- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - After traveling 3,500-miles by foot, bus and car from El Salvador to reach Iowa last year, 16-year-old Jonathon Lopez would like to stay.

He’s among about 250 children from Central America who were unaccompanied when they crossed into the U.S. and who are now seeking to remain with relatives in Iowa.

Winning the legal fight to stay in the U.S. is difficult, but the children have much better odds if they have an attorney. A fundraiser Wednesday in Des Moines aims to raise money to do just that.

A large number of children and teenagers crossed the border alone last summer and moved to communities across the U.S. to live with relatives as they await immigration decisions. The issue became a flashpoint, with some blaming the Obama administration and calling for better border security.

Jonathon argues his life would be endangered if he returns to El Salvador, where he worked as a motorcycle taxi driver to raise about $8 a day for his mother and siblings. Jonathon said when he refused to give some of the money to a gang last spring, they began shooting at him and he barely escaped.

After getting home, he called his father in Clive, and they agreed Jonathon should join him in Iowa.

“I had to decide whether to leave him there to be killed, or try to give him some sort of opportunity here in the U.S,” said Jonathon’s father, Alejandro Lopez.

Jonathon has applied for asylum based on persecution by gangs and is awaiting notice for an interview with a U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service asylum officer.

Ann Naffier, an attorney with Iowa Justice For Our Neighbors, is helping Jonathon.

“Asylum cases based on gang violence are very, very difficult to win,” Naffier said. “But he definitely has a case, and we’re certainly going to argue it as far as we can.”

Justice For Our Neighbors is holding its fundraiser to pay for an attorney and assistant who could represent about 40 children.

According to data gathered by researchers at Syracuse University, only 15 percent of unaccompanied immigrants were allowed to remain in the U.S. as of Oct. 31 if they didn’t have legal representation. For those with an attorney, 73 percent were allowed to remain.

Nationally since October 2013, nearly 57,000 minors have been released to family members across the country as they wait for immigration decisions.

“The process is complicated for an adult; the process is complicated for someone who speaks English as a first language, so imagine how it must be for a child who doesn’t speak English as a first language, who’s new to the country, completely new to all of the surroundings,” said Brynne Howard said, site attorney for Justice For Our Neighbors’ Des Moines branch.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, is “deeply empathetic” for the children, said spokesman Jimmy Centers. But Centers added that “the lack of a secure border and sound immigration policy from the federal government is sending a signal of false hope and jeopardizing the lives of unaccompanied alien children who are currently making a very dangerous journey from Central America.”

In eastern Iowa, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque is helping about 18 children. Deacon Bill Biver said violence and poverty have driven the children to the U.S.

“They’re not just coming here to pull a fast one on us,” Biver said. “They’re coming because the poverty there is a very, very real situation.”

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