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Iowa Watchdog

Give me shelter: Josue and other border kids go to court


OMAHA, Neb. — In an office building near Omaha’s airport, stern-faced, gray-haired Immigration Judge Jack Anderson presides over removal hearings Tuesday in a courtroom filled with juveniles, most of them from Central America, all of them hoping to be allowed to stay in the United States.

Josue, 13, sits in the front row with his mother and two young sisters and three friends of the family. At first glance, he looks like any other American teenager in his neon yellow Adidas T-shirt, tan pants and Nike high-tops.

SEEKING ASYLUM: Josue, 13, was one of many foreign children who appeared in Omaha Immigration Court on Tuesday.

SEEKING ASYLUM: Josue, 13, was one of many foreign children who appeared in Omaha Immigration Court on Tuesday.

But this building belongs to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. And according to the government, he and the other teenages in the courtroom are foreign-born children charged with violating immigration law.

They’re at the mercy of the Omaha Immigration Court, where a judge eventually will decide whether they can stay or be deported.


Anderson goes through case after case: Juan of Guatemala is living with his uncle in Schuyler, Neb. His attorney said he’s seeking SIJ status — Special Immigrant Juveniles, a program through which foreign children who’ve been abused, neglected or abandoned can get green cards and work in the U.S. permanently. Another hearing is scheduled for Juan later this year.

Next up is Edgar, 18, from El Salvador but now living with his uncle in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s also seeking SIJ status. His case was postponed to October.

Then comes Benedicto, 18, of Guatemala. His case is also postponed until October.

As the children go before the judge, Josue’s mother periodically looks over at her son and smiles. The four young girls with them get antsy as the hearings drag.

Finally, Josue has his turn. He walked across the southern border through Texas two months ago. His attorney says Josue is asking that his case be consolidated with his mother’s asylum case. The attorney for the government searches for her case number. The attorney asks for a continuance until September. It’s granted.

Josue’s hearing takes all of about 10 minutes — just another routine case for the judge, the translator and the government attorney. But to Josue, his life is at stake. Outside the courtroom, his mother walks away in tears when approached by a reporter.

It’s too dangerous, she says through a translator. She left Honduras and walked across the U.S. border 11 years ago to escape an abusive, life-threatening situation. She doesn’t want to talk about it. She left Josue behind with his grandmother and other relatives when he was just a toddler. She made a new life in Waterloo, Iowa — had two more children, daughters now aged 8 and 13 — and won’t risk the danger of allowing her name to be published in a story. She allows her son to do an interview, but only if his middle name is used.

During their 11 years apart, she communicated with her son about twice a week by telephone, Internet and smart phone.

Hiring coyotes to bring him to America was out of the question all those years, but Honduras became increasingly violent. Gang members would take people hostage, shoot you if you didn’t have sex with them. They assaulted Josue as he walked to school.

Josue and his 21-year-old cousin sold cups of fruit in the streets, but when his cousin couldn’t pay the gang, he was shot. The murder of a fruit vendor made TV news in Honduras. Here is the story:

Josue was having seizures. His family said the stress was getting to him.

“By the looks of it, he was next,” a family friend said, translating.

The killing prompted the slain cousin’s brother to help bring Josue to America. So Josue, his cousin, his cousin’s wife and their baby took a bus through Honduras, then walked through Mexico for three days. Josue passed out from dehydration and hunger. The baby almost didn’t survive.

When they crossed the border into Texas, they looked for the U.S. Border Patrol. Josue was put in a jail in Texas, where he said he was punished by being sent to a cold room inmates called The Refrigerator. After seven days, he was sent to a shelter in Chicago for 21 days.

His mother called all over, trying to find her son. When she finally was allowed to pick him up, officials at the shelter told her to pick him up at a grocery store.

And so she saw her son for the first time in 11 years in a Chicago grocery store. What was that like?

“Very, very, very proud,” Josue says, smiling as his mother grabs his hand.

He doesn’t know much about the humanitarian border crisis in the United States, where 63,000 Central American “border kids” have streamed across the border since October. That’s double the number from last year and on pace to triple it.

According to federal statistics, 159 unaccompanied minors from Central America were released to sponsors, usually parents or relatives, in Iowa so far this year and 232 in Nebraska.

The surge of kids seeking shelter in the United States has led to scuffles between President Obama and Congress over how to respond, and in Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman has expressed outrage that the feds won’t give him information about the children who have been placed in the state.

Josue knows little of that; he only knows why he came — to escape violence and gangs.

He’s still getting accustomed to having sisters, to not being the only child. Not having to watch his back — that will take more time. Both he and his mother need counseling, their friend said.

But so far, he says of life in Waterloo, where his cousin and his family also now live, “I like it a lot.”

Whether he and his mom are allowed to stay, that will be decided on another day, in another courtroom.

This story originally appeared on

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