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The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America

Darlin Adonay Peña fled a hard life in Honduras and got a second chance in the United States.
Darlin Adonay Peña fled a hard life in Honduras and got a second chance in the United States.
Andrew Pielage

Darlin Adonay Peña has a headache.

On a Wednesday afternoon in May, he takes a break from his job flipping burgers at a McDonald's on Central Avenue in Phoenix to sit down and talk, sipping a frozen caramel coffee drink and rubbing his almond eyes.

A brown rosary peeks from beneath his shiny black uniform. He's shaved both sides of his head, taming a few meticulous black curls atop with gel.

See Also: Immigrant-Rights Groups Claim "Systemic Abuse" of Unaccompanied Immigrant Children

A few pimples on his forehead give away Peña's age. He is just 18. This is his first job since coming to the United States from Honduras last year, and he wants to do it to perfection.

He makes $7.95 an hour. The work is stressful. Sometimes, there are discussions in the back about how many burgers should be grilled at a time. Peña follows the rules carefully. Then he draws the ire of those who don't. And that's a headache, too.

"Me duele el cerebro," he says. "My brain hurts."

He gets headaches all the time. He doesn't know why. It might be the beating he took in Nogales, Mexico, just before he crossed the border almost a year ago. It might be the memories of a terrible childhood. Or it might be the stress of the better life (though it's a hard one) that he's found in the United States.

Peña traveled alone as he risked his life to flee his home country of Honduras, crossing Mexico by hopping trains for two months before jumping the border fence in Nogales.

When U.S. Border Patrol agents caught him, his face was violet from the sun. He wore a pair of white Reeboks he got at a migrant shelter and carried a gray backpack containing two pairs of jeans. And he had no money in his pockets.

He left behind a childhood of forced labor and a family he barely knew without a clear plan of what to do once he reached the United States or even knowing whether there was a chance to get papers allowing him to work.

What happened after he arrived was a surprise. Border Patrol sent him to a shelter with hundreds of kids alone and scared like him. He met attorneys there who listened to his story and told him there was a way to help him stay in the country legally. An immigration judge granted him a green card. He got to live with Americans who cared about him in a way no one ever had. He then got a dormitory room in a transitional-living program, a place supported by federal funds and private donations for youths who are getting back on their feet. He enrolled in school and found the full-time job.

He's grateful. But, still, he's a lonely kid who misses the family he barely had.

Although he has access to healthcare, Peña has not yet visited a doctor. He procrastinates like an 18-year‑old on his own, and he knows it. It's not because he spends too much time partying with friends; he keeps a tight schedule between work and school.

There's no time to fit in the doctor and no adult to give him a hard time about it.

On rare times alone, he sits awake in his room thinking, worrying, and writing status updates on Facebook, forwarding soccer memes, and surfing the web. Not long ago, Peña Googled his middle name, Adonay, and found three pages of information. He realized that his name, habla de Dios, as he puts it, "speaks about God." Adonay is the Hebrew word for God. This discovery pleased him, since he thinks about God often. As a child, he rarely set foot in a church, but now he wants to find one to attend.

 

In mid-June, about 900 children were detained in a temporary processing facility in Nogales. It was opened by the Border Patrol to accommodate the record number of Central American kids fleeing to the United States.
In mid-June, about 900 children were detained in a temporary processing facility in Nogales. It was opened by the Border Patrol to accommodate the record number of Central American kids fleeing to the United States.
AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, Pool

Because he believes God is the reason he made it this far.

"He's the reason why I lived to tell my story," Peña says.

One thing is certain: Not all the children who come to the U.S. alone from Central America are -- or will be -- as lucky as Darlin Adonay Peña.


Darlin Peña once was what the government calls an "unaccompanied alien child," a minor under 18 who came across the border illegally without parents.

When he arrived last year, there weren't nearly as many children trying to reach the U.S. border. About 21,000 young people from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala were detained in 2013, but this year, the number could reach 90,000, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Some of them didn't even cross illegally; they simply showed up at a port of entry or tried to get caught.

The government was so ill-prepared to receive them that in June, Border Patrol facilities were crowded with toddlers and pregnant teenagers. Media reports showed pictures of holding cells in southern Texas and Arizona. The situation was called a surge, a wave, a flood of children. It was blamed on President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which protects undocumented youth from deportation -- or on fake rumors of amnesty for child refugees.

