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A long walk to a new life: Ragged sneakers remind Cherry Hill immigration lawyer what’s at stake for asylum-seekers

Luis Canales laced a pair of black Adidas and went north, sustained by occasional jobs, like herding goats in Mexico, and by his deep Catholic faith.

Attorney Luis Canales, a Villanova University law-school graduate now running a legal practice in Cherry Hill, with the shoes he wore while walking from Honduras to Texas. The old Adidas are precious to him.
Attorney Luis Canales, a Villanova University law-school graduate now running a legal practice in Cherry Hill, with the shoes he wore while walking from Honduras to Texas. The old Adidas are precious to him.Read moreJeff Gammage

The sneakers are worn and ragged, with bits of dirt and thorn still embedded in the soles.

Someone else might have tossed them out. But to Luis Canales, they’re precious.

In these shoes he walked thousands of miles, from Honduras to Mexico to Texas, to safety and freedom and all the way to a new life.

“Those shoes are worth a million dollars to me,” Canales said. “A reminder that I have to keep going, that I know I can make a difference in other people’s lives.”

In 2004, at age 16, Canales fled Honduras after a criminal gang tried to kill him. Now 31, and fresh from Villanova University law school, he has opened a solo practice in Cherry Hill, keeping a promise that if he were granted the chance to stay in this country, he would become an immigration lawyer and help those in danger.

Canales’ office sits across the street from the Cherry Hill Mall. He started in November with one client and today has 45. The people who seek his help are not wealthy. They’re often undocumented and usually afraid.

But they trust him as one who traveled the same path.

“I can tell him all the atrocities that I have lived and feel that I’m being understood," said Bessy, who hired Canales to pursue her asylum claim after she ran from Honduras, and who agreed to speak only if her surname was withheld. “He is a person who emerged from deep waters. And this makes me trust him even more.”

Canales was the 12th of 14 children born to poor parents in Siguatepeque, a city of 100,000 in the central mountains of Honduras. As a boy, Canales wore the hand-me-down clothes that traveled from eldest to youngest child.

His father was a carpenter but had no steady job. His mother tended to the family and the house.

But his parents made sure their children went to bed with full stomachs, Canales said. And they promoted the value of the education that they themselves lacked.

Today, two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty and in rural areas, one of five lives in extreme poverty -- that is, on less than $1.90 a day. Only 30 percent of children enroll in high school.

A country the size of Louisiana has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with 56 killings for every 100,000 people. While tourist agencies tout Honduras’ forest waterfalls and Mayan ruins, the U.S. State Department urges Americans to reconsider traveling there, warning that murders, violent gangs, robberies, and drug trafficking are widespread.

That danger has driven people north — 110,000 from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador in 2015, a fivefold increase from 2012, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Canales’ troubles started in 10th grade, he said, when he gave a speech at the local municipal building, urging the government to act forcefully against gangs. He didn’t realize his words were being broadcast on the radio.

“A target was put on my back,” Canales said.

He lived in hiding and on the run. One morning, he said, he found himself desperately trying to out-pedal a gangster who was chasing him on a bicycle. The gang member raised a gun and fired — at the exact moment Canales fell on a steep turn.

The bullet missed. The fall knocked Canales unconscious. The gangster thought his prey was dead.

“A miracle,” Canales said.

When he awoke, scraped and bloody, he knew his life in Honduras was over.

Canales laced up a pair of black Adidas and went north, sustained by occasional jobs, such as herding goats in Mexico, and by his deep Catholic faith.

Three times he was turned back by authorities.

The fourth time, at age 17 in January 2005, Canales said, he hid in a cargo-train car filled with corn, his nose poking above the cobs so he could breathe. He crossed the border at Eagle Pass, Texas, got off the train, waved down a police car, and asked for asylum.

After two months at a youth shelter, he was released to family members in Scranton.

But another challenge lay ahead, in Immigration Court.

To gain asylum, a legal means of staying in the U.S., immigrants must show a legitimate fear of persecution, specifically one based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.

As Canales’ case moved slowly forward, he became involved in a Catholic church, Nativity of Our Lord in Scranton. He worked on perfecting his English and earned his high school equivalency degree. Colleges offered him scholarships.

His immigration lawyer, Tracey Hubbard of Scranton, said Canales’ intelligence and drive were obvious at his 2010 hearing in Philadelphia. But personal strengths don’t win asylum cases.

She argued that Canales was persecuted because of his political opinions — anti-gang, pro-government. But the odds were long, as only about 20 percent of claims are approved.

“When this kid is murdered in Honduras,” Hubbard told the court, “I’m going to bring you his death certificate. His death is on your hands.”

Ultimately, it may have been Canales’ own emotional testimony of his plight that persuaded Judge Miriam Mills to grant asylum.

Four years later, he graduated from Marywood University in Scranton, becoming a U.S. citizen the same year. After a year at a Massachusetts law school, he transferred to Villanova.

From the moment I met him, it seemed like he had a chosen a path,” said Villanova law professor Michele Pistone, director of the Clinic for Asylum, Refugee and Emigrant Services, a law-school project that helps people fleeing human-rights abuses. “He wanted to serve others.”

In 2016, as a second-year law student, Canales was invited to speak at the United Nations as part of a summit for refugees and migrants. In 2017, National Jurist magazine named him one of its 25 students of the year.

Today, Canales and his wife, Maryori, live in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia.

He fights to win asylum cases at a time when the Trump administration has mounted ever-tougher opposition. The president says migrants are using “fraudulent or meritless asylum claims to gain entry to our great country.”

Canales says otherwise.

“Behind every single person is a story,” he said. “And we don’t think of that today in the United States. … It’s very important to hear each person’s story, their reason for being here. I was one of them. I was in those people’s shoes.”

Staff writer Jesenia De Moya Correa contributed to this article.