By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Unaccompanied minors coming to US, Hall County seek safe haven from violence
08122018 IMMIGRATIONsponsors 1.jpg
Evelio Lopez came to U.S. from Guatemala at age 17. He was picked up by ICE at the border and was put in foster care, before eventually making it to Gainesville. After four years, he received a special juvenile immigrant visa and now lives in Dawsonville with his brother.

Some 55 children who crossed the U.S. border unaccompanied by an adult have found a home with sponsors in Hall County so far in fiscal year 2018, which ends Sept. 30, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In fiscal year 2017, that number was 75.

A total of 41,000 “unaccompanied minors” were apprehended by immigration authorities at the Mexican border from October 2017 through July, according to numbers provided by U.S. Border Patrol.

Other leading Georgia counties where children are resettled include DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Cherokee.

These children can petition for a special immigrant juvenile classification that, if approved, allows them to apply for residency status.

The children, some of whom are teenagers fleeing violence in their home countries, are typically sent to shelters until a relative, sponsor or some other guardian can be found to care for them while immigration proceedings continue.

“They know to turn themselves in at the border to immigration authorities,” immigration attorney Giovanna Holden said.

While asylum cases might be an ideal option for adults fleeing violence or persecution — or for families who have been separated after being detained at the border under a new Trump administration “zero tolerance” policy enacted this past spring — seeking dependency status and working toward a legal residency is a “much better alternative” for unaccompanied minors, Holden said.

08122018 IMMIGRATIONsponsors 3.jpg
Evelio Lopez reads from his phone Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018, at his home in Dawson County. Lopez came to U.S. from Guatemala at age 17. He was picked up by ICE at the border in Texas and was put in foster care, before eventually making it to Gainesville.

Hard journey in search of ‘a better life’

After spending the night under a tree on the border near McAllen, Texas, Evelio Lopez-Lopez awoke with immigration authorities all around him.

The then 17-year-old from Guatemala felt they surrounded him “like I was a murderer.” 

Having worked on a ranch since he was 10, Lopez made the decision to come to the United States because “in Guatemala, sometimes you do not have those opportunities to improve yourself,” he said.

On the ranch, the pay was 350 quetzales per week, about $50, though sometimes there wasn’t enough work to go around.

Lopez knew traveling to the U.S. border was going to be dangerous, but he “just put in his mind that he was going to have a better life” in America, he said through interpreter Beatriz Shirley.

Traveling 12 to 15 hours per day, Lopez made the monthlong journey in 2014 to the U.S. border, where he was picked up by law enforcement near McAllen.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the only reason why we come to the United States is to have a better life and be successful. They don’t realize how hard sometimes it is to survive,” he said.

Four years later, after rounds of legal paperwork and court hearings, the Dawsonville man still was waiting last week for his green card to come in the mail. 

“Usually if the person does not come legally to the United States, they cannot adjust their status here. They cannot get their residency from here, but in the case of a minor with an order of dependency, then that person can still apply for residency,” said Jama Ibrahim, his attorney.

At one point of his journey, Lopez was on a bus and later robbed, left only with 100 pesos to get to the border.

“I continued to travel ... where I walked all night,” Lopez said.

At the border, Lopez said he found friends who gave him water as they set out to cross the Rio Bravo. He said immigration officials ran after them, causing Lopez to get lost without knowing where he was going. 

After being taken into custody, Lopez would eventually come to Gainesville and join his brother.

He started work as a dishwasher in a restaurant while his case began.

For some juvenile clients who started their court proceedings in 2016, Ibrahim said they are still awaiting for their adjustment of status and/or applying for permanent residency.

One of the requirements of the juvenile classification is that “it is not in (the applicant’s) best interests to return to the country of nationality or last habitual residence of (the applicant or their parents,” according to Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Ibrahim said the gangs in Guatemala and across central America threaten the livelihoods of those who don’t join their enterprises.

“They either tell them ‘you join us or we kill you or we kill your family.’ That’s what they usually do,” he said.

In June, Lopez’s residency status was approved by the immigration judge. Lopez recently moved with his brother to Dawsonville after the brother got a better job.

