Multi-American

How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Guatemalan teen migrant says gang members broke his leg, forced him to flee

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As the White House and Congress debate plans for dealing with the unaccompanied minors and families arriving from Central America, one teenage boy from Guatemala has taken his case to Los Angeles Superior Court in his attempt to stay.

The boy, who is 17, is hoping to remain in Los Angeles with his older brother. He claims that his leg was broken after being beaten by gang members in his native country last year, after he endured harassment and intimidation for not joining the gang.

Although many youths arriving from Central America cite gang violence as a reason for leaving, this case starkly illustrates the brutality many have fled, said Alex Galvez, the boy's attorney. 

"I think what's unique about this case are the circumstances and the facts behind it," Galvez said. "This kid was actually attacked and had his leg broken by the gang because he refused to join the gang."

According to Galvez, the boy is still physically scarred from his injuries. His leg failed to heal properly for lack of medical attention. Still, he said, he made it to United States in late 2013 — after what the boy described as a three month journey.

The boy is asking L.A. Superior Court to have his older brother appointed as his guardian. At the same time, he's asking federal immigration court to consider granting him both asylum and what's known as "special immigrant juvenile" status - reserved for minors who have been abused or neglected by their families. The boy alleges that his parents failed to protect and care for him properly. Galvez said the boy's father was also assaulted and extorted by gangs back home.

Gang and drug violence is named by advocates and by Central American migrants themselves as the main reason most have made the trek north. But there have also been false rumors in Central America about special treatment in the U.S. for migrant youths, the kernel of which is a 2008 law known as the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which protects trafficking victims. The law ensures that children coming from countries that don't share a border with the U.S. receive an immigration hearing.

This law has been at the center of a debate in Congress over whether to approve additional funding for the government to deal with the Central American migrant crisis, money that President Obama has requested. House Republicans have insisted they want the law changed in order to expedite the deportation of youths from other than Mexico or Canada, a move that Obama has also suggested. But many Democrats want to keep the law intact.

Some Republican lawmakers have also blamed the crisis on the Obama administration's 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which grants temporary legal status to certain young immigrants – in spite of the fact that these newcomers don't qualify.

Earlier this month, the conservative Heritage Foundation called for Congress to defund DACA in order to "stop one of the elements that are driving the current surge of unlawful immigrants" and to amend the 2008 trafficking law so as to speed deportations. From the group's policy paper:

The TVPRA should be reformed so as to remove the burdensome process that applies to UAC (unaccompanied alien children) from non-contiguous countries. This would allow the U.S. to enter into agreements with other countries to more rapidly return UAC while maintaining key protections for the safety of trafficked children. While this approach is not a silver bullet, it is an important step to clarifying U.S. law.

More recently, the White House has been weighing whether to allow Honduran youths into the country as refugees as another possible option for diffusing the border crisis. The majority of unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border lately have come from Honduras, which has the world's highest murder rate, El Salvador and Guatemala.

This story has been updated.

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