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Honduran man waits for asylum after 12-year fight

Sunday - 8/3/2014, 10:40am  ET

In this July 26, 2014 photo, Celvyn Mejia Romero, right, hugs his mother Susana Romero before an interview at the Greater Boston Legal Services in Boston. Mejia Romero, who came to the U.S. from Honduras when he was 10 years old, is trying to bid for asylum. The flood of kids at the borders has ignited a political firestorm, but a divided Congress headed home for a five-week summer break, unable to find solutions for what has been called a “humanitarian crisis.” (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

AP National Writer

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.'"

"That," he now says, "made me cry.'"

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. "I'd feel like I'm free. ... I would feel happy, happy, happy. It would be the best day of my life."

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 after his arrival.

"I feel sad for them," he says of the kids now trying to enter the U.S. "They remind me a lot of when I was younger. ... I feel like it's my life."

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. With the Senate already on a five-week summer break, a divided Congress headed home unable to agree on solutions for what has been called a "humanitarian crisis."

The number of child asylum cases in recent months, though, has been relatively small.

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 last October to this 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 of 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 under U.S. law.

"The challenge that we face is the kinds of claims these kids are presenting," says 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, says Judy London, an immigration lawyer in Los Angeles who has represented many children. "It's an impossible system to navigate without a lawyer," she says. The cases, she adds, 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.

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