By Cory Smith and Happy Carlock

For eight days, Odimar Cifuentes Tomás and several others wandered in the desert after a “coyote,” their guide, left them as they crossed the Rio Grande River at the Mexico-U.S. border in Texas.

Dehydrated and starving, they were also afraid of getting caught.

“Out there, we didn’t have food or water, and the trails were students school previous url guarded, so my friends and I stayed on the hills,” Cifuentes said in Spanish in a phone interview.

“We went out onto the highway and got picked up by immigration officials. [They] took us to a detention center where there were all of the old and young detainees.”

That was May 2012. Today, Cifuentes, now 17, is living with his uncle, Marcelino Cifuentes Carrillo, in Edinburg, Va.

The dangers he faced on his journey are typical of many immigrants crossing into the United States.

But he is more fortunate than most, especially minors, because he is a step closer to gaining legal status to remain in America with what is known as special immigrant juvenile status. On Nov. 21 a judge in juvenile and domestic relations court in Woodstock granted custody of Cifuentes to his uncle, a legal citizen of the U.S.

The journey to Virginia

Cifuentes says he couldn’t live in Chiantla, a tiny town in northwest Guatemala, any longer. Violent gangs associated with drug cartels constantly threatened him unless he joined.

“There are a lot of gangs that break into houses and rob them or deal drugs, take drugs, or buy drugs and they do [that] a lot,” he said. “I would never want to be a part of that.” Listen in Spanish

Pressure to join a gang plus conflicts with his father convinced Cifuentes that it was time to leave home for a brighter future in the United States.

People from El Salvador and Honduras as well as friends from other parts of Guatemala joined him on his journey.

“I came with six of my friends, but they weren’t from where I lived,” he said. “We all came from Guatemala, and in Mexico on the border of Guatemala, there were a lot of people called coyotes who helped us cross over.”

The group took any means of transportation they could, hoping to avoid law enforcement in Mexico since they had entered the country illegally.

“We travelled with them all the way through Mexico in trucks, in taxis, in cars, and by train,” Cifuentes said. The train in Mexico, popularly known as “la Bestia” (the Beast), was the hardest part of the journey.

“I was quite afraid when I got on the train because you have to get on the train while you’re walking and it doesn’t stop, and when it doesn’t stop, you have to chase it so that you can get on the train and come here,” he said. Listen in Spanish

Near the U.S. border, the group’s members began to dwindle when Mexican authorities caught some of his friends. Cifuentes managed to make it into the United States.

But his luck didn’t last.

Cifuentes spent several months in different facilities near El Paso, after border patrol agents detained him and his remaining friends.

Under U.S. law, minors are supposed to be turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) within 72 hours of arriving at Customs and Border Patrol facilities. The ORR places children in federal shelters while searching for a relative or guardian in the U.S. to take custody of them. Guardians then house the children until they must appear for their hearings in immigration court.

Authorities brought Cifuentes to his uncle in September 2012 to await his first hearing in the process of attaining Special Immigrant Juvenile Status.

Going to court

When Cifuentes asked a judge in the Shenandoah Juvenile Domestic and Relations Court to grant his uncle legal custody, it was the first step in a long, complicated process that juvenile immigrants follow to obtain SIJ Status.

SIJ Status is designed for non-U.S. citizen children who have been abused, neglected, or abandoned by one or both parents. If a parent sends an unaccompanied minor across the border, it does not necessarily mean that the child qualifies as abandoned. A court must declare that it is unsafe for the child to return to his or her home country.

The other factor is age. A child has to apply for SIJ Status before turning 18 or it will not be accepted. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) can approve SIJ Status if the juvenile turns 18 during the process—as long as the application was received before the applicant’s 18th birthday.

Another benefit: SIJ Status allows the immigrant to apply for a green card, which provides most legal rights that U.S. citizens enjoy except the right to vote.

In April, Cifuentes reached out to the Immigrant Rights Clinic at Washington and Lee University’s School of Law for help in attaining SIJ Status.

“I didn’t consider a free lawyer that I didn’t have to pay because I’m attending high school,” Cifuentes said. “So I don’t have money and my uncle couldn’t help.”

Clinic Director David Baluarte assigned two of his third-year law students, Jessica Chi and Cristina Sacco, to the case.

The tough part for the two student lawyers was educating the judge about SIJ Status.

“It’s just kind of hard when you have to go in to a court and explain to a judge ‘Okay I know you don’t know about this, but I’m going to teach you about it, and then I’m going to ask you to make a decision about it,’” Sacco said. “But after we do that, it’s just basically telling [Cifuentes’s] story and that what the state court will be doing is based on state law.”

Cifuentes said he’s grateful. “They helped me and got rid of my deportation,” he said.

More paperwork

He now must file a petition with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to apply for SIJ Status, a process that requires him to fill out many more forms.

Baluarte said it would probably take three to four months to win approval. It will take another month to close removal proceedings, which can result in deportation.

The W&L law professor said he’s confident Cifuentes will win approval because “his is exactly the situation that this form of relief was written to address.”

Once Cifuentes earns SIJ Status, he has until he turns 21 to acquire a green card and earn permanent residency in the U.S.

In the interim, he can attend school, but he does not speak English and classes are hard for him.

“The high school is very difficult in order to earn a diploma,” he said.

He said he plans to attend programs that area churches offer to help him earn his diploma, and he wants to go to college.

“I want to be legal because I have more liberties here,” he said.  “I can be with my uncle, and here I’m not afraid that someone is going to come and tell me to do something that I don’t want to do.” Listen in Spanish

Published Dec. 18, 2014