But the story these kids tell is much more complex. It's a story of survival and displacement, about a personal choice to face the dangers of a journey to the north because the alternative is much worse. They talk about escaping violence, living in extreme poverty, trying to figure out a way to stay out of the gangs that target them. And they are not just fleeing to the U.S. -- they are going to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico seeking asylum.

About 60 percent of them would fear for their lives if they were returned to their countries, according to a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees report released in March.

"I think it is unhelpful to conflate this with the immigration-reform discussion," says Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, a Washington nonprofit that advocates for immigrant and refugee rights. "Because, first and foremost, it is a refugee crisis."

 

Peña takes a test during his English summer school session at Central High School in Phoenix.
Peña takes a test during his English summer school session at Central High School in Phoenix.
Andrew Pielage

But, by and large, these kids are not treated as refugees.

By federal law, when the U.S. recognizes a humanitarian need, it arranges for people from overseas to resettle in this country because of the possibility of persecution and violence.

When refugee children arrive, the government rolls out the welcome mat with services and assistance because there's a process in place to protect them when they are in need.

But "unaccompanied alien minors" reaching the U.S. are met with a government whose goal is to deport them, not protect them.

Not all of them have asylum cases, but when they do, they have to persist. They are faced with an immigration system that judges them as adults and doesn't provide them with public defenders.

This said, it's true there is a set of unique laws that have been passed to make sure children are not detained as adults and can be reunited with family. There are shelters for them all over the country, and their custody is under the authority not of immigration officials but of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

This happens for most after 35 days, but they still face "deportation" proceedings.

The options to protect them have roadblocks.

Children like Peña who have suffered neglect, abandonment, and abuse have unique access to a special status that allows them a green card. But in 2013, only about 3,500 of them -- mostly from Mexico and Guatemala -- gained this status, according to Immigration and Citizenship Services.

It used to be that about 50 percent of such kids got to court with an attorney. But the percentage might be lower now that so many young people are arriving in this country, Young says.

"These are traffic-court-like proceedings with life-and-death consequences in some cases," she adds.

And what is even more alarming to advocates is that the Obama administration could move toward fast-track deportations on the border. This would require a change in a law passed in 2008 that allows Mexican and Canadian children (unlike Central American youths) to be deported within 48 hours.

The Obama administration is asking for resources to deal with what the president called a humanitarian crisis.

The worry for immigration attorneys like Gladis Molina, who manages the Children's Rights Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project in Phoenix, is that kids won't get an opportunity and the protection they need.

For her, the answer is simple.

Put a system in place to "do right" by the kids if we care about them or deport them, Molina says.

"And if we don't care about them," she adds, "then let's talk about why it is okay not to care about them."


Peña was born in La Sidra, near the mountains three hours from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. He is the first child of Arturo and Consuelo Peña.

Peña told New Times the story of his life in a series of interviews at his workplace, at local Salvadoran restaurants, and on a bus on the way to school. Though he speaks some English, the interviews were conducted in Spanish.

As Peña recalls, his dad was a farmer who drank too much while his mother did nothing about it. When Darlin was 5, they went to work together in the milpas (cornfields). There were days when it rained so much that the ground became slippery and Darlin worked while trying not to fall. It made his father so angry that he would slap Darlin.

 

Peña shows his assignment to Jane Geary, his ESL teacher, in summer school at Central High School.
Peña shows his assignment to Jane Geary, his ESL teacher, in summer school at Central High School.
Andrew Pielage

"No conocí mi niñez," he says. "Si la hubiera conocido creo que no hubiera trabajado." (Translation: "I'd never met my childhood," he says, as if his childhood were a person. "If I'd met her, I don't think I would have worked.")

Darlin was excited the day his parents sent him to work for a woman named Reina, owner of a storage depot for wholesale sales of alcohol. He was 7. He left the house dressed in his best clothes, a school uniform of white shirt and blue pants. They took the dirt road from La Sidra past a few rivers to reach Cucuyagua, in the department of Copán, a political subdivision of the country not unlike a state.

From then on, he was on his own.

"I lived alone like that," he says. "I put my socks and my shoes on. I learned those things I set out to learn."

Reina was a short woman with a quick temper. Her daughter was even worse. She made him work at nights when the trucks arrived packed with beer. It was a treat when the drivers gave him a few lempiras -- Honduran currency -- for helping to unload heavy cases of Tecate, Carta Blanca, and Barena.

Darlin lifted his weight in beer.

