N.O. a hub for Honduran children fleeing violence

To understand why Central American children are flooding United States borders, start with Juan Molina’s story.

Molina, 41, came from a Honduran family of 10 children, most of whom remain in Honduras and are afraid for their lives every day.

Every day, gangs demand “war taxes” — basically, a cut of everyone’s wages, bank withdrawals or remittances from the United States.

The rules are simple: Those who don’t pay, die.

Children are pressured into working for gangs as messengers, drug mules or girlfriends.

Children who resist are killed. Children who flee in fear of their lives are increasingly being placed by federal immigration officials in New Orleans, where they live with Honduran relatives while they go through deportation proceedings.

Nationally, nearly all of the increase in unaccompanied child migrants can be traced to the so-called “northern triangle” of Central America — Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala — and so New Orleans immigration attorneys are seeing children from all three countries. But in New Orleans, most are Honduran, owing to the city’s longstanding links to that country, said law professor Hiroko Kusada, who oversees immigration cases that come through the Loyola Law Clinic.

“Children are going where they have ties. People are sending them to their extended families for safety,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie, who heads the Minneapolis-based refugee and immigrant agency Advocates for Human Rights.

New Orleans has more than 25,000 Hondurans, with roots that go back a century to the former United Fruit Co. and Standard Fruit Co., now Chiquita and Dole. The two companies were headquartered here, but they grew bananas in Central America, especially in Honduras, where they controlled much of the land and, for a time, the government.

It’s because of those ties that Louisiana ranks ninth among the 50 states in the number of immigrant children who have been placed here. Other states with high immigrant populations — Texas, New York and California — top the list; Texas alone has taken in 4,280 children.

There’s nothing remotely approaching a national consensus on what should be done about the huge influx of child immigrants, now among the most hotly debated and polarizing topics in Washington.

But immigration lawyer Kathleen Gasparian, of the Metairie firm Ware Gasparian, hopes — perhaps naively — that New Orleans can be at the forefront of a paradigm shift. “When we’re talking about children, we’re talking about a humanitarian crisis,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that New Orleans has the opportunity to shape the dialogue. We can make it a dialogue about compassion.”

On Tuesday night, nuns, priests and church members gathered to discuss the crisis and its causes at St. Anthony of Padua School on Canal Street, which hosted a dialogue sponsored by three Catholic church groups: Catholic Charities of New Orleans, the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Office of Racial Harmony and the Jesuit Social Research Institute.

There, a 12-year-old named Michael spoke briefly, telling the crowd that he and his sister left Honduras in the fall after they arrived home from school to find the house under siege by gunmen. “We couldn’t pay the war tax,” he said, as he broke into tears and found himself unable to speak.

Molina, who also spoke, said he arrived here 20 years ago under different circumstances. He had a sister who was already living in New Orleans, and he followed her here for the sort of opportunity that he couldn’t get at home. “He wasn’t able to get a job; he couldn’t provide,” said his wife, Jennifer Molina.

The Honduran economy is just as bad now, if not worse, the Molinas said. But several years ago, economic misery in Honduras was surpassed by the constant threat of violence.

Juan Molina’s mother makes “barely enough to pay the bills” by working at an open-air market, selling backpacks and other small items. Still, each day, his mother must make a payment to the gang that runs the market, and then a second payment to the gang that controls her neighborhood.

Molina’s oldest sister and her husband ended up moving to New York after receiving death threats against them and their children because they owned a successful Sherwin Williams paint store. Before they left, to avoid robbery, they had to wear wigs and fake mustaches to go to the bank.

A sister-in-law who runs a small business selling tchotchkes and trinkets from her house was pistol-whipped, slashed with a knife and robbed outside her bank by four men working in cahoots with a teller who told them exactly how much money she had taken out, the Molinas said. Yet she didn’t report it because the men who robbed her were ex-cops; the very next day, she saw one of them shaking hands with the chief of police.

The Molina family “is just a regular family,” the Molinas said, but this is the kind of trouble every Honduran family faces now.

The violence extends to children, who are pressured into helping the gangs. Children whom McKenzie has interviewed have drawn little maps, showing where their houses and schools are and the gang lines they have to cross, she said. That, to them, is everyday life.

The targeting of Honduran children reminds McKenzie of the dynamic she saw in Sierra Leone, where child soldiers were conscripted into rebel troops and armed forces, which also used young girls as sex slaves and servants who were threatened with death if they fled.

In earlier years, the number of unaccompanied youth entering the country was typically about 6,000, McKenzie said. The number may reach 90,000 by the end of this calendar year.

Kusada’s law clinic caseload included one or two unaccompanied-youth cases a year until it rose steeply over the past academic year. Soon, half of the clinic’s caseload soon will be children. “We hear horrible stories every day,” she said.

One of the sticking points for immigration lawyers is that migrant children are not provided with lawyers. Kusada believes there should be a special immigration judge appointed in New Orleans to handle child-migrant cases.

McKenzie agrees that such measures seem necessary. For instance, she said, any child who appears in immigration court to claim asylum — for fear of returning to his own country — will first need to complete, in English, a 12-page form with 15 pages of instructions. That’s even before he appears in court to describe how he has been persecuted and why he fears being sent back.

For her part, Gasparian has formed a group called Pro Bono and Juveniles — “PB and J” — and hopes to match up local volunteer attorneys with immigrant children who can’t afford legal counsel.

“They can’t do this themselves,” she said.