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'I Started Over': Checking In On Salvadoran Migrants In The U.S.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Before there were tens of thousands of people packed into boats trying to get to Europe, there were tens of thousands of people crossing into the U.S. at the border with Mexico. U.S. Customs and Border Protection says more than 100,000 unaccompanied kids and children with relatives crossed into the U.S. from the fall of 2013 to fall 2014.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Now, more than a year later, some of those unaccompanied children are being granted asylum. But many are still waiting to find out whether they can stay. There are thousands of families like this here in California. I met a few of them last summer and have been checking in with them ever since. One of the people I met is a woman who wanted us to only use her nickname, Rosy. We talked her through an interpreter last year she. She and her two children had just come from El Salvador.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MCEVERS: And how much did they pay the - she pay the smuggler?

ROSY: (Through interpreter, unintelligible) dollars.

MCEVERS: A thousand dollars to a smuggler to take them hundreds and hundreds of miles. Rosy's daughter said they took a raft across the Rio Grande into Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: She says she was scared.

MCEVERS: They turned themselves in to Border Patrol agents. They spent a day and a night in detention, then were released to a relative here in California. Rosy said the reason they left El Salvador was that violence street gangs that control a lot of the country had started trying to recruit her teenage son. She didn't want to say her kids' names because the family's immigration case was still pending. That was last summer. It's still true now.

How are you?

When we met Rosy again a couple weeks ago at the office of a nonprofit that helps people from Central America, she looked tired, but a lot less worried.

Does she still work at a beauty salon?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSY: Si.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Si, yeah.

MCEVERS: During the day, Rosy works at a beauty salon. At night, she works at a restaurant.

How many hours does she work?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: Eight hours at one, six hours at the other. Rosy and the kids live all together in a studio apartment here in Los Angeles. The kids go to school.

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She said that when she first had that interview with you, she was so desperate. And she was super saddened because she left everything behind.

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: But then she saw her kids so well-adapted here that she said, I need to get this work.

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: "I will fight for my kids," Rosy says, "not for me." We go meet Rosy's kids a few days later at a McDonald's. Even they don't know what'll happen with their case, they are clearly getting used to life in the U.S. Rosy's son is a sophomore in high school. He just got voted homecoming prince. He has a girlfriend named Darlene. He shows me on his phone.

Let's see your girlfriend. Instagram - let's see your girlfriend. Come on, now. She looks cute.

He is a star running back - 16 touchdowns this season.

Oh, is that the football team?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah. I'm here.

MCEVERS: That's you? Look at you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah, that's me.

MCEVERS: And he gets good grades.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I have six A's and one B.

MCEVERS: I asked him if he ever talks about El Salvador with his friends.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No, I don't really like to talk about it.

MCEVERS: So it's literally like you just started over?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: I start - yeah, I started over.

MCEVERS: More than 80 percent of the kids at his school are Latino. Many of their parents speak Spanish, but most of the kids, he says, speak English - so does Rosy's daughter. Remember that scared girl on the raft? She's in middle school now.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yes, there is a lot of people that talk Spanish, but more, especially, English.

MCEVERS: What do you think about when you think about El Salvador?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I don't know. I think that if I stayed over there, my life is going to be, like, nothing.

MCEVERS: And if you stay here?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I think I'm going to have a good future because I'm going to go to college and finish my high school.

MCEVERS: The family's case is complicated. When they first crossed into the U.S., Rosy says she signed a deportation order without knowing what it was. Her lawyer is appealing and asking that the family be granted asylum. Immigration lawyers say it used to be really hard to get asylum in the U.S. But now, says Alex Holguin (ph), the lawyer for Rosy and dozens of Central American families here in LA, that's changing.

ALEX HOLGUIN: These are very sympathetic cases. They're young people who've been subjected to horrible things coming from countries where it's generally a failsafe.

MCEVERS: Holguin and several other lawyers and aid workers here say between 30 and 50 percent of asylum cases are being granted. Holguin says it's up to the discretion of the interviewer.

HOLGUIN: They don't tell you why. They just tell you yes or no, basically.

MCEVERS: Holguin says adults, so far, are much less likely to get asylum. Even if your family's been threatened by a gang, like Rosy says her family was, that's not technically a valid claim for asylum. Even if the kids don't get asylum, they could still qualify for a special juvenile visa and stay in the U.S.

HOLGUIN: They still have to be good citizens. They are subject to being kicked out of the country, even if they're granted residence or asylum status.

MCEVERS: And they know that? Once they get the asylum...

HOLGUIN: Yes, they know that, yeah. We make that very clear - be good.

MCEVERS: Holguin says Rosy's kids have a good chance of staying. The situation is not so clear for Rosy. I asked her many times what she would do if she ended up getting deported back to El Salvador.

I'm sorry to ask this question again. If she got sent back, what does she think would happen?

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: She doesn't know.

ROSY: (Speaking Spanish).

MCEVERS: She doesn't know what to say. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.