He unloaded and loaded cases all night. It was hard to wrap his arms around the boxes. Sometimes, the cases would fall and the bottles inside would explode, drenching him. But there was no time for a bath. So he got used to the stench.

He saved 2,000 lempiras (less than $100) in two years from the tips. Reina's daughter said she opened an account for him under her name in the local credit union. But he never saw the money, which he wanted to give to his family.

For two years, Reina fed him and gave him a place to stay. She let him go to school from 7 to 9 each night. But she bought clothes and toys only for her grandchildren.

One day, when Darlin was 8, they sent him to buy a pair of shoes.

"Each foot is like 150 lempiras," Reina complained. That was about $7 each. When he returned to the warehouse, Reina's 2-year-old granddaughter ran to greet him on the street, and a car almost hit her.

Reina's daughter called to him: "Come over. Give me your belt," he recalls.

"And she beat me. They didn't explain. I didn't know why they were beating me," he says. They punished him often but never said why.

"Allá en Honduras hasta a los perros odian," he says. "There in Honduras, they even hate the dogs."

When he was 10, he tried to go back to his mother.

But she had four other children to feed. That's when she told him a stranger had come into the house asking for water and raped his 7-year-old sister while she was in another room. "That wouldn't have happened if I'd been there," he says now, lowering his head and pausing. "That wouldn't have happened."

His dream became to get paid to help his siblings. So he returned to Reina's and stayed there until he was 12.

She never did pay him. So he left, traveling eight hours from Cucuyagua to the coffee plantations in San Juan Itibuca, where coffee became his life. Driving trucks with coffee, lifting bags with coffee, pulping coffee, and drying coffee in the sun.

He did everything but steal coffee, Peña says. It was a common practice in the area. His boss, Sergio, a man who sold grains to Nescafé, was paranoid.

Sergio didn't pay him much, but he built a church in a nearby town and everybody loved him for that. Peña never had time to visit it. He slept in a warehouse after working from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sometimes, he didn't eat. But he drank a lot of coffee.

Sergio's paranoia about people stealing coffee became unbearable. So Peña escaped and went to the only person he knew there, Rafael, a distant family friend he called "Uncle."

Rafael got him a job at a fertilizer plant and a place to sleep in his house. He vouched for him and promised that he was an honest kid. Still, Peña was a 17-year-old who really never had lived with a family. And he wasn't making much money.

He began to consider going to the United States.

"I watched the news. I heard that you could live better here," he says.

One day, a truck driver who came to pick up fertilizer at the plant told him that he heard they helped young children in the United States. When he asked people how to make this happen for himself, they told him of the dangers: the desert, the Border Patrol, the thugs. He didn't care. He was ready to leave everything. Because in Honduras, "la vida está color de hormiga."

"Life is the color of an ant," Peña translates. "There is discrimination and death everywhere. For anything simple, you are in trouble. Maras [a term used to refer to gangs that come from Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, which originated in Los Angeles and was exported to Central America] are everywhere."

Smugglers were charging $5,000 to take someone to the United States. Peña had saved only 5,000 lempiras, about $240. So he joined two other people in town, and they headed north on June 5, 2013.

"It was a sunny day, and a storm was coming," Peña recalls. "I felt positive and secure."


"Where is the money?" a man asked Peña.

It was the last leg of a 55-day journey. The border fence separating Nogales, Mexico from Nogales, Arizona was within reach. Peña and three other migrants -- two older men from Honduras and a Guatemalan teenager -- had taken a walk to scout a possible location to jump the fence when they'd had the misfortune of bumping into three men who stopped their vehicle in its tracks to get out and chase them.

"Where is the money?" another man asked, putting his hand on his gun.

The man didn't have to say much. It was understood that you couldn't expect to jump the fence in Nogales without paying the cuota to narco-traffickers.

Peña had 2,500 Mexican pesos (about $190) that Rafael had wired to him and which Peña needed to save in case he had to pay a smuggler. He remained silent.

All three men had shaved heads, tattoos, and piercings. One was young, maybe 16. Peña feared that the mafia had trained kids like him to kill.

"How old you are?" one asked.

"I'm 17," Peña answered.

The bandits kicked the Guatemalan teen in the head, and he fell down the side of a hill. They said he was dead, and Peña got even more scared.

They took Peña and the two others through a path at the bottom of a wash, out of sight from anyone. They laid them on the ground and tied their hands and feet with their shoelaces.

They took Peña's belt and hit him with its thick buckle.

He was unable to hold back tears or screams.

