Erika Cruz-Romero says Chuck E. Cheese's restaurant is the best thing about living in Durham, N.C., and in the United States. The 11-year-old discovered the kid-friendly chain when she found her father two years ago -- after traveling approximately 1,200 miles by herself from El Salvador.
"It's good," a shy Erika said in broken English of her life with her father in the United States. "I like Chuck E. Cheese."
Still, Erika could be separated from her father. She arrived on U.S. soil illegally and faces the possibility of deportation in a few months.
The Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said it would not take action against Erika while her case is argued in the courts. But her father and attorney are trying to persuade officials to allow Erika to stay in the United States permanently because she has no family in El Salvador and would be vulnerable to prostitution rings if forced to return.
"We're hoping to persuade the judge to grant her asylum because if she was sent back to El Salvador, she could become a child prostitute," said Paul Suhr, Erika's lawyer. "She would be a kid living on the street. She has no family there, no one to take care of her."
Hector Cruz, Erika's father, cleans heating ducts and has been living in the United States on a temporary work visa that allows him to stay at least through March 2005. Suhr said they have sought temporary protection status for Erika while Cruz tries to gain permanent residency. They hope Erika will be allowed to become a U.S. citizen with her father.
Cruz first came to the United States to seek a better life in 1990. He met Erika's mother while on a visit back to his native El Salvador but the two never married. Cruz continued to work in the United States while Erika and her mother remained in Acajulta, a Salvadoran port town south of the capital, San Salvador.
However, one day in 2001, Erika's mother went to work and never returned home. Erika and her two younger half-siblings lived on their own, relying on the kindness of neighbors, for approximately a year before Erika, then 9, decided to seek her father in the United States.
Precise details on Erika's journey are unclear. Erika, Suhr said, was traumatized by her ordeal and is still hesitant to talk about it. Based on her memories, Suhr says Erika walked, hitchhiked and rode buses with strangers as she traveled through Guatemala and Mexico. Erika -- who could not swim at the time -- then found an old inner tube and paddled across the Rio Grande until she reached the U.S. border near Brownsville, Texas, where patrol officers found her on July 4, 2002.
Erika did not know her father's first name but was able to tell officials his last name. She also knew she had a grandmother, Cruz's mother. Authorities were able to locate the grandmother in Houston, and she then called Cruz. He quickly drove to Texas and picked up Erika at a detention facility in Brownsville.
"She was very brave, very brave indeed. That was very unusual for a girl for her age," Suhr said. "She journeyed to find her father and she did. … It was really quite remarkable that she was able to find her father."
Hector Cruz said he was amazed when he learned about Erika's ordeal and was overjoyed when he found her -- even though her journey took its toll.
"She was skinny," he said. "But I was happy, so happy."