NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — For a long time, Lidia Gonzalez couldn’t tell her story in detail without breaking down.
“She wasn’t able to communicate with me — it was just all tears,” said her attorney Yazmin Rodriguez.
Traumatized by her long captivity in Guatemala by a man who assaulted her repeatedly and then her escape with her toddler son across Mexico with little money, Gonzalez has been in New Haven now for two years.
In a recent meeting in the offices of Junta for Progressive Action on Grand Avenue, she watched as 4-year-old Byron Gonzalez played a game with Disney characters.
Smiling and happy to pose for a photo, Byron is in preschool and separately, is getting speech therapy.
“I want to be a fireman,” he said in English.
“His speech is obviously improving. He wasn’t communicating at all when he first came here,” Rodriguez said of the child who made the journey with his mother, part of it strapped to her back as they rode on top of La Bestia, or The Beast, the freight train immigrants took for the 1,000-mile journey through Mexico from the Guatemalan border.
He is now much different than the withdrawn child who came here in 2014.
The Gonzalez family are among several dozen teens and young mothers in New Haven who were part of the wave of 84,000 mostly unaccompanied children entering the United States illegally in 2014, escaping violence in Central America.
Rodriguez’s office, the Esperanza Center for Law and Advocacy in Norwalk, represents many of them as they seek to adjust their immigration status.
The time-consuming cases — mostly pro bono — involve multiple filings before the probate court, the United States Customs and Immigration office and then Immigration Court.
Many of her young clients, under age 18, already have or are on their way to receiving Special Immigrant Juvenile status which is available to children who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent or guardian.
Such a status can then lead to an application for a work permit and a green card for permanent residence.
Byron’s father’s parental rights have already been removed and Rodriguez has filed for the new status for the child.
Rodriguez’s office has about 150 cases involving Special Immigrant Juvenile status in Connecticut, with up to 50 percent from New Haven.
Having an attorney in the case of the undocumented women and juveniles in New Haven makes a big difference to the outcome.
From October 2004 to June of 2016, more than half of the undocumented children in the U.S. who did not have legal representation were deported, while only one in 10 who had an attorney were sent back, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.
The American Civil Liberties Union and others have filed a class-action suit arguing that the government should be required to provide legal counsel in immigration cases for children.
Statistics from the Executive Office of Immigration Review shows the government started removal proceedings since July 2014 against more than 64,000 undocumented juveniles who crossed the border without their parents.
Judges have ruled in 27,500 of those cases, with some 40 percent unrepresented by a lawyer, according to a report in Arizona Public Media.
The Guardian has reported that at least 83 immigrants sent back to their countries in Central America since 2014 were killed upon their return.
Rodriguez plans to seek a hearing in Immigration Court in December for Lidia Gonzalez, who she feels is ready to testify in an asylum case.
After the therapy she has received in the last year and a half, “she is now able to convey the information that would be necessary to establish her persecution, which is based on the kidnapping,” Rodriguez said of her client.
She said Gonzalez, 34, was held against her will for eight years under death threats to her family if she left. Gonzalez has said she was beaten while she was pregnant. She finally escaped because she feared for her son’s life.
“Going back would put her in danger. Potentially, she could lose her life there,” Rodriguez said. She said she was so isolated, she doesn’t know what was going on in her own country at the time and has little memory of her life prior to her captivity.
During Guatemala’s 36-year civil war, that raged from 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 people were killed, the majority of them Mayans.
That legacy is blamed for the continuing lawlessness in Guatemala, particularly against women, according to testimony before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as reported by the PBS NewsHour.
The U.N.-backed Commission for Historical Clarification report titled “Guatemala: Memory of Silence,” also singled out the U.S. as a key contributor to the human rights violations during the civil war for its training of Guatemalan military in counterinsurgency and intelligence work.
In 1999, President Bill Clinton formally apologized for U.S. support of the right-wing governments in Guatemala that resulted in that large number of deaths.
Gonzalez, who is confused about her case, says she trusts her attorney and her therapist.
“I feel much better now. I feel protected, I feel that I have people around me that I can count on and if something were to happen to me, I have people that I can run to,” Gonzalez said, as Rodriguez interpreted.
“For me, it is really like starting a new life and I thank God for keeping me alive. For the many things I have endured, God has given me the strength to continue,” she said.
Rodriguez said all of her clients need mental health treatment and not just for what they endured back in their home country but for the traumatizing journey to the U.S.
Rodriguez’s work and that of the New Haven Legal Assistance Association, Unidad Latina En Accion, Junta for Progressive Action, Apostle Immigrant Services, the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and others, demonstrate New Haven’s commitment to integrating its newest immigrants into the mainstream.
In June, the foundation issued a statement reiterating its commitment to programs to help immigrants, legal as well as undocumented.
It came just days after the U.S. Supreme Court tied 4-4 on a case challenging President Obama’s executive order that would have deferred deportation and allowed as many as 5 million undocumented immigrants in the country who were the parents of citizens or permanent residents, to get work permits.
In Connecticut, if it had been upheld, 26,000 people would have qualified for its benefits, in addition to 14,000 others who meet the revised rules under an earlier executive order, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA.
“The basic reason why we are committed to this work of immigrant integration is because we believe immigrants are remaking this community in the 21st century, just as they built this community in the 19th and 20th century. And that is true regardless of their legal status under federal law,” said William Ginsberg, president and CEO of the foundation.