"You better have money or we will cut your tongue," the man said.

When he heard that, he gave the man the 2,500 pesos from his pocket. But it wasn't enough. They called him a liar.

"He grabbed me by the hair and kicked my head against the floor," he says. Peña bled. Everything was a blur after that.

"Is it hard? Is it hard?" someone asked.

One man was hitting him with a rock.

When the beatings stopped, he could hear someone radio "the boss."

"We were waiting for the shot in the head. There was no place to run. We just waited for the shot," Peña says.

Peña couldn't see.

"Maybe it is your lucky day. Without our boss' authorization, we won't do anything. If you look back, we won't ask for permission. We will shoot you," one of the men said.

Peña heard their footsteps in the dirt as the thugs ran away.

One of the Honduran men untied himself and got Peña and the other friend released. The Guatemalan teenager they had kicked in the head and rolled down the hill managed to escape unharmed. They went to the police, who "laughed," Peña said.

He was scared to run into the three men again, but he had come so far and wasn't about to give up. He had seen things during his journey through Mexico that he would never forget.

The worst came in Arriaga, where he ran out of money. There, he could catch the Beast, the infamous train that takes Central Americans through the heart of Mexico, part of which is controlled by paramilitary groups known as Zetas and other parts by opportunistic and violent criminals preying on migrants. He survived on the pity of a Guatemalan mother who had food and also was riding the train in the hope of reaching the U.S. to get a job to support her family. She had given all her money to smugglers, who had abandoned her. Together, they spent more than 50 days hopping trains.

He would spend most days awake holding on to the tiny holes on the metallic side of the trains, with one leg hanging over the side. He would get lethargic. Sometimes, it rained and they covered themselves with plastic bags; sometimes, the metal of the train would burn from underneath.

 

One day, a 13-year-old boy stood up on the train. Because he didn't see a power cable, he got electrocuted. Another day, a young girl jumped off the train, afraid that a group of chiquinarcos (young thieves) would rob her.

Three days after the beatings in Nogales, he got ready to jump the border fence. He asked friends in Honduras to send him another 2,500 pesos. A kid his age offered to help for that much.

They put up a ladder. It was about 2 a.m. on a Tuesday. On the other side was a rope to rappel down. Peña burned his palms from the friction and fell, landing on a rock that cut one of his hands.

They hadn't run far before Border Patrol caught them. It was August 20, 2013.

Peña spent a couple of days in a Border Patrol cell in Tucson. Immigrants call them hieleras, or "coolers," because they're as cold as a freezer. The Border Patrol transferred him to a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Phoenix. That's when his headaches started.


Peña lived for three months in a shelter in Phoenix. The place is run by Southwest Key, a nonprofit organization that has several facilities for youth like him across Arizona. A social worker tried to find a relative he could live with.

On a rare phone call to his mom, Peña found out he had an uncle in New York. But when the social worker called, his uncle said he couldn't help and hung up immediately.

It stung. He was alone -- though not completely, because in the shelter he found new friends he could relate to. They were as young as 4 and as old as 17, like him. Many were Central Americans.

They all had scars -- some of which he could see.

He met Jessica, a girl from El Salvador. Everyone thought she was his girlfriend. The shelter was like attending a fun school. They had classes and parties and a "store" for clothes for which he didn't have to pay. People were kind.

He met Claudia Gonzalez, an immigration attorney from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, which provides free representation to minors in immigration court.

Gonzalez did a one-on-one interview with him to determine whether she could help.

"What struck me about him is that he was so open, calm, and mature," says Gonzalez, who now works as public defender in Yuma County. "He's essentially been an adult since he was somewhere around 8."

Gonzalez knew right away that Peña was an abused, neglected, and abandoned child, which meant he could qualify for special protection. But she didn't want to give him false hope without talking to the rest of the team of attorneys who meet to discuss such cases. Sometimes it is a frustrating experience, says Gladis Molina, managing attorney for the Children's Rights Program at the Florence Project.

"There are children who go through horrible things in Mexico," she says. "You can't apply for asylum because [the abuse] didn't happen in their home country."

Molina and the other attorneys go through a list of immigration options. But sometimes no option applies.

"A little girl who was raped [on her journey through Mexico]. How do you repair that child's heart?" Molina asks. "There's a human cost to the kid. Now she's traumatized."

Molina, 34, beams when she speaks of Peña -- because he got a chance. Most of those she works with are 15 to 17 years old. She's had clients she had to carry in her arms to court.

