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Adan Barahona knows well the violence along the migrant trail taken by Central American youths to the U.S. He took that path of escape from Honduras 21 years ago.
Back home, his girlfriend was pregnant with their daughter. That child, Giselle, would grow up and fall victim to gang brutality in a case severe enough to qualify her for special passage to the U.S. as a refugee.
Giselle, now 21, will come legally to Texas as part of a program started a year ago after advocates — including the United Nations and nonprofit organizations — pushed for the U.S. government to recognize some young Central American migrants as refugees fleeing persecution.
The chance to protect a second generation from violence fills Barahona with gratitude.
“Thanks to God she’ll be a refugee,” said Barahona, 43, who has married and has two children eager to unite with their older half-sister.
There’s a big difference between a legal refugee and a migrant illegally crossing the border. A refugee can receive permanent residency after a year and can eventually become a U.S. citizen. Children crossing the border without their parents and without authorization face a judge and can be deported.
It’s ironic, the father knows, that his daughter will arrive as a refugee, while other Central American youths are entering the country the way he did. The children caught by the Border Patrol remind him of his own sad journey.
Barahona shakes his head furiously when asked if he considered placing his daughter in the hands of a coyote, a human smuggler. “It took me two months to get here and I was in the streets asking for food,” he said. “Two times, the Mexicans threw us back into Guatemala. They assaulted us. There was a girl with us and they raped her.”
He paused as he recalled his journey. “They were armed, and you are powerless,” he said.
His wife, Maritza, said Giselle continues to face threats, as do others in a country that had the world’s highest homicide rate in 2013 for a nation not at war, according to the most recent report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
“When she gets paid, they are right there and say, ‘Give me what you have,’” said Maritza, a factory worker who was also born in Honduras.
“Those that suffer are the new generation,” she said.
The refugee program for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala was started a year ago after a surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors stunned federal officials — as did the horror stories of the violence they fled. Many called the children “refugees,” but they didn’t have that official status, which comes from a vetting process with U.S. and United Nations officials.
Nationally, about 5,000 young people have applied for the program. Fewer than a dozen have arrived in the U.S.
Local resettlement agencies filed for refugee status for about 300 young people who remained in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
Under conditions of this refugee program, the parents or legal guardians must have lawful presence in the U.S. Barahona is covered by what’s called “temporary protected status,” which allows him to work but doesn’t put him on the path to U.S. citizenship.
The refugee program extends to youths up to 21 years of age. (Giselle applied before her 21st birthday.) The children must apply while in their home country, a stipulation designed to discourage them from taking the perilous passage through multiple borders.
The International Rescue Committee in Dallas has filed the bulk of applications in North Texas. “We are trying to reach as many as possible,” said Daley Ryan, deputy director for the IRC in Dallas. “The IRC remains concerned with conditions forcing these kids to come in the first place. We want to get the word out that the IRC is here.”
Added Enrique Polavieja, an IRC immigration specialist, “These families have nothing to lose. It’s not perfect but it gives kids a chance at a life better than in El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras.”
Building a successful refugee case isn’t easy. Polavieja said he has seen many applications denied even when children are already in refugee camps in other parts of the world. “The only thing I can believe is that the kid cannot explain what happened to them,” he said.
Meanwhile, Barahona, a maintenance worker at an apartment complex, waits for word of his daughter’s arrival.
Giselle was raised by her mother’s relatives in Honduras after her mother fled to Mexico, where she married another man. When Giselle was a teenager, a gang member took her to live with him in San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in that violent nation. She became like a slave, her father said, until she escaped a few years ago.
Today, she talks about her love for children and wants to become a teacher, Barahona said.
A tall, fat Christmas tree with twinkling lights sits in the Barahona living room in their southeast Dallas home. A green parakeet named Taco chirps from the kitchen.
The bedroom for Giselle features a cheery red-and-white bedspread and satiny cream curtains. An ornament with the word “love” cascades down a wall.
A special pillow has been embroidered by her stepmother with threads of pink, burgundy and orange. Letters line up to read: “Dios te ama” (God loves you). Orange marigolds peek out from the pillow, like the marigolds in the front yard of the house she’ll soon call home.