Under a new program started this year, children from Central America who fear for their lives in their home country and have a relative living legally in the U.S. can petition for refugee status. In part two of NPR's look at one family's attempt to reunite under the program, a story of two children in El Salvador who haven't seen their father in more than 16 years.
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In Central America, summer time, for some children, means contemplating whether to head north to the United States to reunite with family. Under a new U.S. program, some of those children may be eligible for special visas that can be obtained in their home countries. The U.S. wants to avoid last summer's rush at the border when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors arrived, seeking asylum and overwhelming federal resources. We're going to hear the second of two reports now about a family hoping to obtain such a visa. NPR's Carrie Kahn picks up the story from El Salvador.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Sundays are busy days for Freddy David Leveron. The 18-year-old who looks much younger with a short cropped hair and shy smile spends the day with his church group and then waits for his weekly call from his dad. Soon, though, he may actually get to spend Sundays in person with him.
FREDDY LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I want to go and get to know my dad. It's been so long since I've seen him," says Freddy. It's actually been nearly 16 years. Freddy's dad left their small town of Laguna Seca in northern El Salvador to find work in the U.S. when his son was 2 and his daughter, Marta Elsie, was 3.
MARTA ELSIE LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I was so little when he left, I don't even remember him," says Marta Elsie, now 19. Her aunt Rosa Erminda Castro says she remembers when the kids' dad left. He asked her to take care of them. Their mother abandoned them soon after.
ROSA ERMINDA CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: He said he would be back in one year, tops.
CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "That year never arrived," she laughs. Their dad, Carlos Leveron, landed a good job and sends many home regularly, a necessary lifeline here were most of the hundred or so families live off the land and even basic foods have to be bought in the closest town about 45 minutes away on a rutted dirt road. That's unless a traveling salesman comes through.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Out of the back of his blue, beat-up pickup truck, this man sells salt, clothes and cleaning supplies. No one at the Leveron house is buying today. Money is tight. They're still waiting for the rain to come before planting this season. The big metal silos with beans and corn from last year's crop are nearly empty.
Jose Leveron, the kids' uncle, says there's no future for his niece and nephew here. He's raised them as if they were his own, and he gets quiet and choked up at the thought of them leaving. But he says he wants them to have a better life.
JOSE LEVERON: (Through interpreter) Here, children face so much danger. They get ruined. The gangs here pull them in. They force them to join them and make them do bad things.
KAHN: Gang violence has engulfed the country. In June, on average, there were 30 murders a day, putting El Salvador on track to have one of the highest murder rates in the world. Freddy says he trys to stay clear of the gangs. But his local school only goes to ninth grade, and the nearest high school is in the town 45 minutes away.
F. LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I was afraid there," he says. The gangs started shaking down my friends and demanding monthly quotas, as much as a thousand dollars if they know you have a parent in the U.S. He says if you don't pay, you're killed, so he stopped going.
MARGARITA CERPAS: (Speaking Spanish).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: At their town's small school, kids shout out the answers to simple arithmetic problems. The classrooms are full. Eighth-grade teacher Margarita Cerpas says most kids in her class have at least one or both parents living in the U.S. She lets me take a quick survey.
They're raising their hands out of whose parents are in the United States. So there's one, two, three, four, five, six - almost half.
When I ask how many are planning to leave as soon as school is over and travel through Mexico to get to their parents in the U.S., three say they're going. Cerpas says here keep leaving. She had 20 go to the U.S. illegally last year, and 10 left this year already.
CERPAS: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "The violence and security situation in the country is just terrible for young people," she says. Their only option is to stay in town, get married, have children and work the land. She says the Leverons were great students, got good grades and are good kids. She hopes they get to go to the U.S. and keep studying. Marta Elsie and Freddy say that's what they want to do but only if their paperwork goes through and they get visas. They don't want to go illegally like so many of their friends. It's too dangerous.
M. LEVERON: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "My dad keeps telling us that God willing, we'll get to go soon and be with him, and he'll take us for a walk in the park, his daughter on one arm and his son on the other. That's what we all want," she says. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Laguna Seca, El Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.