The first time 17-year-old Yoel faced an immigration judge in the courtroom earlier this year, she was so petrified she could hardly speak.
“I felt nervous," said Yoel, a soft-spoken girl who didn't want her last name used because of her status. " They asked me my name, and I wasn’t able to completely say it, because of my nerves.”
Terrifying as it might have been, it was not nearly as terrifying as what she left behind last fall in San Pedro Sula, Honduras -- considered the most violent city in the world; a place where gangs are especially powerful.
“I was threatened," she said. "I couldn’t go anywhere they because always followed me. When I tried to report them, so they'd be careful around me, they threatened me. They told me that if I reported them, they would kill my entire family.”
Yoel says she was targeted because a local gang leader wanted her for himself, by force - regardless of how she felt: "He threatened me, and wanted me to be with him, either the right way or the wrong way. I didn’t want to live like that. I didn’t want to live with a gang member."
She fled the home where she lived with her mother and younger siblings for her aunt's home. But members of the gang followed her there one day, forcing her to flee out the back door. It was then that Yoel decided to leave Honduras. She left in the company of a family friend, a man headed north to work who agreed to look after her.
They made it to Mexico, and from there it was a harrowing journey north on the train migrants call “La Bestia,” or The Beast. Migrants with no other means of transportation climb atop the train en route to the United States, but some don't make it: Some fall to their death or are maimed, while others are preyed on by criminals.
Yoel spent roughly a month on and off the train, hiding in cramped spaces at the bottom of boxcars to avoid the eyes of those who target young female migrants like her.
“You see so many ugly things," Yoel recalled softly, sparing the details. "People suffer very much. Thank God, nothing happened to me, but you see young women who really suffer.”
Halfway there, she dialed the Inglewood home of her father, Ramon Vallecillo, who came to the United States in 2005. He’d ridden the same train back then, and was shocked to learn that his little girl was on it. He still gets emotional when he remembers their conversation.
“I imagined that if as a man you suffer on that train, then let's not mention as a minor, and worse, as a woman," Vallecilla said. "I told her that she had to dress like a man in Mexico, so they would think she was a man."
"If you come on the train dressed as a woman," he pauses, "you lose.”
Last December, Yoel made it to the U.S.-Mexico border in Tijuana. She jumped the fence and turned herself in to the Border Patrol.
Now she’s living with her father in Inglewood, and seeking asylum.
According to a 2008 law designed to protect trafficking victims, minors under 18 from countries that don’t share a border with the U.S. must have an immigration hearing. This includes minors from Central America, who began arriving in large numbers at the U.S.-Mexico border during the past year. Their numbers have added to the strain on the immigration court system, already backlogged by more than 375,000 immigration court cases as of June.
After being apprehended by border agents, these minors are released within 72 hours to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for sheltering them until a suitable adult relative is found to take custody.
The majority are eventually released to family members in the U.S., but they leave federal custody with an order to appear in court, typically within 21 days.
“It’s such a strange experience for them," said Lindsay Toczylowski, an attorney with the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles, which represents minor clients pro bono. "They have probably never been in a courtroom, as most 10-year olds in the United would have have never been in a courtroom.”
Yoel is one of Toczylowski's clients - and, as the attorney points out, one of the ones lucky enough to have a lawyer. Those who don’t have must appear in court alone. It's a scenario that Toczylowski sees regularly, with scared kids relying on an interpreter while facing the judge and a government attorney.
"I’ve seen where there’s a complication, like the child’s address is wrong, and that can be really intimidating for a kid, because they feel like they have gotten in trouble or something, like they've done something wrong" Toczylowski said. "The entire process, it’s not meant for kids.”
Their best options for staying in the country are applying for asylum, or for children abused or neglected by their parents, what’s called Special Immigrant Juveniles Status.
Roughly half the kids in immigration court in Los Angeles lack legal counsel: Non-profit legal providers are too few, and for-profit attorneys out of most immigrant families' budgets. Toczylowski says the ones who do have counsel are about nine times more likely to prevail than those who don’t.
Yoel, who recently turned 18, says she's determined to make it to every hearing. Her younger brother, who is 14, recently followed her north; he was recently released from a government shelter and has joined her and her and their father. He is also seeking asylum, and the time of her next hearing, their cases will have been combined and they'll appear in court together.
The process that Yoel hopes will win them asylum is intimidating, even if she's become slightly more accustomed to the courtroom. But her far greater fear is returning to Honduras.
“Here in this country, I feel safe. In mine, I don’t. In mine, many things happen that..." she trails off, "No. I am afraid of going back to my country.”
If her luck holds out, she won’t have to.