Ginsberg said the issue of immigration reform is also “central to the big national debate we are having about what direction Americans want this country to go in. … Comprehensive immigration reform is the only thing that makes sense. We have a totally broken system that isn’t serving anybody well, least of all the people directly affected.”
In a country sharply divided on the issue, Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, represents those who favor tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
“Not to minimize the traumatic experience these people have had in Guatemala,” she said, but fleeing violence alone doesn’t qualify for immigration status here unless you have been part of a persecuted group.
Vaughan said she is skeptical of the immigrants stories and said if they can make it to the U.S., they end up staying for years.
“No matter who takes office, if they try to enforce the laws, they will have their hands full,” she said.
President Obama however, has deported more immigrants than any of his predecessors, according Homeland Security data. A total of 2.5 million have been deported between 2009 and 2015 through immigration court orders, while he has been in office.
Immigrant integration remains a priority of the foundation and Ginsberg is particularly excited about organizing the statewide Immigration Strategic Funders Collaborative, which brings funders, service providers and advocacy groups to the table to address the issue.
They have given grants to such groups as Unidad Latina En Accion which works on workers rights and Apostle Immigrant Services where a staff member is certified to help with status change applications.
Luis Miguel Diaz, 19, is also represented y Rodriguez and like the other teens in the New Haven group attends Wilbur High School where he is now a senior.
All the immigrants interviewed as part of this story came from Guatemala
Luis and his stepsister, Anabelia Diaz, fled an abusive father and both now have Special Immigrant Juvenile status.
He wants to go to college, but that will have to wait until he has money, he said.
“I feel confident that my status will be adjusted because I am doing good things … I am studying. I like to draw and paint. I like to help people,” Luis said.
The step-siblings had to adjust to new family dynamics living here with an older brother, whom they did not know before arriving in New Haven.
Hazel Mencos Jimenez, now 15 and a sophomore, left her hometown of Escuintla because of the random violence and extortion from drug gangs. She said the gangs threatened they would kidnap a 5-year-old if the school she attended did not give them money.
She said the child was later found dead with her organs removed.
“I like my life now. I’m used to it,” Hazel said. “I have a better education here. I can be friends with other people and not be afraid they are going to hurt me.”
Luis, Hazel and Antonia Hernandez Berduo, 20, stay in touch through Unidad Latina En Accion where they socialize and are activists on immigration issues.
Hazel, Luis and Anabelia, while they all have Special Immigrant Juvenile status, have been in administrative limbo since May when a cap on green cards for this group was reached.
Those visas however are now available again and Rodriguez will apply for work permits for the three this month and await hearings for green cards.
Timing is everything in these cases and that is especially true for Hernandez Berduo.
“She is the perfect example of a case involving neglect and abandonment,” Rodriguez said.
She was raised by an uncle after her parents abandoned her at age 3 as an additional burden they couldn’t handle.
As a young teen, she was harassed by a gang of boys and was pressured by one of them to marry him. She didn’t tell her uncle for fear he would be targeted by the gang as had happened to friends.
Rodriguez said she left her uncle’s home to work for a family where she was not allowed to go out and was given little money and food in exchange for doing all the household duties.
“She didn’t have anyone to protect her,” the attorney said.
By the time she reached New Haven, she had just turned 18 and while the USICS allows immigrant juvenile status up to age 21, in Connecticut you are considered an adult at age 18 and the necessary probate process was not applicable.
Rodriguez and others testified in Hartford to change the definition of an adult for this situation to 21, as has been done in New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts. Unsuccessful in their efforts, she said they will press the issue again next year.
In the meantime, the attorney will apply for asylum for Hernandez Berduo.
“Being abandoned as a child definitely helps her asylum case. Lack of parental protection, and as a result of that, the dangers she was exposed to and the child labor that she endured are factors in her favor,” the attorney said.
Alva Morales Perez, 26, mother of Liliana Berenice Morales, 4, and Darwin Arreaga, 1, has said she was among those who protested mining interests in the Tacana section, which were taking over property, polluting the water supply and leaving toxic waste. She left after protesters were shot at and the leaders were threatened.
There has been much violence in efforts to rein in mining in Guatemala.
It took her and Liliana, then 2 years old, almost a month to make the trip to the United States.
Rodriguez said her case will turn on whether Morales Perez was a member of a particular group that was targeted for persecution. Morales Perez said she worked for the Catholic Church which was among the human rights groups supporting the protesters.
Rodriguez said if she does not get asylum, she will appeal the decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals and then to the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
The number of unaccompanied children who crossed the Mexican border fell in 2015 to 40,000, but it is up again this year to 54,000, despite Mexico sending juveniles back across its southern border at Obama’s request.
Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, told a conference sponsored by the Center for Migration Studies last month, her perspective on that, as reported by the Washington Post. “The root causes of migration have continued unabated — violence in the region, narco-trafficking. … If you look at displacement around the world, there are more and more situations where nongovernment actors are the sources of violence,” Young said. “It may not fit the classic perception of what a refugee is, but it’s the same kind of abuse and the same levels of abuse we need to be aware of and offer safe haven to.”
Information from: New Haven Register, http://www.nhregister.com
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