DALLAS – In a cramped room lined with photos of hopeful immigrants, a dry-eyed 6-year-old girl in a Hello Kitty T-shirt described how thugs took over her school in El Salvador. "The teacher ran away," she said.
A 16-year-old Salvadoran girl wept as she described a sexual attack in a bathroom by men and women. A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy nervously peered over his shoulder before his story spilled out in Spanish.
"They beat us to make us afraid," he said through an interpreter. "They said the next time they'd kill us."
Adults responded sympathetically. "Good God." "Aye, mi'jito."
Once a month, lawyers, translators, schoolteachers and other volunteers gather at a free legal clinic at Catholic Charities in northeast Dallas. They listen to horrific stories from children who crossed the Texas border in unprecedented numbers last year seeking refuge from gang violence in Central American countries.
Nearly 70,000 teens and preteens were apprehended last year, many of them sent to the U.S. by their families to travel alone or with smugglers. The surge dominated headlines as the government rounded up children and provided shelter until they could be placed with guardians or returned home.
The flow eased. The furor died. Now, the stream is at half the level of last summer.
The border crisis has become a courtroom crisis as children work their way through the federal immigration process. They hope against the odds to convince a judge or other officials that they merit asylum in the U.S.
That is where volunteers at Catholic Charities come in. They serve as scribes, filling out Form I-159 to help the children apply for asylum. For most, it's the last option to legally remain in the U.S.
Among the questions: "Have you, your family or close friends or colleagues ever experienced harm or mistreatment in the past by anyone. If 'Yes,' explain in detail." Or, "Are you afraid of being subjected to torture in your home country or in any other country to which you may be returned?"
Roughly 100 women and children have passed through the clinic since it began nine months ago.
Volunteers huddled around the 6-year-old girl, Angelica, whose class was left defenseless when a gang came to school to recruit. The girl had been staying with her grandmother. Her parents, already in Texas, sent for her, placing her in the hands of a smuggler.
"They were going to kill her," said the mother, who asked for anonymity to protect her child. She had been paying a monthly $20 extortion fee for "la renta." Her daughter's journey cost about $5,000.
Cheryl Pollman, a volunteer and retired business lawyer, was incredulous when she initially heard the children's stories. "Insane," she whispered.
An asylum application must be based on a well-founded fear of persecution because of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a social group. Advocates for the Central American children believe they qualify because they are in an age group that places them at risk of gang violence, recruitment or exploitation.
Many of the children have to represent themselves — pro se in legal terms — in their quest for asylum. They have no right to a government-paid attorney for civil deportation proceedings. Some find private attorneys who will work for free. In some cases, their parents or guardians find the money to hire an attorney.
As limited as the preparation is in the clinics, Pollman favors seeking asylum. "Without it, there's no opportunity for relief. I believe in the process. I believe in their day in court to tell their story."