Lopez is still working in a restaurant and hopes to become a U.S. citizen, as he aspires to potentially open his own restaurant or business in the future.

Nick Watson

12302017 FOSTER 0001.jpg
Judge Joe Diaz poses for a portrait in Gainesville, on Thursday, Dec. 28, 2017. - photo by David Barnes

El Salvadoran teen girl finds a temporary reprieve in Hall

The teenage girl, her timid eyes darting side to side, entered the courtroom with arms folded.

But she wasn’t alone. Her mother shuffled in behind, along with an immigration attorney, Giovanna Holden, each hoping to plead the case of the 17-year-old from El Salvador who was looking for sanctuary in America. 

The Times agreed not to name her due to her age.

Hall County Juvenile Court Judge Joe Diaz said he’s had two or three dependency cases a month on his docket recently. He is charged with determining whether these minors are placed into suitable homes with guardians who have the financial resources to care for them. 

This girl crossed the border in June 2016, but it can take months and even years to receive an immigration hearing.

When the notice finally came, her family in the United States contacted Holden to begin seeking legal residency. 

When the girl came before Diaz in July, it was unclear whether she would be granted the opportunity to pursue her immigration claim.

“How are you?” he asked.

“Bien (fine),” the girl said. 

But the girl also revealed she is still shaken by her experience traveling to a new country where the culture and language are foreign.

When Diaz asked the girl why she decided to undertake a dangerous journey to America, she informed the judge she had been harassed at school.

“There was a man that was looking for me at the school,” the girl said, Holden translating for the court. “He told me that I had to give him money or he was going to harm me.”

When Diaz asked about her relationship with this individual, the girl responded: “I don’t know him.”

By this time the girl’s mother had already come to the United States, she said, running from a domestic abuser and seeking refuge with family living here. The mother’s immigration case for residency is still pending. 

The girl reported the harassment she faced to her aunt, she said, who had become her primary caregiver. The threats persisted, however, and the girl left school fearing she was the target of the country’s notorious gangs. 

Diaz inquired whether law enforcement was helpful or would be if she returned to El Salvador.

“I don’t know,” the girl said. “I don’t think so.”

The mother told the judge that a smuggler, known as a “coyote,” was paid to transport the girl to the U.S. border.

While in Guatemala, the girl said she joined a convoy of sorts, including families and other unaccompanied minors, and remained with them all the way north through Mexico.

The girl said she stayed at different homes along the 20-day ordeal and that her only desire was “to be safe, to get here and have a better life.”

When Diaz questioned the mother about the safety risks her daughter faced along the way, she nodded in response.

“But I trusted my daughter into the hands of God, so I knew she was going to be OK,” the mother said.

The girl was placed in a shelter for about a week before being handed into the care of family in Hall. 

Diaz later told the girl: “You have taken a very large risk and I am very thankful that you made it safely here. Some people aren’t so fortunate. That tells me it must have been pretty bad for you to take that risk ... or your dreams for the future are that strong.”

Diaz ruled it is in the best interest of the girl for the court to find she is in a state of dependence and keep her in her mother’s care at least until she turns 18. 

By the time the girl had arrived to court, her father had already waived his claim to care for her in El Salvador.

“It’s a little different in that mom’s actually here,” Diaz said.

The mother agreed to care for and support her daughter while the girl attends high school.

“I want her to be a professional,” the mother said. “I want her to be somebody in life.”

Holden said one or more hearings with Diaz to update him on the girl’s status is likely before the year is out. The girl will now be allowed to proceed with her immigration case as she seeks official residency as a special status minor.

“It’s one step in a long process, but not the end,” Holden said. 

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “If you are in the United States and need the protection of a juvenile court because you have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent, you may be eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile classification. If (this) classification is granted, you may qualify for lawful permanent residency.”

For now, Diaz told the girl to keep her nose clean and work hard. 

“This is now your community,” he said. “And you’re an important part of it. I hope you will make the most of the opportunity you sought out. Have faith in yourself and do your best.” 

“Gracias,” the girl replied.

Joshua Silavent

Regional events