 

Peña speaks with immigration attorney Gladis Molina, who manages Children Right's Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Phoenix.
Peña speaks with immigration attorney Gladis Molina, who manages Children Right's Program for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Phoenix.
Andrew Pielage

Molina was a kid like them once. El Salvador's civil war in the '80s was the backdrop of her childhood. She used to write words on the street with gunpowder found in bullet casings and light it.

She never understood the bigger picture, she says, until one evening a helicopter landed in her town's plaza to carry away a little girl whose body had been half blown away after she'd stepped on a mine.

"For the first time, I remember thinking to myself, 'It's not just about grown men; there is a little girl,'" she says. "So children get hurt here, too, and that can happen to me."

Molina got a chance to come to the U.S. with her siblings. Her father, who benefited from the Ronald Reagan administration's amnesty in 1986, eventually was able to sponsor them, though not without detours and complications.

"They gave us the American opportunity," she says. "You get an opportunity, and you see what you do with it."


Darlin got this opportunity.

On Friday, November 1, he sat in Judge John Richardson's immigration court in downtown Phoenix.

It was intimidating to see the silver-haired judge in his black robe. Sitting to the left of the judge was the federal prosecutor whose job was to get Peña removed.

It was just a few weeks before he would turn 18.

Peña took the stand. He raised his right hand and swore to tell the truth.

He was asked to give his current address at the children's shelter. Before he could blink, the judge stepped down and shook his hand.

"Welcome to the United States," he said.

"What do you want to study?" asked the judge.

"I want to become a journalist," Peña answered with the help of a translator.

On the spot, he was granted a green card to become a legal resident. The actual card came a few weeks later in the mail.

It appeared seamless to him because most of the legal work to get him to that point occurred outside that courtroom.

Peña qualified for what's called Special Immigration Juvenile Status, granted by U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services to children who suffered abuse, abandonment, and neglect by their parents in their country.

Attorneys had to present evidence (including a decision by a juvenile judge) and request it quickly because it only applies before a child turns 18. A juvenile judge had to call Peña's parents in Honduras to ask whether he could return to live with them and what involvement they had in his life.

Peña was worried about what his parents would say when they got a call from the court. They'd barely spoken in a decade. How would they react to being part of a process that implied that they had abandoned and neglected their child?

But they didn't contradict their son's story.

Gladis Molina sees just a few cases like Peña's in a year. Of the 3,000 children who came into contact with the Florence Project, only 60 were granted such special status.

"Each case we take counts for three cases -- juvenile court case, immigration law case, and social services," she says. "Sometimes you have to ask questions like, 'Where is your client going to live?'"

Peña's case is rare because the best interests of the child were considered, Molina says. Most are uphill battles. One of the other options to protect a child from deportation is to win an asylum case. Since 2011, Molina says, her organization has prevailed in only one.


Peña's case is closed. By the end of 2014, there might be 90,000 unaccompanied kids like him, with open cases and notices to go to court, throughout the country. If the government fast-tracks their removal, many might wind up where they came from.

Not far from where Peña jumped the border fence in Nogales sits a warehouse called the Nogales Placement Center, a short-term facility to house Central American children. It's one of the impromptu solutions the federal government came up with to deal with the flow of children.

Inside, girls with wide, watery eyes look at a pack of reporters with pens and pads. They are behind chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Their hair stands on end, their skin is burned. Green mats on the floor serve as beds. A few pink teddy bears are strewn about. A pregnant teenager in a zebra print dress touches her belly as she flips through the pages of a Disney princess book.

These are new arrivals. They come and go. The law says they should stay in this temporary facility only for 72 hours.

"There won't be any questions answered," a Border Patrol spokeswoman in a green uniform warns reporters during a tour in mid-June.

Since May 31, the warehouse has been adapted to house about 1,000 children. A week after the tour, Secretary of Homeland Security Jen Johnson holds a press conference outside the facility.

"This journey is a dangerous one. At the end of it, there's no free pass -- no permisos -- for your children who come to the U.S.," Johnson says. "You're placing your child in the hands of a criminal smuggling organization."

Since the surge of refugees began, Homeland Security has spun a narrative of smuggling organizations promising families that they will get documents when they reach the U.S. The immigration court system is so backlogged that court dates can get delayed for years. Some parents hope for the delay because it is the only way children can stay here.

Conservatives nationwide, including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, blame the Obama administration for granting deferred action to undocumented children raised in the United States (a benefit that would not apply to youth coming now).

