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."
A Long, Incredible Journey
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."
Abandonment All Over Again?
Initially, Suhr argued unsuccessfully that Erika should be granted asylum under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. He thought that Erika could have been the victim of an immigrant smuggling ring that helped her get out of El Salvador with the intention of getting money from her father once she arrived in the United States. However, Suhr lacked evidence.
Suhr said he is now arguing Erika should be given asylum because she has no known family in El Salvador. No one knows the whereabouts of Erika's mother, and Suhr says he and Cruz assume she is dead. Reporters from Prensa Grafica, a major newspaper in El Salvador, have tried to locate Erika's mother and two younger siblings but have been unsuccessful, Suhr said.
Deporting Erika, Suhr says, would make her homeless and helpless and she would have to fight for survival on the streets of El Salvador, where children are vulnerable to prostitution, gangs and random killings. Suhr said Erika's argument has legal precedent in an Arizona case in which a 15-year-old Honduran boy, Rene Herrera, was granted asylum in 2003 under similar circumstances.
"We've found out further about details of children [who live] without parents on the street," Suhr said. "We are basing [Erika's] children's asylum claim on the argument that she could end up as a child prostitute, in gangs, that she would be on the street. She could be killed because children get killed for no reason on streets in El Salvador. We have substantial evidence of that.
"We think we have a pretty good [asylum] claim," Suhr said. "It would be cruel to send this child back without a father, and we don't know where her mother is."
A Child Refugee's Plight
Erika was fortunate to find her father and not have to remain in a detention facility. Herrera did not have any relatives in the United States when he was detained in Arizona. He spent a year in detention, occasionally locked in solitary confinement, before he won asylum and was placed with foster parents.
According to reports by different activist groups, many child refugees are automatically classified as unaccompanied and undocumented minors upon arrival in the United States and can be denied legal representation and subject to abuse. According to U.N. statistics, the average age of a child refugee in the United States is 14. The U.S. Committee for Refugees reports that approximately 8,500 children seek asylum in the United States every year and almost three-quarters of them are unaccompanied by adults. Approximately 5,000 end up in INS detention.
North Carolina's Sen. John Edwards and Rep. David Price have championed Erika's cause. Suhr expects an immigration judge to make a final decision on Erika's case sometime next spring.
Meanwhile, Erika continues to adjust to life with her father in Durham, enjoying Chuck E. Cheese's and the sixth grade in a Durham elementary school. Erika's father believes they will not be separated and says his daughter has been inspired by the support they have received.
"I'm hopeful," Cruz said. "We have a very good lawyer. … Erika wants to be a lawyer, so she can help her people."