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Boy, 12, Facing Deportation Held on $25,000 Bail

TIMES STAFF WRITER

MacDonald Caballero, 12 years old and handcuffed to chains, seemed a bit bewildered as he shuffled into a crowded immigration courtroom Tuesday to plead that his $25,000 bail be reduced.

Caballero, who said he is from Nicaragua and entered this country alone and illegally 2 1/2 months ago, was arrested by Los Angeles police officers in March and is being held in a county juvenile detention facility while he awaits a deportation hearing.

The boy, dressed in rumpled khaki pants and a gray sweat shirt from the Los Padrinos juvenile facility, did not say much during his brief court hearing. Speaking through a court-appointed interpreter, he even had trouble telling the judge his name.

“I do not know what courts are,” he told the judge at one point.

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The police picked him up, Caballero said in a later interview, when he was wandering alone near Lafayette Park in the middle of the night.

Police booked Caballero for “interfering” with an investigation because he refused to give officers information about where he lived. Caballero was placed in the Eastlake Juvenile Hall and the Immigration and Naturalization Service took over his case. Now he faces deportation but must remain in custody because of the unusually high amount of bail.

“It’s outrageous,” said Sheila Neville, a Legal Aid attorney who represented Caballero on Tuesday. “I cannot understand why they would put that high a bond on a 12-year-old. Quite frankly, it’s ridiculous.”

INS officials said the $25,000 bond was set because the boy has no relatives and they believe he might flee.

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As Caballero waited his turn Tuesday, Judge Rose Collantes Peters disposed of a dozen or more cases of undocumented Mexicans and Central Americans who had been convicted of breaking laws and would be deported. Others, including families from Afghanistan and India, also awaited decisions on their fates.

Finally, Caballero’s case came up. Clearly, the idea of a 12-year-old illegal alien with no known relatives in this country posed a problem both for the court and INS authorities. Even if his bond had been canceled, and the judge agreed to release him on his own recognizance, by law the boy could not be freed without an adult to take responsibility for him.

“What really troubles me is the circumstances of this child’s supervision,” said Isabel Bronzina, an INS attorney who served as prosecutor. “He has absolutely no ties in the United States. He is a transient.”

Bronzina conceded that she did not know exactly why the boy was arrested, but said the fact “some kind of criminal conduct” was alleged should be considered in determining the bond.

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Judge Peters suggested that some bond was necessary.

“What guarantees are there that he will show up?” she asked. “He’s not your average 12-year-old. He made it here on his own. He’s gone a long way on his own.”

Peters ultimately said she would release Caballero if a “responsible adult” would come forward to take charge of the boy. She set a hearing for May 15, at which time the guardian would have to be present.

Caballero said in brief interviews before and after the proceeding that he had lost his parents shortly after his birth in Leon, Nicaragua, and was raised in an orphanage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. After earning money shining shoes and washing cars, he traveled to Mexico City early this year and then hitched a ride on a freight train to the border.

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Late in February, he crossed the border at San Ysidro, where thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans enter the United States illegally.

Caballero could offer no proof of his age, his nationality or other claims. Smooth-skinned, with the first traces of facial hair, he appeared to be anywhere from 12 to 16. He said he will turn 13 later this month.

Since arriving in Los Angeles, he said, he has earned about $20 a day working at a medical clinic that caters to Spanish-speakers near MacArthur Park and he has been living in a cheap motel on Broadway.

“They detained me because I was walking around in the middle of the night,” Caballero said of the police. “I was coming home from having washed my clothes at a laundromat. I was about to take a bus.

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“I have not done anything,” he said. “It is not fair to have me here.”

Caballero said Juvenile Hall was “like a prison,” with “very badly behaved people,” including youngsters accused of robbery, attempted murder and other serious crimes.

After his hearing, Caballero was shackled again, with handcuffs placed on his wrists and a chain leading from his left arm to the next man in line. Guards took the group away.


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