Cristian Flores set out a row of sodas, bottled water and cookies on the counter of the used RV outside the Northwest Detention Center.
A sign, flanked by handmade construction paper flowers, was taped to the wooden cabinetry above his head.
“You are safe here,” it said.
Flores was manning the welcome center run by Advocates for Immigrants in Detention Northwest, a Tacoma-based nonprofit that helps immigrants after they’re released from the federal detention center on the Tacoma Tideflats.
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“Do you want to eat something?” Flores, 23, said in Spanish to Lazaro Carmona, who was holding a clear plastic bag containing his belongings.
Only moments before, Carmona had walked out of the release gates of the detention center with two other former detainees. It was cloudy and cold.
They had a car waiting for them. Carmona didn’t.
“I don’t know where my family is,” he said.
Flores said Carmona could wait in the heated RV and use its phone.
Flores, a volunteer for the nonprofit, gave Carmona food, a phone call to his family and instructions on when to file an application for employment.
Just as Carmona had done, Flores stepped into the welcome center less than six months ago after having been detained for 11 months.
“It changed my life,” Flores said of living behind walls.
Unlike many immigrants facing deportation under the Trump administration, Flores is in the United States legally and on the track to become a citizen.
But his own time in the United States, marked by shifting gains and losses, illustrates the complicated legal challenges immigrants face in winning citizenship.
JOURNEY TO THE UNITED STATES
Originally from Honduras, Flores came to the United States as a 17-year-old.
He said he left his home in San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras, because of pressure to join a street gang.
“I’ll kill your family,” Flores said one gang member told him if he didn’t cooperate. “I’ll kill you.”
At that time, the city of 719,000 people had one of the highest murder rates in the world, according to the U.S. Department of State.
In a country of about 8 million people, there are an estimated 7,000 violent gang members in San Pedro Sula. Most belong to the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs, which have networks that stretch from Central America to the United States, according to the State Department.
Cristian lived with his parents and sister at the time. He said his neighborhood, Cabanas, has a reputation as one of the most dangerous areas in San Pedro Sula.
His father was a local mechanic and his mother took care of the house.
“Mom, please, can I go?” he remembers asking after he was threatened.
It’s common for kids his age to be forced into gangs, so they flee to Mexico and the United States to keep themselves and their family safe, he said.
“Every day, one kid dies,” Flores said.
His family agreed that it was best for him to go.
Flores left for Mexico and said he found shelter in a church in Cananea, a city in the state of Sonora, a little more than 20 miles from the U.S. border.
He said three gang members from the area came to the church shelter where he was sleeping and took him and four other people to a truck waiting outside.
“They were looking for young people,” he said.
All were given backpacks and forced at gunpoint to walk for roughly 10 days through the Mexican and American desert, he said.
“If you don’t walk, I’ll kill you now,” he said one gang member told him.
Flores said he walked until his feet began to swell. His shoes began to fall apart and he could barely walk.
In Arizona, the group met a truck that took the group more than 400 miles to California, stopping in Indio, a city in Southern California.
“I don’t need you any more, so stay here,” Flores said he was told when they reached the city.
Flores sat on the ground in front of a bank.
He said he wasn’t there long before a police officer approached and began to ask him questions in English, which Flores didn’t understand at the time.
The officer called the Department of Homeland Security and the officer took him into custody.
Homeland Security transfers unaccompanied minors, such as Flores was then, to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The federal program connects people — including unaccompanied children, refugees and asylum seekers — with resettlement services.
In 2011, the year Flores crossed from Mexico to the United States, about 1,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras were detained by Homeland Security officers along the Southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The resettlement office places minors with relatives, a shelter or into foster care.
Flores was sent to Seattle to Casa de los Amigos, a federally funded shelter home and detainment center for minors. Unaccompanied children are connected with legal assistance, education and health care.
Facing deportation, he was drawn into proceedings at the U.S. Immigration Review Court in Seattle.
In the meantime, Flores said, he stayed at Casa de los Amigos for a few months as a staff member arranged for him to move in with an uncle in Federal Way.
Before leaving the shelter around the end of 2011, a caseworker told Flores to go to school. He did, beginning classes at Federal Way High School within days.
Around May 2012, when Flores was 18, his uncle went back to Honduras. Flores moved into a shared apartment and began washing dishes at a Vietnamese restaurant.
One night in 2014, Flores was drinking with his roommates and got into a fight with one of them. He was arrested for assault after a neighbor called in a complaint.
Flores says that’s when he learned there was an order for his deportation because he’d missed an immigration court hearing in 2012, around the time he lived with his uncle.
Because of the assault conviction, Flores served a little more than a year at King County Regional Justice Center in Kent.
In October 2015, he was transferred to the Northwest Detention Center to await deportation.
Flores soon met with representatives of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
The nonprofit gives immigration-related legal help and presentations to about 10,000 people a year in Washington. With offices in Tacoma, Seattle, Wenatchee and Granger, it has 38 staff attorneys, 29 advocates and more than 350 volunteer attorneys.
Staff members brief detainees at the detention center on the legal process and meet one-on-one with them about whether the project will take on their cases.
They thought there was a strong legal basis to reopen Flores’ deportation order and apply for what’s known as a T visa, said Tim Warden-Hertz, the directing attorney of the nonprofit.
The special visa is for trafficking victims brought to the United States and forced into labor against their will.
Warden-Hertz said there was strong evidence to prove Flores was eligible for a T visa. But Flores was to be deported soon, so “something had to happen very quickly,” Warden-Hertz said.
Around January 2016, the attorney helped Flores reopen his removal proceedings, which postponed the deportation and bought Flores time to apply for a T visa.
Eight months later, the visa was approved, which ended the deportation proceedings and left Flores free to leave the Northwest Detention Center.
The four-year visa entitles him to live and work in the United States. In three years, he can apply for a green card, Warden-Hertz said. If he gets that, five years later he can apply to be a citizen.
Flores, at 22, was released on a Tuesday in September. He stepped into AID NW’s RV that day.
Volunteers helped him get a state-issued identification card, a Social Security card, food assistance benefits and free housing.
Now, Flores said, because of the help, he’s on his way to securing his first apartment and a job.
Flores said he’s glad he got his T visa before President Donald Trump’s recent executive orders on increased border security and immigration enforcement.
“The situation is bad now,” Flores said, adding that he thinks his criminal record might have made it harder to obtain now.
Flores lives in a shelter run by AID NW and applied for a shared apartment in Federal Way.
“I’m changing my life,” he said, adding that he is looking for work as a mechanic, like his father, or in construction.
Until then, he volunteers in the RV on Thursdays and Fridays.
In addition to feeding and guiding former detainees after they’re released, he helps many find the bus to Sea-Tac Airport. He gives them a map of the airport, instructions on where to go and bus fare.
“I like helping people,” Flores said.