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Network of advocates progresses in fight for rights of undocumented minors

It's compassion with action

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People filter into the church's gym a little past 2 p.m. on a rainy, humid Friday, and find seats at the various fold-out tables in the corner of the basketball court. Some browse the generic-brand cookies and water bottles laid out on a nearby table. Lacey Williams of the Latin American Coalition calls the meeting to order, but first, she apologizes for the heat. The A/C has just been turned on, she says, to everyone's delight.

Rain or shine, the Charlotte Compassion Action Network (CAN) has met at Caldwell Presbyterian every Friday for the last three months. A mix of immigration activists, lawyers, faith-based leaders and ESL counselors and teachers with the local school district, CAN formed after news broke over the summer that thousands of undocumented minors were fleeing their gang war-torn homes in Central America for the U.S. While the federal and state and local governments scrambled (and still scramble) to handle the influx — providing temporary housing other than military bases, for example — advocates across the country formed groups like CAN to pool their own resources for the estimated 70,000 children. Anywhere between 1,200 and 1,900 are said to be in North Carolina, with some 500 in Charlotte.

Compassion Action Network was hopeful that the federal government would have money available after the start of the new fiscal year (Oct. 1) to fund privately organized efforts to temporarily shelter the children who don't have sponsors. It's estimated that 15 percent of the children nationwide don't have family members or sponsors to stay with while they await their day in immigration court. But three weeks into October they had yet to hear anything. Meanwhile, those children are in foster care.

Life is hardly easier for the children who are with sponsors. Ligsdenis Ochoa, a 9-year-old girl from Honduras CL profiled this summer, lives with her mother and two brothers, but to stay in the U.S. her lawyer will have to serve her father in Honduras with custody papers — tracking him down won't be easy — and prove to an immigration judge that he abandoned his daughter. If the judge agrees, Ligsdenis can remain in the U.S. under a special law that's meant to protect immigrant children from human trafficking.

Though her fate is hardly determined, Ligsdenis is significantly more fortunate than most of the children who came to the U.S. under similar conditions. Her high-profile case (the Charlotte Observer also wrote about her) nabbed the attention of a local immigration attorney, but many children will simply go to court — if they know when their court date is and if they're not too scared to show up — and, without anyone to argue in their defense, be deported. As the laws stand, immigrants can seek refugee status if they fled political or religious persecution. Murderous gangs that recruit children against their will or sell them into prostitution don't count.

Tin Thanh Nguyen, Ochoa's lawyer, and other CAN members have worked to recruit immigration and family-court attorneys who will provide the children with pro bono legal services. So far, about 100 cases have been assigned to volunteer attorneys.

The legal needs of these children are obvious. What hasn't been so crystal clear is how to help them overcome the mental trauma they've endured, either at home or on their treacherous journeys here, which for many included riding atop freight trains without food or water, eluding drug gangs in Mexico and, in many cases, being physically or sexually abused by other people heading north.

"[CAN] started with a group of people who are passionate and really wanted to help the kids and their sponsors," Nguyen said. "There was such a big learning curve, trying to learn about who these kids are, what are the services they need, and how [we] could help. Now we're just finalizing the concrete ways to provide those services."

The group recently sponsored a book bag drive and is accepting donations, which will go mostly toward legal and health-care services. A recent lecturer taught guidance counselors in the group how to identify and treat children who suffer from PTSD brought on by their home lives or trips north.

Members of CAN are also learning from each other. Williams of the Latin American Coalition says she is surprised by how many conservative churches have sent representatives to meetings. Though immigration can be a divisive topic, conservative attendees have seemed more interested in the well-being of the children than in partisanship.

Caldwell's bespectacled senior pastor, the Rev. John Cleghorn, sits near the table of refreshments. He's far enough away from the group not to be an active member, but he is listening. Hosting a group like CAN is completely in line with the mission of Caldwell Presbyterian, he said in an earlier interview.

Though it's more than a century old, the church reinvented itself less than a decade ago when the last few remaining members, mostly senior citizens, joined forces with a more progressive, less traditional faith community in town that was using Caldwell as a meeting space, to keep the old church alive. Caldwell has since rented the now-empty building next door to an Islamic school and hosts Latin American Coalition's candlelight vigils to commemorate immigrants who have been deported.

Caldwell will continue to host CAN meetings as long as the group needs space. If and when the feds loosen their coffers, Cleghorn is even hopeful that the church will receive money to convert some empty space into a temporary shelter for the children. Nguyen hopes to recruit more pro bono legal services, especially attorneys who specialize in family court. In the meantime, hundreds of children, including Ligsdenis, await their time in court.

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