Halt On Juvenile Immigrant Visa Leaves Thousands In Limbo According to Border Patrol, more than 120,000 unaccompanied children arrived in the past two and a half years, many seeking asylum. Some young immigrants are now trying to use a new visa category.
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Halt On Juvenile Immigrant Visa Leaves Thousands In Limbo

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Halt On Juvenile Immigrant Visa Leaves Thousands In Limbo

Halt On Juvenile Immigrant Visa Leaves Thousands In Limbo

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Over the past two years, more than a hundred and twenty thousand children have left their families and homes in Central America to come alone to the United States. Once they get here, many ask for asylum, but applying for asylum isn't easy. So they turn to alternatives, like a visa program that was once obscure, but is now overwhelmed with applicants. NPR's Richard Gonzales reports.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Alex and Edson Escobar are brothers who traveled to the U.S. separately from El Salvador. Alex, who's 18, came in the summer of 2014. His 16-year-old brother arrived earlier this year. As they sit in their grandparents' modest home in central Virginia, Alex remembers the day he says he knew he would have to leave El Salvador.

ALEX ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "My father came home drunk one day," he says, "and, for no reason, started hitting my mother. My younger brother Edson and I tried to defend her."

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "My father was so enraged he grabbed billiard balls and threw them at us. He hit me in the chest." Alex says he crashed through a window, cutting his arms, back and hands, and that's when, he says, he knew he had to escape.

It wasn't the first time Alex, his brother Edson and their mom had been abused by their father. Violence was always a part of growing up, he says.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "And that was my life in El Salvador," he says. As Alex speaks, his younger brother Edson is looking at an iPad with a picture of their mother, who is still in El Salvador. She isn't eligible for a visa.

EDSON ESCOBAR: Yes, mi mama. (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "She's my mother, and sometimes I feel sad when I think I may not see her again. Yes, I miss my mother a lot," he says.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: The boys left home hoping to join their maternal grandparents, who migrated legally to the U.S. about five years ago. But because the brothers came separately, two years apart, they face possibly different outcomes. There's a visa called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status for kids just like Alex and Edson who have been abused, abandoned or neglected. The visa was designed for humanitarian reasons, but it has its critics.

DAVID NORTH: We're tolerating a whole lot of illegal immigration.

GONZALES: David North is with the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., advocating for reduced immigration.

NORTH: As we tolerate a lot of illegal immigration, we create massive income inequality. And so you have a question of what's good for society, and then you've got a question of what's good for these young men. And you've got a conflict.

LENNI BENSON: To the restrictionists, I would say - is that all this country can do?

GONZALES: Lenni Benson teaches immigration law at the New York Law School in Manhattan.

BENSON: They don't come at the border and say, hey, I want to apply for an I-360 based on the Fourth Preference Employment-Based Special Immigrant Juvenile 101A-27J. They say, I can't go home.

GONZALES: Still, the demand for this visa is exploding. In 2010, less than 1,600 such visas were issued. Last year, the number shot up to over five times that. That's why the State Department in April announced that visas for young people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala had maxed out until the new fiscal year, creating a backlog of applicants.

TANISHKA CRUZ: And that has never happened before in the past, so it's a completely novel issue.

GONZALES: Tanishka Cruz is a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, a group that helps low-income residents in Virginia, like Alex and Edson. She's talking about their case outside a fast food restaurant where the boys have stopped to eat.

CRUZ: Prior to that announcement, I was able to tell a child, you know, this is what you should expect at every stage of litigation, but now it's a lot more unclear.

GONZALES: What's unclear is how long the special immigrant juvenile will have to wait to get a visa and, with it, a green card and work authorization. As for Alex Escobar, in May, he went before an immigration officer. And he was told he would get a visa when one becomes available, perhaps in October, but there are no guarantees when it will happen.

Meanwhile, his brother Edson's case could take years to resolve because he just arrived here, and there are so many other Central American juveniles ahead of him. He says he's trying to stay positive.

ESCOBAR: (Speaking Spanish).

GONZALES: "I would feel sad if it didn't work out, as all my dreams collapsed and the possibility to succeed and better myself disappeared because it's not possible to do that in El Salvador," he says. The problem, says law professor Lenni Benson, is that no one knows how long someone like Edson could remain in limbo.

BENSON: I think the important thing about the Central American issue is to see it as another refugee crisis and not to see it as the same as other patterns of overstay or unlawful entry migration.

GONZALES: The good news, says Benson, is that Alex and Edson Escobar have legal help. There are thousands of kids, she says, who were abused, abandoned or neglected who have no help at all. Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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