Carlos as a small boy in Honduras.

Carlos was fifteen years old when he left Honduras, on his own. Fleeing violence, seeking a better education, and hoping for medical treatment for an eye condition that left him partially blind, he was optimistic about his future in the U.S.

A lonely journey

Carlos traveled some of the way from Honduras to the U.S. border with a paid “guide,” but mostly was on his own, traveling for about a week on a series of buses. At the U.S. border beyond the Rio Grande, he was arrested on entry. Carlos was held at a detention facility for one night in Texas before he was brought to a shelter for youth in Miami.

Carlos remembers exactly how long he was at the shelter: 82 days. He missed his family, and the uncertainty was scary: what was going to happen next? It was a huge relief when he found out that he would be released to live with his aunt in Summerville, New Jersey—he remembers being interrupted in the middle of a soccer game at the detention facility with the good news. He hadn’t seen his aunt in person since he was very young, and only had pictures to remember her from, but finally, he would be starting his new life in America.

IINE’s Unaccompanied Children’s Program

Carlos as a teen, freshly arrived in New Jersey.

Since 2011, IINE has helped unaccompanied minor children by providing the support and resources they need to reunify with loved ones in the United States. IINE’s program delivers essential services to children and teenagers who are referred to us by the Office of Refugee Resettlement after they have been detained and sheltered by the U.S. government under federal policy guidelines.

Children like Carlos, who are apprehended at the southern border or in the course of an U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, are placed into federal detention. Those who are able to reunify with family in New England are often referred to IINE as they are released into the care of a sponsor, usually a family member like Carlos’s aunt, while their legal status in the U.S. is clarified. In addition to certifying the safety and suitability of the U.S. sponsor’s home, IINE provides support to children and teens during this transition period by offering critical legal aid and linking the children and their sponsors to community resources.

IINE’s bilingual social workers advocate for each child as they navigate federal reunification guidelines, and are responsible for visiting the child in their new home in the U.S. IINE staff provide the reunited family with referrals to attorneys, schools, libraries, museums, health facilities, food banks, crisis hotlines, and other resources tailored both to the family’s local community and any needs or interests that may have been identified.  Depending on the individual child’s situation, a case manager may also help develop a stress management plan, work out a family safety plan with both the child and the sponsor, and discuss family support strategies with the sponsor.

As such, IINE started working with Carlos’s aunt while he was still at the shelter in Miami. First, Sofie, his IINE case manager, conducted a home study: she toured his aunt’s house, interviewed everyone who lived there, ensured it was a safe place for Carlos, and made a recommendation for his release to his aunt. Carlos, like other unaccompanied children in the program, was determined to be qualified to receive case services from IINE until his eighteenth birthday.

Carlos was anxious when he first met Sofie, because he didn’t know any English and couldn’t imagine that an American woman could speak Spanish. Even once he discovered that they could understand each other, he was a bit shy.

Team Carlos

Carlos poses with his aunt at his high school graduation.

Sofie was there to advocate for Carlos’ needs. He struggled in his new high school due to his lack of English skills and low literacy. Reflecting on his experience, Carlos recently said “I remember during my first year I wanted to cry because I didn’t know anything or where to go. I was always scared I wouldn’t be able to talk to people or know how to respond to them.”

Sofie helped him troubleshoot his school coursework, and encouraged him to join the swim team in order to help him socialize with other teens. She also introduced Carlos to a community volunteer program where he got to help other special needs kids. Sofie frequently reaffirmed for Carlos: “You matter because you are here.”

In addition to Sofie’s help with high school, setting up legal appointments, and managing medical care, Carlos also had the support of his aunt, who affectionately calls him “Carlitos.” “He had a really good support system and example to follow, and she didn’t give up on him, and so he didn’t give up on himself,” Sofie says.

Despite her own literacy issues, his aunt organized a system of sticky notes and folders to keep Carlos’ medical, legal, and educational papers carefully organized. She also dutifully brought him to the court dates to arrange his immigration status, ultimately helping Carlos to secure Special Immigrant Juvenile status.

Carlos, today

Carlos today, age 21, talks about his experiences on Zoom.

Today, Carlos is almost 21 years old. He graduated high school, and is supporting himself with a job at a packaging factory. He’s proud to be living with roommates on his own, and loves to show off his prized collection of baseball caps. He’s cheerful and optimistic, and while he’s still more comfortable speaking Spanish, he understands a lot of English and is continuing to learn.

Carlos is still blind in his right eye: a corneal specialist confirmed that the vision couldn’t be restored because the injury that damaged his eye took place when he was so young. “My dream has always been to be in the military, but that’s not possible,” Carlos says, because of his eye. While he doesn’t have college plans yet, Carlos is not giving up on finding a good career in the future: “I would like to see myself in five or six years as a nurse or a veterinarian, I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to be one of those.”