WASHINGTON -- Twelve-year-old Mayeli Hernandez paused to cry Tuesday as she told a panel of House Democrats about traveling earlier this year with her 9-year-old sister from Honduras to the U.S. border, and then to Long Island to rejoin her mom after being apart for four years.
"One of the reasons that I left my country was because of the violence," the soft-spoken preteen said through an interpreter in the packed hearing room. "Also because my little sister suffered from an epileptic fit."
After seeing two men killed on her street, she said, she fears going back. "I was scared I would be killed," she said. "I would miss my mom a lot if I had to go back to my country."
Mayeli, of Uniondale, was one of three children living on Long Island after entering the United States illegally who told their stories at an ad hoc hearing held by the Progressive Democratic Caucus to highlight the human faces of the border crisis.
"These kids coming to the border are being blamed for everything," said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the caucus of Congress' liberal bloc. "I think that's a lot to be placed on their little shoulders."
Congress is battling over funding to cope with the surge of minors from Central America and how to balance immigration enforcement against protecting children's rights under a 2008 law to make their case to stay. Democrats want to pay for more immigration judges. Republicans generally want to send the children back to their own countries.
Also testifying were Dulce Medina, 15, of Central Islip, who left Guatemala at age 10, and Saul Martinez, 15, who left El Salvador two months ago and lives in Brentwood with his mother and four sisters.
All appear likely to stay in the United States, said their lawyer, Bryan Johnson of Bay Shore. Medina is a legal resident. Mayeli and her sister are close to getting their green cards. Martinez has a hearing set for his immigration status.
Medina, who speaks English and will be a high school sophomore in the fall, said she traveled with her little sister, fleeing gangs, an attempted sexual assault and the murder of a woman on her street.
Martinez also fled the gangs. "Everybody knows if you refuse to join a gang, they will kill you," he said through an interpreter.
The story of Mayeli captured the complexity of the issue.
Mayeli said she was 2 when her father died and 8 when her mother left for a "better life" in the United States. As the danger in Honduras rose, her family paid human smugglers $11,000 to transport Mayeli and her sister.
Mayeli called that trip "a big adventure." That changed once they crossed into the United States and were confronted by the Border Patrol.
"Nobody helped me to know what to say. It was just me and my sister," she said.
Like Martinez, Mayeli complained about a cold welcome: The halls of the center where she and her sister were held were "freezing," and they were given only thin nylon blankets and little food.
After four days, she and her sister were sent to Long Island.
When the hearing was over, Mayeli explained through Medina why she cried: "I had a flashback of everything that happened to me."