A Journey of Courage & Faith: Immigration Services

Published in our 2016 Annual Report.

Nelson always felt like he was meant to be in the United States. However, his journey to reunite with his mother was not what he imagined.

Nelson grew up in his grandmother’s home and attended school in San Pedro Sula. This city in Honduras is known for having the highest murder rate in the world in 2015. San Pedro Sula’s homicide rate is fueled by the rivalry of dangerous street gangs fighting for control of the area. These criminals are known to terrorize and commit heinous crimes such as murder, kidnapping, extortion, carjacking, armed robbery and other aggravated assaults.

Kidnapped and taken from his family by gang members at the young age of 16, Nelson was forced to work long, grueling hours doing construction work and manual labor without pay. He eventually found a way to escape and fled to his uncle’s village for safety.  However, it wasn’t long before gang members tracked him down. When they found him, they taunted Nelson with frightening threats to his family in an attempt to keep him quiet and from going to the authorities.

Fearful for his life and the safety of his grandmother and family, Nelson was forced to make a difficult decision – to stay and endure the trauma that life in Honduras had in store for him or leave his grandmother and family behind and flee to safety in the U.S. with the hopes of reuniting with his mother, who had fled to the U.S. a few years earlier, fearing for her own life.

Nelson’s decision to escape took courage and faith. “Leaving was the safest thing to do for myself and my family,” he said. “All I could do was pray that nothing would happen to me or them. Having faith is the most important thing.”

Nelson traveled for a month with smugglers through Central America and Mexico and arrived at the border in October 2015. He was detained at the border then transferred to a federally run children’s shelter for six months.

In March 2016, Nelson was released and reunited with his mother in Louisiana. Soon after, he turned to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans for help.

The humanitarian crisis in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala has led to children who have shared experiences of years-long family separation, widespread violence in their home countries, and higher rates of neglect and abuse. This has contributed to the migration of large numbers of unaccompanied minors to the U.S. border in search of safety and family. Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services provides legal representation and holistic case management services that help identify the special needs of children, like Nelson, and connect them with resources to ensure their safety and protection.

“Children often arrive having faced traumatic experiences in their home countries and during their flight to the U.S. They are often eligible for special humanitarian protection under immigration law and have significant social support needs,” said Julie Ward, Catholic Charities’ Director of Immigration and Refugee Services. “Catholic Charities is here to help them obtain legal assistance, receive health care and mental health support, and connect them to resources that can help them adjust and thrive in their new home.”

Through Catholic Charities, Nelson receives free legal assistance from an attorney who recently helped him win a court order that made him eligible to apply for legal immigration status – a promising first step. The attorney will continue to guide Nelson through the process of applying for legal status, which he hopes to gain within the next few years.

Nelson and Family Immigration Services ClientsWhile his journey was not what he imagined, life in the U.S. is everything Nelson had hoped for; he is grateful for the opportunities that living in the states provides. “I’m happy to be here because I have opportunities I did not have in Honduras,” said Nelson. “I feel good here. I have the opportunity to go to school and focus on my studies, to get a job where I will be treated fairly, and to be with my mother and family.”  He hopes that one day he will also have the opportunity to help his grandmother he left behind in Honduras.

Today, Nelson attends high school in LaPlace where he has made new friends and credits his teachers with being helpful as he learns English and adjusts to his new school and environment. He is fascinated by American history and intrigued by prominent historical figures such as president Abraham Lincoln and civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He hopes to one day travel the U.S. to learn more about history and explore other places in the world, wherever his curiosity leads him. He also hopes to attend college and continue his studies.

At home, Nelson likes to play basketball with his brothers at the park near their home.  Twice each week, he plays soccer with friends after school. With quiet time to himself, he likes to draw, read and make friendship bracelets – a skill he learned at the shelter while waiting to be joined with his family.

“I’ve made bracelets to give to my mother,” said Nelson, as he proudly shows off a trio of bracelets he made and wears around his wrists and another on his ankle that has an intricate chevron pattern. “This one took a long time to make,” he smiles.

When asked about the courage and strength it took to leave Honduras and find his way to the U.S., Nelson, who is now age 18, responds with both maturity and innocence. “Thinking about my family gives me strength. When I think of the things that happened in Honduras, it makes me want to protect the little ones,” referring to his younger brothers. “I want a better, safer future for them,” Nelson added.

Nelson continues to receive strength and encouragement not only from his friends and family but also from the pages of his favorite book, given to him while he was at the shelter. The book details an immigrant’s quest for the American dream. Nelson imagined that the story was written by someone like him, and sees many of his own hopes and dreams for his new life reflected in the book’s stories.

On his path toward legal immigration status, Nelson will have many decisions to make that will chart a course for his future, but with the help of Catholic Charities, his journey to becoming a lawful permanent resident of the United States will be filled with promise and new opportunity.