MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Giovanni was 12 years old when he wrapped himself in a sheet of plastic and trekked through pouring rain into the Sonoran desert. He'd left his home in Veracruz, Mexico, years after his father had died and his mother disappeared.
GIOVANNI: (Speaking Spanish)
LUDDEN: Giovanni didn't have it, so once over the border, he bolted. He eventually landed in San Francisco, where this adolescent spent three years as a day laborer until the day he was arrested.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSEHOLD NOISE)
LUDDEN: Today, Giovanni lives with a foster family in Richmond, Virginia, waiting for the courts to decide whether he can stay in the U.S. His long black hair is swept back in a ponytail. Because the government does not want smugglers to track down migrant children, Giovanni and his foster family prefer not to use their last names.
GIOVANNI: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: Giovanni says despite some struggle with math, he's doing well in 10th grade, and really well on the local soccer team. He was voted Rookie of the Year. As we sit in the tidy living room under a wall-mounted grandfather clock, Giovanni's foster mother, Henrietta, says he fits in well here.
HENRIETTA: He's just a wonderful person. He helps me in the kitchen. He knows how to cook. He's just a very lovable person.
LUDDEN: A few years ago, instead of being in this cozy living room, Giovanni would more likely have been sitting in a juvenile detention center. That's because he would have been in the custody of the immigration agency. But in 2002, a court settlement found migrant children were being treated too harshly. Congress asked Health and Human Services to take over their care, even as the immigration agency continued to oversee their legal cases.
MARTHA NEWTON: There's a duality here in terms of the kids and their immigration status. We only have one piece of it.
LUDDEN: Martha Newton directs the Health Department office that oversees the migrants. She says they may be illegal immigrants who end up deported, but for her agency, they are children first.
NEWTON: Our focus isn't about their apprehension. Our focus is the quality of social services that they need when they're in our care and custody.
LUDDEN: Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: Inside, it's Wednesday morning, the time when the shelter's newest arrivals are told about U.S. immigration law and their rights under it. In a small front office, a teenage girl and boy from China are briefed in Mandarin. And across the hall -
KAREN DONOSO STEVENS: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: The Mexican boy asks her, if I find someone to pay my plane ticket, how soon can I go back home?
DONOSO STEVENS: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: The answer? It takes at least a few weeks. Stevens says many find that frustrating. For one thing, they probably came to the U.S. to work and have often borrowed thousands of dollars to pay a smuggler.
DONOSO STEVENS: They are worried about, you know, my mom took out the equivalent to a mortgage on our house to get my trip over here. I don't want, you know, the coyote to go to my home and start looking for me or ask my mother where that money is.
LUDDEN: The shelter's main goal is to reunite the children with their family. A call is quickly made. And when the children and parents first get on the phone, the conversation can be full of joy and tears. But if the family members are in the U.S. and illegal, as many are, they may be fearful of coming forward to claim their son or daughter.
DONOSO STEVENS: Another tough situation will be is, you're talking about family who have been here awhile so they have U.S. siblings. So now this family is, do I jeopardize my children who have status to sponsor my one child in custody?
LUDDEN: Unidentified Man #2: You ought to stay, please. Sign up your name.
LUDDEN: The walls of this former nursing home are lined with cheery displays and photos.
RICARDO JONAS: This is from a trip that we went to Great America this summer. It's sort of like Six Flags.
LUDDEN: Ricardo Jonas is the acting director.
JONAS: This is at the film museum.
LUDDEN: Unidentified Girl: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: The typical child detainee in the U.S. is a Central American male age 15 or 16. But about a quarter are girls.
LUDDEN: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: In a bare, dorm-like bedroom, 17-year-old Jennifer wears eye shadow, mascara and a sad look. She says she and an uncle traveled together from Guatemala, but were separated as they crossed the U.S. border. She spent four frightening days alone in the desert before being found and arrested. Jennifer says she'd never heard of this kind of shelter and didn't want to be here.
LUDDEN: (Speaking foreign language)
LUDDEN: Jennifer hopes to join family members in the U.S., but she has no idea what will happen to her, and when asked if she has a lawyer, she says she's not even sure. That is a sore point in the system.
MARIA WOLTJEN: There is an absolute void in immigration law in terms of best interests of the child.
LUDDEN: Maria Woltjen directs the Immigrant Children's Advocacy Project, a non- profit based in Chicago. She says like other immigrants, underage migrants have no right to a lawyer. An estimated 90 percent don't have one, even though Woltjen says the law treats children the same as adults.
WOLTJEN: They've got to show exactly the same evidence, even though a child who comes here might not know details of whatever political reasons they had to be sent to the United States. So sometimes these kids are too young to know all of the facts.
LUDDEN: A small number of underage migrants do receive asylum. About 20 percent are deported or choose to go back home. A few children, though, get lucky.
BEN: You can go finish your homework. No surfing the net.
LUDDEN: Giovanni, the young boy in the Virginia foster home, has a pro bono lawyer and probably a good shot at what's called a special juvenile visa. It's for kids who have been abused or abandoned. If Giovanni's claim is denied, he says he'll go crazy.
GIOVANNI: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: I've worked so hard, he says, and waited so long. Giovanni's foster father, Ben, isn't sure what he'd do if the visa's denied. It turns out Ben is a longtime law-enforcement officer with a firm view on immigration. And he sees the irony.
BEN: Because it sounds kind of double-tongued when we say shut the border down, but yet we house someone from Mexico. You know, it's a very touchy subject.
LUDDEN: As for Giovanni, Ben can't imagine he'd just leave.
BEN: Run away from here? I mean, I don't think he would just run away from all this. I think that he realized now that he has support, people behind him, looking out for his interests. His only fear is being disapproved. That's his only fear.
LUDDEN: Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
NORRIS: On our Web site, Jennifer Ludden tells the story of a Mexican teenager who did not get permission to say in the U.S. He's preparing to be sent back home. That's at NPR.org.
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