Ligsdenis Ochoa clutches her heart-shaped plastic purse as she's led through a circle of strangers. She pulls herself into a chair and stares at her feet for a few moments, watching them dangle above the floor. She looks up to survey the room, and a tight-lipped smile stretches across her face. Quick instincts tell her she's safe.
The floor is open for questions, but no one speaks. They seem stunned by her. After a few moments, a bookish man with shaggy white hair moves closer to the edge of his chair, looks at Ligsdenis' translator, a community organizer at the Latin American Coalition who hovers over her like a protective older brother, and raises his hand. "Tell her we're glad she's here."
He asks if she can explain how she arrived in Charlotte; how she managed to travel thousands of miles through some of the most dangerous countries in the world and wind up here, in the coalition's headquarters off Central Avenue.
As if describing a routine trip to the park, Ligsdenis says in Spanish that she and her grandmother got on buses and on top of trains. They ran and ran and ran. Thorns cut her skin.
As the faces around her go from curious to concerned, Ligsdenis' turns beet red. She begins to cry. Public speaking is hard for anyone, even the bravest of 9-year-olds.
Ligsdenis (pronounced Lexdeneece), her two brothers and their mother Jessica are the surprise guests of the evening. About 20 people had gathered in the hot, cramped room on a humid day in July to hear Aida Leticia Gonzales, director of a nonprofit in Honduras that serves women and children, talk about the veritable war zone her and Ligsdenis' home country has become.
Long-standing poverty and American military intervention has given rise to gang violence in Central American countries, including Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the world. In the last 10 years, the murders of women and children have increased by 346 percent, and that of men by 292 percent. Gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 prey on the poor and orphaned in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and other nearby countries, promising fast cash, power and protection. They've started capturing children to use as foot soldiers and drug mules. They kill at random.
As a result, some 50,000 to 60,000 kids have crossed into the U.S. in recent months, sometimes escorted by a relative but often traveling alone. The numbers have been so overwhelming, the federal government has resorted to holding the children in warehouses along the Texas/Mexico border or on military bases. If and when they're released, the court system is so backlogged that they're sent to relatives in the U.S., if they happen to have any here. But their journey isn't over.
UNDOCUMENTED MINORS in the U.S. are guaranteed an appearance in immigration court to either appeal or request special immunity from the deportation process, thanks to a law protecting such children from sex trafficking in their home countries. Before so many came to the U.S., chances were good the judge would dismiss the case, says local immigration attorney Tim Thanh Nguyen, meaning the children would remain in the States but without the proper documentation. But not anymore. Nguyen says he's heard judges have started the deportation process, due in part to political pressure. The only immigration court serving the Carolinas is in Charlotte.
Nguyen says he's seen more cases of undocumented minors crossing his desk in the last month, and he's heard anecdotally that the immigration court's docket has grown. But it's hard to say how many kids like Ligsdenis have arrived in Charlotte recently. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools doesn't know; the system doesn't keep track of its students' immigration status. The numbers are probably low, says Armando Bellmas, a spokesman for the Latin American Coalition, a resource center and first stop for many recently arrived immigrants.
Because the child sex trafficking law is prohibiting the federal government from quickly deporting children who've just crossed, most of the $3.7 billion President Barack Obama recently requested from Congress to help manage the influx will fund more security at the border and immigration judges to expedite the deportation process.
"That's just a fast track to get them out of the country and not really addressing any of the underlying issues," Nguyen says. (About $300 million is earmarked for the State Department to help understand the root cause of the crisis.) "I feel like these children are leaving for legitimate reasons, which directly calls into question our foreign policy and our economic policy in [Central America] from the '80s and '90s onward."
The Reagan administration had a heavy hand in Central America, funding right-wing political groups that started or perpetuated violent conflicts that killed thousands. Youth displaced by one such conflict, a bloody civil war in El Salvador, fled to the U.S.; many wound up in L.A. To protect themselves in the high-poverty areas in which they settled, some formed their own gang, known as Calle 18 (18th Street). A rival group soon followed, known as the Mara Salvatrucha. When the federal government began deporting members, sending them back to their home countries, they took their alliances with them.
And the vicious cycle continued.
