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Suyen has a quick smile and looks like a typical American teenager in her sandals and fashionably-torn blue jeans. But she recounts a harrowing journey, saying she left home to escape a father who was beating her, and that along the way she was raped by a "coyote" or migrant smuggler. She endured 24 hours with no food as she sat atop a slow-moving freight train through Mexico and made an overnight trek by foot.
When she struggled to pull herself over a wall at the Mexico-U.S. border, Suyen said, "I thought I was going to die" after being shoved over by a coyote, plunging down the other side and landing atop a man below.
Unlike most kids, she entered the United States undetected, only to end up in a stranger's house in Houston. There, she said she was forced to work without pay for a month before being transferred to a vineyard, where she cooked meals, also without pay, for 300 migrant workers. Reuters has not verified the details of her journey but Suyen told a similar story in a sworn deposition to an immigration court.
Finally, Suyen said, she was allowed to travel to northern Virginia where she was reunited with her mother.
Rebecca Walters, a lawyer in the northern Virginia office of Ayuda, which provides assistance to immigrants, helped Suyen win protective status and eventually a "green card" that allows her to work legally in the United States.
Walters said she typically juggles up to 60 cases at a time involving unaccompanied minors. A lot of her cases were boys who said they had friends who had been murdered for refusing to join gangs at home, she said.
Walters told of a boy from El Salvador who lived with an abusive, alcoholic father. The boy had to stop going outside to avoid getting beaten by gang members trying to recruit him.
In 2011, the boy and his brother, aged 16 and 15, arrived in the United States after walking for days in the desert. They were caught by U.S. authorities just inside border.
If not for the father's abuse, "it would have been almost impossible" to prevent the brothers' deportation, Walters said.
Minors who escape domestic abuse in their countries have a good chance of winning a special protective status from U.S. immigration courts, even if they are caught at the border. But the law does not recognize gang activity as a reason to protect immigrant children.