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Updated: Thursday, 31 May 2012, 6:26 PM EDT
Published : Thursday, 31 May 2012, 5:44 PM EDT
GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (WOOD) - A former high school honors student said she's living in fear -- of the U.S. Immigration officers who could send her back to China, and the Chinese sex-trade smugglers who might be waiting for her.
Cayla Roberts said she was 14 when smugglers, known as snakeheads , forced her into the United States for the sex trade in 2002. She was arrested before they put her to work.
Now, she is facing deportation.
"Before we left China, the smugglers told me we can't run away from them, because they know people up here, too, and they can find us," Roberts, now 24, told 24 Hour News 8. She spoke in three locations across Michigan Thursday afternoon at immigration reform rallies.
Roberts' attorney says Cayla's story illustrates the flaws in an immigration system that handles many people here illegally the same -- whether they were adults who came here on their own, were children taken along by adults, or whether they were smuggled in.
He says it points to the need for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use more "prosecutorial discretion" in such cases -- an Obama administration policy that can stop the deportation process.
Cayla said she was 12, living in the Fujian province when her parents had a baby boy -- violating China's one-child policy.
Her only reminder of that childhood is a family picture. She cut out the face of her father, then taped it back in.
"As long as I can remember, I have always been the disappointment in the family because I was not a boy," she said.
Worth less, her father told her, than a bag of potatoes.
"The potato (is) worth more than you; they can feed people, what can you do?" she recalled her father saying.
24 Hour News 8 is not using her given Chinese name -- or the name the smugglers later gave her -- because she fears it would help the smugglers find her.
In 2002, after her mother died, her father sold her to smugglers, she said.
"I have took care of you for 14 years now, and it's your time to give back," she recalled.
Experts say snakeheads charge tens of thousands of dollars to smuggle Chinese children into the U.S. -- most of that repaid by the children once they got there. And, the children are expected to send money back to their family in China.
"Here you have a girl who's brought here, her father basically sold her to satisfy a gambling debt, sold her into basically what amounts to slavery to work in the sex industry, the most despicable thing you can imagine," said Cayla's immigration attorney, David Koelsch, director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
She said her father dropped her off at a train station.
At the end of the train ride, "there was some guy with my name on the paper, and I just kind of followed the guy."
The journey led her to Mexico, by plane, with 29 other smuggled Chinese immigrants, then into the U.S. through San Diego, she said.
The snakeheads created a passport with a new name.
"They say, this (is) you now."
But before she reached the East Coast sex trade, men with guns and handcuffs pulled her and three other girls from a van, late in the night.
"I was scared; I was sitting in the van shaking. I didn't know what to do; I didn't know what's happening. I didn't even know I was in the United States."
Turns out, these armed men were her saviors -- San Diego police officers.
Immigration officers flew her to a center for undocumented children in Chicago. She called her father.
"There's no home for you here anymore, and there's two options if you ever come home," she quoted him as saying. "One option is, either I will kill you, cuz there's no home for you here anymore, or I will just give you a bottle of medicine and you can take care of it yourself, just kill yourself."
The smugglers, she said, started calling her at the center, threatening her.
"For them, she's a commodity," said Koelsch, the immigration attorney. "She's just like an automobile or some other commodity. They want to put her back into the stream of commerce. They lost money on the deal because she was arrested at the border. That's the way their business works."
It was Bethany Christian Services that eventually brought her to a foster family in Grand Haven.
"Why did you take me in?" Cayla wondered. "Why would you take a stranger in and love as your own? And their answer was always, 'Why not? You know, why not?"
And, she flourished, with nearly perfect grades at Grand Haven High School.
"She perservered obviously through tough times getting here," said her English as Second Language (ESL) teacher Ben Lawrence. "But once she was here, she wanted to learn English, get top grades, take the hardest classes we could offer here at Grand Haven, and she did it. She just had an incredible drive."
She volunteered with her church to rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina, to work with poor children in Kentucky and in New York.
Cayla got married more than a year ago, to Seth
Roberts, after he got out of the Air Force. They had met in high school, dated for two years. She said the marriage had nothing to with her immigration status. In fact, it hasn't helped.
Ken Kolker joined 24 Hour News 8 in January 2009 after 30 years as a newspaper reporter.
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