With Asylum Out Of Reach, Some Minors Seek Out Special Visas
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We're going to spend a few more minutes on this issue, focusing on the children now. That's because the waves of unaccompanied children crossing from Central America are what helped make immigration a major story in this country. NPR's Alexandra Starr reports that many of those young people are applying for a visa that's made just for them.
ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: When Henry Gomez was 12 years old, four gang members stormed his house in El Salvador. They were seeking revenge on one of his cousins, who had refused to join them.
HENRY: (Through interpreter) They came into the house. My cousin was sitting down and they shot him three times in the back, and then they shot my uncle twice.
STARR: Gomez survived the attack by running upstairs and hiding under his bed. That didn't mean he was safe.
HENRY: (Through interpreter) I said they're going to want to shoot me, too, because I saw who they were.
STARR: His mom shared those fears. She had lived apart from her son for half of his life. As a single parent, she couldn't support them both with the money she earned selling food on the street. So she traveled to the U.S. in search of work. When she heard about the murders, she told her son he would have to leave, too.
HENRY: (Through interpreter) My mom said that with that level of violence, I couldn't be living there anymore.
STARR: She paid a smuggler $6,000 to deliver him to New York, where she lived. Immigration agents caught Gomez and eventually released him to his mother on Long Island. She brought him to the Central American Legal Assistance Center in New York City. There, attorney Heather Axford took his case. She explains Gomez didn't have a strong claim to asylum.
HEATHER AXFORD: Asylum does not protect all harm feared, even really bad harm.
STARR: Under immigration law, gang threats often aren't reason enough to get refugee status. Applicants have to connect the threats of violence to their political views or membership in a particular group. That wasn't the case for Gomez. When Axford heard about his childhood though, she realized he would be eligible for a visa called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status or SIJS.
AXFORD: SIJS is for kids who can't be reunified with one of their parents because of abuse, abandonment, neglect.
STARR: Congress created it 25 years ago for undocumented children in the U.S. foster care system. A few years ago, lawmakers expanded the grounds for eligibility. A child who had been abused or abandoned by just one parent could get the visa. Axford says that made Henry Gomez eligible.
AXFORD: Dad abandoned him and then was killed, so there's no question that this was a kid that can't depend on the protection of his father.
STARR: The federal government has approved more than 6,000 SIJS visas so far this year.
BOB GOODLATTE: Over the last eight years, the number of people applying for this has about quadrupled.
STARR: That's Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia. He's chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He wants to make it tougher to get SIJS.
GOODLATTE: It should be a requirement that both of your parents are ineligible to take care of you before you be eligible for a green card to live in the United States.
STARR: That potential change worries immigration advocates like Axford. She says a lot of the children she represents are in Henry Gomez's position. They could be killed if they were sent back to Central America, and SIJS is often the only status they qualify for.
AXFORD: Other forms of protection, like asylum, are essentially failing them.
STARR: Gomez is 17 now. He lives with his mother on Long Island, and he's on track to become his family's first high school graduate. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York.
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