When he arrived at the Texas border, Celvyn Mejia Romero was a scared 10-year-old, with a machete scar and memories of a murdered uncle as reminders of why he’d embarked on a long, perilous journey from Honduras.
He feared staying in his homeland and desperately wanted to join his mother in the U.S. In July 2002, he and two cousins – 6 and 14 – ended up near Brownsville after traveling by train, bus and foot. He remembers his grandmother, who lived in Arimis, Honduras, preparing to send him away, handing him a bag of food, some water and telling him: “Get on the bus. Don’t look back. … Don’t come and hug me. Don’t say goodbye.”
Twelve years later, Mejla Romero is still fighting to stay in America. His tenacious – and unusually long – bid for asylum offers a singular glimpse into the complex world of immigration law and rules that many legal experts say are fiendishly difficult for anyone, especially kids, to negotiate. And yet at 22, Mejia Romero, who has lived longer in the U.S. than in his native Honduras, is hoping he’ll prevail.
“I think if I win this case … all my nightmares would end because I’d know I’m not going back there,” he said in an interview from his lawyers’ office in Boston.
Mejia Romero, who’d tried once before to get to the U.S. but was turned back in El Salvador, says he empathizes with the thousands of Central American kids who’ve recently appeared at the southern border without their parents. Many say they’re escaping gangs back home and hoping to reunite with family. Mejia Romero’s mother came to the U.S. when he was just 2, fleeing an abusive boyfriend; he remembers the joy of embracing her eight years later.
The flood of kids at the borders has ignited a political firestorm, with the House late Friday passing strict measures that the president quickly condemned. The Senate is already on a five-week summer break.
Last week, the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services told a congressional hearing his agency had received more than 1,500 asylum applications from unaccompanied minors from October to June – just about 4 percent of the total. Most kids, though, don’t file for asylum for many months after their arrival.
Some critics say it has become too easy to win asylum and the standards for demonstrating persecution are too lenient. A person has to demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Kids seeking asylum based on fear of gangs often have trouble convincing immigration judges that’s the kind of persecution that warrants protection.
“The challenge that we face is the kinds of claims these kids are presenting,” said Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that provides pro bono lawyers for unaccompanied refugee and immigrant children in the U.S. “The law is very murky. … To these kids, they don’t care if it’s the military who’s holding a gun to their head or a gang member. They’re fleeing for their lives.”
What is clear is these kids won’t prevail alone, said Judy London, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented many children. “It’s an impossible system to navigate without a lawyer,” she said. The cases, she added, are extraordinarily time-consuming, with lawyers spending dozens of hours just getting kids to open up about their traumatic experiences.
The importance of lawyers was borne out in a recent report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University that surveyed more than 100,000 cases of unaccompanied children in immigration court from 2005 to the end of June. It found that in almost half the cases where kids were represented by a lawyer, the judge allowed them to stay. In contrast, nine of 10 kids who appeared without a lawyer were ordered deported.
Some asylum cases are resolved in a few years; others can take much longer.
As Mejia Romero has grown from boy to man, his lawyers have kept his bid alive, despite numerous setbacks, starting with a denial by the immigration judge in 2007.
The Honduran native, then a teen, had testified that a former neighbor had struck him with a machete and used the weapon to destroy his grandmother’s home. He said he’d been harassed by a gang and they’d thrown him off the roof of a small house. His mother testified, too.
‘DECADES OF PERSECUTION’
The judge concluded those experiences were “troubling” but “no more than a series of isolated altercations” with a disgruntled neighbor and some bullies. He said they did not qualify as past persecution and assumed there would none if he returned.
An immigration appeals board agreed. So did a federal appeals court panel in a 2-1 decision. But in a strongly worded dissent, the third judge said the young man’s family had suffered “decades of persecution” for political activities advocating land reform.
The dissenting judge said it was wrong to rely exclusively on the “simplistic” oral testimony of Mejia Romero, who’d been diagnosed with PTSD and couldn’t fully articulate his family’s predicament because of his young age.
“He explained the harm he had suffered but he couldn’t really explain the underlying reasons,” John Willshire-Carrera, co-managing director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic at Greater Boston Legal Services, said of his client.
The dissenting judge said there was “powerful” evidence to support claims of persecution, citing the young man’s injuries, including an 8-inch machete scar on his leg and others on his back and arm. He also noted the killing of Mejia Romero’s step-grandfather by soldiers and the murder of his uncle.
The failure by the administrative courts, he wrote, “inflicts a terrible human price on a child who has turned to the United States for protection.”
His lawyers pressed for a review by the full court. The same three-judge panel reversed itself, sending the case back to the immigration appeals board. Mejia Romero ended up making his bid last year to an asylum officer in the Department of Homeland Security.
Because of changes in the law, a similar case nowadays would first be heard by an asylum officer and a decision would not take so long.
Both mother and son say they live with constant dread he’ll be sent back.
She tries to remain confident that after a dozen years, this ruling will be in their favor.
“You have to have patience,” she said. “We’re always hoping for the best.”