In her 13 years, Wendy Mejia-Garcia has witnessed more than her share of turmoil.
Her mother abandoned the family. Her father left his children in Honduras to find work in the U.S. Then, the family says, the three children were abused by relatives, prompting the father to smuggle them to America.
On Friday, the family suffered another setback: An immigration judge said he had no authority to stop the government from deporting Wendy, her sister Ixy, 12, and her brother Tony Josue, 10. The children are now seeking asylum, but it is a long shot.
Still, Wendy says she is not giving up hope.
"I have faith in the future," Wendy said through a translator. "Things will go well in the future."
The family's situation is the result of a dilemma posed by the designation of certain foreigners in the United States as having "temporary protected status."
The designation lets people stay in the U.S. so long as their home country is considered unsafe or unstable, such as during a war or recovering from a natural disaster. Just a handful of countries are on the list.
The children's father, Margarito Mejia, was granted such status. But the status does not offer benefits such as being able to sponsor relatives to come live in the United States. Families who are separated often turn to illegal entry to reunite.
Mejia left Honduras in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch destroyed his small farm. He entered the United States illegally, but the U.S. government's decision to place Honduras on the temporary protected status list because of the hurricane allowed him to live and work legally. He built a successful home contracting business.
In mid-2005, a friend told him that the girls were being molested by a male cousin. The boy, too, was suffering physical abuse, his father said. The Associated Press does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse in most cases, but the family of the Mejia-Garcia children has gone public with their story and the children's names have been reported by other news outlets.
Mejia arranged to have his children smuggled into the U.S. soon after hearing of abuse, but they were caught by authorities, their lawyer David Sperling said. The children were released to their father. The family lives on Long Island, near New York City, where the children attend school.
All the while, as their case worked its way through the immigration system, the threat of deportation loomed.
Sperling said the children were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of abuse they suffered. Wendy at first kept imagining she saw a man trying to hurt her, and sometimes she'd refuse to even go to the bathroom because she was scared, her father said.
On Friday, Sperling acknowledged an asylum claim would be hard to prove - abused children don't necessarily fit into the general categories of the law - but he also said it was worth trying. As the children, their father and stepmother Maria, a Salvadoran woman also here under temporary protected status, sat crammed in a bench behind him, Sperling told the judge the case was one of the most compelling he has encountered.
"They have no one in their home country to take care of them," Sperling said.
In explaining immigration authorities' refusal to abandon the deportation, a government attorney reminded the court that the children had been smuggled in illegally.
Much about the family's life in the U.S. is tenuous. Even the father may one day have to return to Honduras, because there is no direct route from temporary status to becoming a permanent legal resident, said Shawn Saucier, a spokesman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Honduras has been on the list of temporary protected status countries since 1999. Some 78,000 Hondurans are in the U.S. with the designation. Other countries on the list include Burundi, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Sudan and Somalia and Liberia. More than 330,000 people are in the United States under temporary protected status.
Critics say the temporary designations often last far too long, and that those here tend to establish deep roots, making them less likely to leave once their country is deemed ready to take them back.
The designation "is a real problem for the United States because it represents our unwillingness to enforce the law but also our unwillingness to let the illegals stay permanently," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that wants more restrictions on immigration, the AP reports.
After the Friday session, the Mejia-Garcia children sat in a cafeteria in a federal building in Manhattan without a smile as they learned they would have to come back to court for an asylum hearing in November. They hadn't been able to sleep the night before.
Their father tried to maintain a calm composure in front of the family. He echoed his daughter Wendy's confidence.
"I have faith," he said. "I believe justice will prevail."
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