A Father In California, Kids In El Salvador, And New Hope To Reunite : Parallels Unaccompanied minors surged across the U.S. southern border last year, fleeing violence in Central America. This year the Obama administration hopes to forestall a new wave with a quiet new program.
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A Father In California, Kids In El Salvador, And New Hope To Reunite

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A Father In California, Kids In El Salvador, And New Hope To Reunite

A Father In California, Kids In El Salvador, And New Hope To Reunite

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This morning, we have one father's struggle to be reunited with his children. He came to the U.S. from Central America years ago. His children were left behind. Situations like his contributed to the surge in unaccompanied minors crossing the border last year. The Obama administration quietly created a program to prevent that surge from starting again, and the man we meet next hopes it will bring his children to the U.S. legally. Here's NPR's Richard Gonzales.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: It's mid-afternoon and 38-year-old Carlos Leveron is returning home from a 12-hour shift at a local food processing plant in Santa Rosa, Calif. The first thing he does is kick off his dirty boots on the porch before entering his tidy, well-maintained one- bedroom apartment where he lives alone. Leveron is compact, muscled and sports an easy smile. On his walls are a parade of pictures of his two children in El Salvador, Marta Elise and Freddy David.

CARLOS LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: He points to one set of photos of his children as toddlers. Leveron has watched them grow only through these photos. His daughter is now 19 and his son is 18. The last time Leveron saw them was 1999, the year he came to United States. They know him only by his voice on his weekly phone calls.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "They're always telling me, Daddy, come see us. We want to meet you because we can't remember you. And I understand that," he says, "but I can't go there, and I won't have them come here illegally because the border is very dangerous."

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Leveron remembers his own border crossing and how he was robbed when he was hungry, thirsty and cold. It's very difficult, he says.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Within a couple of years of arriving here, Leveron qualified for a special program to stay legally. But that's only half of his dream.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "I hope we can be reunited again so that I can be a bigger part of their lives here," he says. "They could study here and prosper. Their future is here because this is a good country."

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Leveron might get a chance to finally see his children again. He's applied for an Obama administration program called Central American Minors Resettlement. It would allow children under the age of 21 to rejoin their families if their parents reside here legally.

In the open office of the International Rescue Committee, families looking for information about the program line the hallways. The IRC is one of nine resettlement agencies designated by the State Department to help parents apply to bring their children. Amir Music directs the Oakland office. He says word of the re-settlement program is just getting out, and most families don't yet know how it could change the lives of their children.

AMIR MUSIC: This way they are coming legally. They're coming as refugees. I will say the best way to come to this country is to come as a refugee.

GONZALES: That's because refugees are eligible for a wide range of services, including education, medical insurance and job training. However, critics say the program is ripe for abuse. Mark Krikorian directs the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a group that advocates for tighter border restrictions. He says the Central American minors aren't really refugees because they're not fleeing persecution.

MARK KRIKORIAN: This is one of the many areas of immigration that is shot through with falsehoods and legal fictions.

GONZALES: Still, Central America has one of the highest murder rates in the world and the violence driving many migrants to the U.S. is well-documented. The refugee program was launched seven months ago, and thus, far more than 1,300 minors from Central America have applied. According to a State Department official, no one yet has been approved, as a first run of eligibility interviews begins this month. There is no deadline for applying.

Back in Santa Rosa, this Leveron beams when he talks about the mere possibility of seeing his kids, regardless of how it would change his life. And the truth is, his decision to leave them so many years ago still haunts him.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: He says, "the love of a father for his children is worth more than money. Unfortunately, I couldn't give them this love," he says, "because I came to this country. It broke my heart to leave them when they were just toddlers."

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: But for now, Leveron can only wait and talk to his children from afar.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: He patiently taps out the numbers on his cell phone for his weekly call to El Salvador.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Leveron asks his son - the one he hasn't seen in 16 years - whether he's attended church and will he go play soccer later? Then he says, Sunday is a good day for church and soccer, and tomorrow morning is for work, if God permits.

LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Santa Rosa, Calif.

WERTHEIMER: Later on All Things Considered, we'll pick up the Leveron family's story in El Salvador.

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