"This crisis that America is facing with these unaccompanied children, it is because we have not sent a strong message to these countries that our borders are closed, and we need a better government to step up and secure the border," Brewer said after she toured the Nogales center.

Strange, because the Obama administration has deported a record number of immigrants -- close to two million. Obama also is requesting $3.7 billion in funding from Congress and a modification of laws. His aim is to remove kids faster, provide more resources for border enforcement, and hire more immigration judges.

 

"We have too many footprints all over these countries for us not to take some -- not all -- the responsibility [in this] humanitarian refugee crisis," says Linda Green, director for the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona.

Green sees historical complicity because the U.S. government financially supported oppressive regimes in Central America during the "dirty wars" of the 1980s.

She was an anthropologist in Guatemala during the U.S.-funded counter-insurgency.

Central America still is coping with the aftermath of the massacres and abuses of that period, which spawned drug trafficking and gangs, she says. Extreme poverty also is the result of free-trade agreements with the U.S. that put farmers out of work, she adds.

In a way, the children's arrival from Central America is a positive story, she believes.

"They are coming out of hope," Green says. "It is against all odds."


With a brand-new green card and his 18th birthday behind him, Peña had to leave the children's shelter in November.

Local activist Jason Odhner invited Peña into his home after a call from one of the youth's attorneys.

"He seemed a bit frightened of me and the situation, not quite sure what comes next," Odhner says.

But Odhner, who speaks Spanish and travels often to Central America to do humanitarian work, has had experience with kids like Peña in the past year. Their presence quickly painted a grim picture of need and despair, and Peña's wasn't any different.

"He really, really wanted to belong somewhere," Odhner says. "He tried so hard to fit in. He tried so hard to be an adult because he was sort of on his own and because in so many ways, he was a kid."

After three months, Peña found a job at the McDonald's and a transitional dorm for people his age.

He enrolled in school, too. (Public school is available to all youth regardless of their immigration status.)

He promised that if he made money, he would donate to the children in need of cleft-palate surgery whom he used to see in TV ads aired in Honduras. It's called Proyecto Sonrisas, or Operation Smile, and he's already donated.

"They don't have a life like us, because they don't have a smile. Instead, God gave me one when he took me from the hands of death," he says. "I feel good. I did something good."

It's all been much easier than the life he had in Honduras. But it has been difficult in other ways.

His life now is split between the commute to school and work.

Early in the morning, he takes a bus, then the light rail to summer school. He's part of a special program that teaches English as a second language. He goes to a Central High School program that feels like a mini-United Nations. Most of Peña's classmates are refugee children from places like Myanmar and Somalia.

He's been told it might take him three years to finish high school. Then, he wants to go to college to be a journalist or a nurse's assistant.

Peña wants to be perfect. So perfect that he got frustrated when his summer school English teacher put red marks on his homework. He approached her and told her she should not have done that to his work.

"But the following day he came back and apologized," his teacher, Jane Geary, recalls. "That is very unusual because teenagers don't come back the following day and say: 'I'm very sorry, Miss.'"

She's noticed that Peña often is tired in class. Between work and school, she observes, "that doesn't give you a lot of time to be a teenager."

At the place where he lives, staff keeps track of his time. He has to check in and check out. Most kids there don't have much experience dealing with adult figures in their lives. And it's hard for Peña, too, when one of the caseworkers grounds him if he comes home too late. He must follow the rules, like going to school and working. There are chores, too. And there are the headaches, which hurt more in the afternoon. There are issues buried deep in those headaches that he doesn't want to talk about.

"What happened to me -- I don't wish it on my worse enemy," he says tearfully. That's why he wants his siblings to move from where they live.

"I hate that place. I hate that place where my family comes from," he says. He thinks about his sister, who soon will turn 15.

He relates some of his story as if telling it will make it stop playing in his head. He's sitting in a Salvadoran restaurant (because he hasn't been able to find a Honduran restaurant) in Central Phoenix. A young girl about his age refills his water glass. She is curious and outgoing.

Turns out, she goes to Peña's school. She has a group of friends who do volunteer work in a hospital. She wants to have his phone number so she can invite him to join. She's from El Salvador. She knows how it goes, she says -- how difficult it is when you first arrive.

He smiles at her, carefully, as if it hurts a bit, showing the little spaces between his pointy, sparkly teeth. He gives her his phone number.

She smiles and walks away, a bounce in her step.

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