A Road Less Traveled

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 23, 2006

Julio Argueta was a dime a dozen. One more kid from a miserable place with a dead-end future slipping across the border for a better life and getting caught.

Karla Harr, his no-nonsense immigration attorney, remembers standing in the Arlington County courtroom at his deportation hearing that October and thinking that the scene was all too familiar: Julio's godmother silently weeping; Julio, then 16, looking confused.

She studied Julio's arms and shoulders, sturdy and broad from years of cutting corn and laying bricks in El Salvador. She caught herself musing, "If only he were a little girl . . ."

The most she could do for him, she thought, was to ask for a voluntary departure order and send him back.

That way, if Congress ever changed the laws, if the mood of the country ever softened, he could try to come again, she reasoned. If he went underground and was caught, he'd be barred from returning for 10 years or face prison if he tried to come illegally again.

Julio had crossed the border alone, yet another "unaccompanied juvenile" walking north carrying a plastic bag of clothes. He swam the Rio Grande in full view of a bridge and, minutes later, resting on a rock, got busted. The Border Patrol caught 7,000 kids like Julio last year, mostly teenage boys. Who knows how many more make it through undetected.

The immigration judge asked Harr what she planned to do.

Julio looked up at Harr with terrified eyes. He was so innocent, she thought. A child, really.

In that instant, she decided to try to help him stay.

The tide of unaccompanied juveniles washing into this country is growing, and with it the backlash. Anti-illegal immigration groups are raising an alarm, for most of the juveniles are released to relatives, then disappear into the underground economy, attending school, mowing lawns or joining gangs.

Julio chose to go legal. It's a choice against almost insurmountable odds.

These days, you have slim to no chance unless you are closely related to a U.S. citizen, have a special skill, fit a unique profile or are from a country with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, say, Armenia or Burundi, and win a lottery slot. Legal residents can bring their children in, but the wait can last seven years; for a brother or sister, twice that.

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