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- Written by Alex Pender
Katie Chatterton, an associate at Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston, is no stranger to working with vulnerable children in immigration court. Katie recently won immigration status for her third KIND client and is already working on her fourth case. Katie's recent win marks both her first juvenile asylum grant and a first asylum win for KIND's Houston office. Rodrigo* gained asylum due to the severe persecution he suffered in Guatemala. Both Katie and KIND staff in Houston said that Rodrigo is one of the most remarkable kids they have ever met, and this victory has not only been life changing for Rodrigo, but for them as well.
Rodrigo came to the United States when he was 15 years old to flee horrific physical, emotional, and verbal abuse from his father. Because of the brutality of the abuse, Rodrigo's mother did the only thing she knew would keep him safe; she sent him with smugglers to the U.S. to live with his older sister in Houston. Rodrigo made the journey in 2009 and reached the U.S. border. It was there that the smugglers crashed the van that Rodrigo and about 17 other immigrants were riding in through a fence and over a 45-foot embankment. Most of the immigrants were injured, including Rodrigo.
Rodrigo was taken to the hospital and treated for a broken leg. He was then placed in a juvenile detention center with young people who had committed criminal acts. Rodrigo helped the U.S. government in the prosecution of the smugglers, who were eventually sentenced to 16 years in prison. Although Rodrigo helped authorities with the investigation, he was still not released to his sister in Houston. After spending nearly seven months in Department of Health and Human Services facilities in Chicago and Houston, Rodrigo was finally released to his sister and referred to KIND in the fall of 2010.
This is when Katie came in. A native from England, Katie started her law career studying English Law with a year abroad program at a Houston area law school. It was after her returning and completing her studies in the U.S. that she ended up as an associate in the Labor and Employment and Immigration Practice Groups in Haynes and Boone's Houston office.
Katie remembers meeting Rodrigo and hearing about his complex case. Katie tried many different angles for relief and eventually ended up filing for both special immigrant juvenile status (SIJS) and asylum.
Even though Rodrigo seemed to have a good case for immigration relief, the process was still extremely nerve racking for a child who had never appeared in immigration court before. "It's a scary system for these kids. They haven't had the best experience in the past with these authority figures, who in many of their home countries are corrupt and don't protect them," Katie said. "So, even as an attorney, when you reassure them that you are here to help, they are still incredibly nervous."
Throughout the many months of immigration hearings and interviews, Katie was struck by Rodrigo's talents and great progress in integrating into the U.S. He spoke no English when he came to the United States but is now nearly fluent. While in detention, Rodrigo also studied Chinese. "He is truly a bright kid," Katie said. "Rodrigo was really into music and art work while he was up in Chicago and I think he turned to them in order to cope with being locked up in a detention facility."
It wasn't until the end of January 2013 that Rodrigo's asylum application was granted and Rodrigo was free to live and study without fear. Now, at 19, Rodrigo is graduating from high school and wants to join the U.S. Marines after graduation. He is still in touch with Katie and continues to be incredibly appreciative of her and his KIND team in Houston—Pro Bono Coordinator Victoria Mora and two interns, Chelsea Moore and Shiloh Carter—who all worked closely with him throughout the case. His spirit and determination are a true inspiration.
*Names and certain details changed to protect client's identity