Finding freedom in Bradenton: Legal path filled with roadblocks, uncertainties

Joel hugs his son, Christopher, at their home in Bradenton. Christopher is one of many young children who have traveled from South and Central America to the U.S. seeking a new life. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

Joel hugs his son, Christopher, at their home in Bradenton. Christopher is one of many young children who have traveled from South and Central America to the U.S. seeking a new life.
GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

(This story originally appeared in the Bradenton Herald)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Finding a child living through the immigration crisis was only the first step for Herald reporters Amaris Castillo and Richard Dymond. With the help of an immigration attorney, the reporters found a family in fear of deportation willing to share their story. This is the second of a series of stories as we share their dreams, fears and struggles.

By AMARIS CASTILLO and RICHARD DYMOND

BRADENTON – Bradenton immigration attorney Thomas Goldman was among those listening intently as President Barack Obama suspended deportation recently for 4.1 million undocumented parents in the United States.

As he watched the president, Goldman was thinking of Christopher, who arrived in Bradenton from Honduras more than a year ago when he was just 11, and whose parents have hired Goldman to help Christopher achieve U.S. citizenship.

Like his journey to the United States from his native Honduras, which the Bradenton Herald chronicled Sunday, Christopher’s journey to citizenship is fraught with roadblocks and uncertainties.

Obama’s actions could have long-range impacts on Christopher’s family, Goldman told the Herald.

“The new law doesn’t directly impact Christopher at all. It just allows his parents to enter the discussion,” the immigration attorney said.

Obama’s executive order will allow Christopher’s parents to apply for work permits and get driver’s licenses, provided they pass background checks. And that, Goldman said, should help Christopher.

“His application for prosecutorial discretion will be viewed in a better light,” Goldman said, referring to a legal document Goldman filed, asking customs officials to choose not to take any deportation procedures against Christopher.

“If it is granted, it does not mean Christopher has legal status,” Goldman said. “It simply means that they will not choose to deport him. Obviously, I would rather have him be granted asylum.”

***

It’s impossible for many Americans to understand how a family can leave a child behind.

For many immigrant parents who come to the United States illegally, they consider the danger of the trip, the expense, kidnappers on the journey and even how to care for children once they are here trying to establish themselves.

But so many children want to flee danger in their country and be reunited with their parents, they are deciding to make the journey alone.

The top five countries from which children flee to Manatee County are Honduras, Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and Cuba. The waves of unaccompanied minors who have crossed into the U.S. border from Central and South America have been described by President Barack Obama as an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

Last month, Obama announced plans to fix the nation’s broken immigration system, part of which will shield up to 5 million undocumented people from deportation.

In his address, the president emphasized deportations of criminals, which he said is up 80 percent over the past six years.

“And that’s why we’re going to keep focusing enforcement resources on actual threats to our security,” Obama said in his address. “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children.”

***

In Bradenton, Christopher feels free. Back in Honduras, the boy says, there’s hardly any freedom.

Christopher arrived in Bradenton from Honduras more than a year ago when he was just 11, full of hope that he would stay here with his parents.

His father and mother, Joel and Nina, went to a local Catholic church to help find an immigration lawyer for Christopher.

The church referred them to Goldman of Goldman and Loughlin, whom they first met in October 2013, a couple of months after Christopher arrived from a Houston detention center.

Joel, a construction worker who spoke to Goldman after Obama’s speech, believes he falls in the group of undocumented immigrants targeted by the president.

He has faith God will help his son and his family.

“Everything will work out because God is going to be with us,” he said, “and is always with us.”

Goldman filed a political asylum application for Christopher with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The interview for asylum was set for September in Miami, where Goldman was to present Christopher’s case. With asylum, Christopher could apply for a green card after living in the United States for a year, enabling him to live and eventually work in the United States. A green card — which can be renewed every 10 years — would also allow Christopher to travel out of the country, if he desired.

The family knew the 8 a.m. court hearing in Miami was critical.

“I told Joel it was very important to be on time and asked him to try to be in Miami the day before the interview,” Goldman said.

But Joel, who cannot get a driver’s license in the United States because of his undocumented immigrant status, was afraid to drive to Miami alone with his son. Getting pulled over by a police officer could mean losing his car and being sent to jail with no one to care for his son.

He also feared an arrest would lead to his own deportation.

“I don’t want to leave my family alone here,” Joel said.

He could not find a ride to Miami until the same day as the Sept. 10 hearing. He paid an acquaintance $250 to take him and his son to Miami. The three left at 2:30 a.m.

On the way, they had a flat tire and then another blowout. They ended up at a Walmart and had to wait for its auto repair shop to open to fix the second flat. By then, they were just past Fort Myers.

“We’re going to be 2 1/2 hours late,” Joel told Goldman over the phone.

“They dismiss cases if you are 10 minutes late,” Goldman said.

By the time Joel and Christopher made it to Miami, the appointment had been canceled. A new hearing date has yet to be set.

“Everything I’m doing is for him and, with any little error, it’s your fault,” Joel said. “In court, you can’t give excuses… if you have a 7 a.m. appointment, it’s at 7… if you don’t show up, you don’t show up.”

Disappointment is clear in Goldman’s voice.

“I think Christopher really had a chance to be granted asylum on Sept. 10,” Goldman said.

For every immigrant student Goldman represents in Manatee County, he estimates there may be 100 who do not have the money for an attorney or who have chosen to stay in the shadows and not seek permanent resident status or citizenship.

The “American Dream,” he says, is a powerful enticement to millions in other countries.

“These parents want to be in America so badly that they will leave a child in their home country to make a life here,” he said. “They will send money back to have the child reunited. It’s foreign to us.”

***

If Christopher is denied asylum, the case will be referred to an immigration judge and his case will proceed through the court system.

“Five years from the date Christopher receives permanent residence, he can apply for citizenship,” Goldman said. “I think he has a credible case. Proving a case for asylum based on persecution is difficult. You have to show the persecution was caused by the government or by those the government can’t control — and my experience is that both the officers and the judges have problems with that latter phrase.”

For Christopher, the transition is all about living with his mami and papi in a new country. For Joel, the transition is filled with guilt over the years of separation and fear of losing his son again.

There are organizations set up to help immigrant families deal with the guilt and the past separation.

Lissette Fernandez, a Manatee County School immigrant social worker, provides therapeutic services to address such issues as establishing relationships with family members and/or difficulties establishing and finding their identity within a new culture.

“Besides counseling, the program offers parenting classes to guide the families on the acculturation process, field trips to museums and landmarks to help students acquire knowledge on the new culture and mentoring programs, which are currently being established in different schools to assist students with their academics as well as social stimulation,” Fernandez said.

Though Joel has Christopher with him now, it’s still clearly painful for him to speak about the past.

“He went through a lot in Honduras that he never, never told anyone and as a father, I left him,” he said. “I left him alone with his grandmother.”

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