The Central American children currently fleeing the Maras and Calle 18 could request asylum in the U.S., but their chances of being denied are high. Such a protection is usually granted to those fleeing political persecution based on ethnicity or faith, not persecution from the private sector. As a result, many of the children could wind up back in their home countries. "I think the resources Obama is asking for, it shouldn't go to removing these kids but more toward trying to defend them, trying to get lawyers that can adequately represent them," Nguyen says.
EIGHT YEARS AGO, Ligsdenis father, a police officer, and his family began to receive death threats from gang members. So Jessica left Honduras and headed north, but not without a plan, hatched between her and her mother, to eventually reunite with Ligsdenis in the U.S.
Jessica and Ligsdenis are from the Honduran coast, a part of the country especially ravaged by the Maras, known for human trafficking and raping and killing women and girls. "It was either she died there, or she died on the way here," Jessica says.
When Ligsdenis was 8, her 55-year-old grandmother sold everything they had, right down to toys, for enough money to make the long voyage north. People usually drain their life savings for the trip, which can cost upwards of $10,000. Most of the money goes to human smugglers known as coyotes, who specialize in transnational crossings.
Ligsdenis and her grandmother left a few months ago. They walked and took buses through most of Central America, then cut through Mexico by hopping on a series of freight trains migrants use to quickly travel from the country's southern border to the interior, close to Mexico City.
Not only is Mexico dangerous, consumed by its own drug wars, but the train system itself is so treacherous — packed with migrants and criminals who prey on their vulnerability — that it's known as La Bestia (The Beast).
Ligsdenis didn't elaborate on her experience on the train, but the perils she faced are indescribable anyhow. Surviving the ride is a miracle unto itself. Sharp curves often throw riders off, killing or dismembering them. Theft is common, and food and water is scarce. Waiting at most stops are members of drug gangs, there to rob, rape or forcibly recruit migrants.
Still, the 1,500 people who ride La Bestia every day — that's a 2013 estimate — would rather take a chance on the death train than live at home.
Ligsdenis and her grandmother managed to cross into the U.S. but were detained by border patrol agents in south Texas. Ligsdenis was released because of her age and sent to another detention center, in Michigan, only to eventually make her way to Charlotte. She and her mother reunited just after Ligsdenis' 9th birthday.
Jessica didn't say why or how she ended up in Charlotte eight years ago, just that she needs an attorney to help her keep Ligsdenis here — which she can't afford. Jessica's mother is still in the first detention center, many of which are so packed, there isn't room to sleep. It would cost $7,500 to get her out, but with "not $7,500 or even $75" to do so, Jessica says, the future is uncertain for all three (Jessica is also undocumented).
MELBA SALAZAR-LUCIO has spent the last few weeks volunteering at shelters in the Texas/Mexico border town of Brownsville. Like the rest of south Texas, the city has felt the recent uptick in undocumented migrants. In Laredo, a border town about three hours away, visitors are unable to rent hotel rooms. They're occupied by media and law enforcement agents.
The Rio Grande divides Texas and Mexico, but this time of year, when rain is especially scarce, shallow parts of the powerful river are reduced to streams. Crossing into the U.S. becomes that much easier, despite a giant wall that runs along much of the border.
After migrants cross the U.S. border and if border patrol agents pick them up, they are held in a detention facility in Brownsville. Some call relatives around the U.S., who pay for their bus fare north. Those without relations are held in the facility, sometimes up to two weeks, or shipped to another. Salazar-Lucio has seen a steady trickle of women and children arrive from Central America — not nearly the number some American cities close to the border have seen, such as in Murrieta, California, where anti-immigrant protesters recently stopped buses of women and children from entering the city — but enough so that she sees at least five or six a day off to their destinations, wherever they may be in the U.S., with some toiletries and a bag of mostly nonperishable food and a few sandwiches. It's all the food they'll likely have on journeys that could end on either coast or up North.
Between the holding center and the bus station, volunteers like Salazar-Lucio invite the women to a shelter for the opportunity to clean themselves and eat. Many haven't had a proper meal or bathed since they left Central America. She says the women are extremely thin and weak but thankful for her help and for making it into the U.S. They often ask to visit a church.
"They're saying, 'Look, we couldn't put up with what's happening in our country,'" Salazar-Lucio says. "'They're coming and they're stealing our kids.' They don't feel safe in their homes."
Although Ligsdenis spent her first eight years there, the thought of returning to Honduras makes her emotional. "I don't want to go back," she says, as if recalling a bad dream.