Services Carolinas. LSC increased its casework in 2014, from assisting approximately 50 undocumented alien children to now handling 84 cases.

“Their route to staying in the United States probably becomes much better the point where they gain advocates,” said Mary Ann Johnson, director of community relations for Lutheran Services. “They get pretty good care and are looked after.”

Photo by Dalton Cox
Photo by Dalton Cox

Bedrija Jazic is the director of refugee services at LSC. When Jazic fled Bosnia in 1996, she was in her 20s.

She explained that in the cases of refugees LSC only takes on cases referred by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and all must be individuals at high risk. This risk may broadly encompass anything from physical abuse to posttraumatic stress-like symptoms.

“I cannot say it’s a fair process, because of the costs that this involves,” Jazic said. “I would think that we should provide more post-relief services and take care of more of the kids who are received.” 

Miriam held for ransom, finally reaches refuge 

Sophia had left Honduras in 2003. She fled in part from Miriam’s father. He was an abuser who had thrown bottles of beer in to Sophia’s face at parties, an addict who had once held a loaded gun to Sophia’s head and a member of Honduran military who would stalk and threaten Sophia after she left him.

“It is pretty well established that you can’t call the police on a member of the military or else you’re likely to get shot or put away somewhere,” Hensley said.

When Sophia sought sanctuary in the United States she left toddler Miriam in the care of relatives in San Pedro Sula. Sophia regularly sent her family financial support from abroad, but a decade passed before she would be reunited with her daughter in the United States.

Before Miriam could cross the Rio Grande, members of the Mexican criminal syndicate Los Zetas abducted her, along with several other migrants, to be held for ransom.

“They closed their eyes, so they wouldn’t see people coming and going,” Hensley said. “They heard people getting executed, and there were dead people lying about. They heard gunshots, and they were blindfolded or had their eyes covered. They could only leave the room to go to the bathroom.”

Sophia was contacted and asked to pay $3,300 for her daughter’s release. Miriam was held captive for three weeks, until her mother’s payment was received in full.

When Miriam finally reached the United States, she was taken in to the custody of the United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and placed in a frigid holding cell – often referred to as the hielera, or icebox.

Now in the land of the free, Miriam’s body relinquished its strength. She was having trouble breathing. The teenager began to cough up blood and developed a serious fever. Eventually, her condition would cause her to slip in to a comma.

Undocumented children struggle to be ‘productive citizens’ in North Carolina

In July 2014, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory joined the Republican governors of Alabama, Kansas, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin in signing a letter of concern, sent to President Barack Obama, regarding the border surge.

“We are concerned that there will be significant numbers who will end up using the public schools, social services and health systems largely funded by the states,” the governors wrote in arguing against the intake of too many refugees.

Derrick Hensley takes argument with this logic.

“It’s not widely disproportionate to our overall population,” Hensley said. “Durham has almost 250,000 residents, and we got about 200 unaccompanied alien children. That’s less than one tenth of one percent. It’s a highly vulnerable and needy population, but it’s sort of remarkable that people are worried that these children will bring the plague, that this is upsetting our economy, that this is a threat to our national security.”

Number of unaccompanied minors in states compared to state population. Based on information taken from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and the U.S. Census Bureau. Click to enlarge. Infographic by Dalton Cox
Number of unaccompanied minors in states compared to state population. Based on information taken from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement and the U.S. Census Bureau. Click to enlarge. Infographic by Dalton Cox

Receiving mental health care and making up any educational deficit are two elements that Hensley considers to be foundationally important once children have settled in the United States.

Though it is illegal to deny children public education based on their immigration status, several reports were made in 2014 of North Carolina school districts allegedly denying undocumented children the right to enroll.

“It’s difficult to know the scope of the problem,” said Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. “What’s exceptionally common was substantial delays in the process. We call it the chilling effect.”

“Chilling” describes the systematic barriers that undocumented alien children encounter when attempting to enroll in school or to receive health services. For instance, it can be especially difficult for migrant children to provide proof of residence when registering for school. Such inabilities to provide correct documentation generally take one month before they can be resolved.

“It’s extremely difficult and costly to provide the remediation needed to move people ahead,” Ellinwood said. “There’s no way to get back that time that is lost, when you face that kind of delay. The children have every right to be in school. We want to get them educated and to get them to be as productive citizens as they can be. The earlier we can get them enrolled, the more it’s going to help.”

In May 2014, the U.S. Justice and Education Departments provided updated guidelines to deter the chilling effect. These seem to have reduced the number of complaints made against North Carolina schools for denying undocumented children enrollment.

Ellinwood believes that, despite logistical tangles and deficits of individual education, the children are generally socially accepted by their classmates.


“These children always amaze me with how much more excepting they are than adults are,” Ellinwood said. “They’re extremely welcoming from what I’ve seen, and I’ve never heard of any negative incidents. Many migrant children are coming into the United States with better English language skills, so they’re better integrated than in years past.”

While these young people are extensively disadvantaged and face various mental health repercussions due to their challenging lives, Hensley said most unaccompanied alien children are capable of resilient progress, provided some resources. Hensley is typically in close contact with unaccompanied alien children and their families for about a year, while providing them legal service.

“I do see a change in the children over that time,” Hensley said. “They’re healthier. They’re happier. All of them attend school and make good progress eventually. Most of them tend to try very hard.”

Daughter and mother reunited in home of the brave 

Miriam spent five days in a hospital when she finally reached the United States.

When Sophia finally arrived at the hospital where Miriam was receiving care she was not allowed to see her daughter immediately because of immigration policies.

Today mother and daughter live together in Durham. Since fleeing Honduras Sophia has remarried and had two children, both of whom are United States citizens. Miriam is currently continuing her secondary education, and she is seeking special immigrant juvenile status.

To protect the individuals, the actual names of Miriam and Sophia were not used in this article.

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