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Deep in debt to smugglers, this migrant girl is struggling to make ends meet

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Nearly 115,000 unaccompanied migrant children arrived in the U.S. last year, and we're about to meet one of them. She's a 16-year-old from Guatemala. And like many smuggled migrants, she arrived saddled with debt. She's now having a hard time making ends meet. Typically, relatives back home borrow money to pay smugglers for the dangerous trek. But migrants who make it into the U.S. have to pay back thousands of dollars immediately. Nadine Sebai of The Public's Radio in Rhode Island has the story.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

NADINE SEBAI, BYLINE: At a banquet hall just minutes away from the New Bedford port, Alondra (ph) is about to speak. She begins to answer questions about her previous job at a seafood processing plant. More than 300 people listen. They include government officials celebrating the anniversary of a workers advocacy center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: The interviewer asks what she wants in the future, and Alondra makes a plea.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says what she needs is a work permit and permanent residency so she can stay in this country. Alondra came to the U.S. from Guatemala early last year. Alondra is a nickname. We're not providing her full name because she fears it would impact her immigration case. Alondra left her mom, grandparents and six siblings behind to reunite with her dad in an apartment they share with another family. She has $4,500 in debt and no way to pay it. She also needs to help her dad cover the rent, buy groceries and pay utility bills.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says, "he was paying for everything, and he couldn't." This is why she started working with a fake ID that said she was 20 years old. Alondra got a job working at a seafood processing plant. She didn't know the plant was under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for possible child labor violations. In September, Alondra says she got a phone call from a person she could only describe as, quote, "someone from the government." The person on the other end of the phone asked Alondra if she was working at that plant.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says she didn't want to tell them because she was afraid they'd send her back to Guatemala, so she said no. Alondra was working during the day and planning to start school in the next semester.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says they told her, you have to go to school because it's obligatory. You're a minor. So she left her job and started school.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says she was a little sad because she wanted to work. She wants to pay her debts. We don't know for sure if it was federal officials who told Alondra to leave her job. What we do know is that Alondra says she's cooperating with the ongoing investigation into the seafood processing plant where she worked. Because of her cooperation, Alondra was able to apply for something called Deferred Action, a form of prosecutorial discretion that allows her to remain in the country for a two-year period and become eligible for a work permit.

BEN ROTH: That is not the normal outcome.

SEBAI: Ben Roth is faculty at the University of South Carolina, researching the topic of youth migrants. He says that Alondra's ability to apply for Deferred Action gives her a very unusual advantage other unaccompanied minors don't have.

ROTH: Most of them are going to work in this highly vulnerable set of conditions.

SEBAI: Unaccompanied minors have the option of applying for asylum or a special visa. It's a costly and lengthy process. And as Congress remains at a standstill regarding comprehensive immigration reform, there is no assurance of what protections they'll receive in the future. Jennifer Velarde is an immigration attorney in New Bedford. She says getting undocumented teens a work permit provides more than access to safe work. It also provides teens with a voice.

JENNIFER VELARDE: The importance of giving individuals in this situation a work authorization - it gives them the power to say, OK, I'm not going to be afraid anymore.

SEBAI: Alondra was supposed to be making payments on her $4,500 loan starting last month, but she told her lenders in Guatemala that she doesn't have the money.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She says she told them to give her more time and explained she doesn't have a job. They told her they need the money. And she said, I'm not working. I don't have the money.

ALONDRA: (Speaking Spanish).

SEBAI: She convinced them to push off her loans for now. Meanwhile, Alondra is desperately waiting for a response on her Deferred Action application. For NPR News, I'm Nadine Sebai in Massachusetts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARTIN JACOBY'S "TOGETHER WE WILL LIVE FOREVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Nadine Sebai | The Public’s Radio