A Honduran man living in Baltimore County faces federal charges after an unaccompanied immigrant girl sent to live with him told police he smuggled her into the United States and that the pair engaged in a sexual relationship.
Federal officials gave Pedro Lara Portillo, 42, guardianship over the girl, who is also from Honduras, as part of a program that places minors who cross the border alone with relatives while their immigration status is determined, according to court documents.
The 16-year-old girl crossed the border in late March and after about a month in custody was released to live with Lara in Owings Mills. The girl told police that Lara had an "inappropriate sexual relationship" with her, according to the documents.
The teenager was just one among tens of thousands of children who have come north from Central America, often traveling alone, and sparking a crisis as officials try to figure out how to house them. Around 2,200 young immigrants have been sent to live with guardians in Maryland this year.
Elizabeth Keyes, who leads an immigration law clinic at the University of Baltimore, said the case demonstrates how precarious the position of some of the children is, even after they have successfully reached the United States.
'"They are vulnerable," she said. "This story is a really unfortunate example of that."
Lara was indicted last week on charges of alien smuggling and encouraging an alien to illegally enter the country. He is being detained while his case moves forward.
His attorney could not be reached, but a cousin and an aunt disputed almost every aspect of the account laid out in court documents of the girl's arrival in the United States and her relationship with Lara.
"He never had any problem with anybody," said Indira Moreno, 27, Lara's cousin. "He was trying to do a favor for the mother."
Moreno spoke on the front steps of a white, single-story home in a housing development off Reisterstown Road where Lara and the teenage girl lived briefly after the teenager's arrival in the United States.
Federal investigators say that Lara had coordinated with the girl's mother and arranged to pay fees to a contact in Mexico so that she could cross into that country after leaving Honduras. From there she entered the U.S. alone, crossing the border in Texas, according to court documents.
The teenager gave Lara's name to officials working with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and he falsely told them she would have her own room, according to court documents.
The refugee office did not respond to a request for comment. Keyes said that while it is working hard to find safe placements for children, there is only so much it can do, especially when — as was the case with Lara — a potential guardian has no criminal record.
In the cases she has worked on, Keyes said the placements worked out well and had been "really positive."
In early June the girl approached Baltimore County police and told them she had been smuggled into the country, according to court papers. The police and agents from the Department of Homeland Security launched an investigation and interviewed Lara.
"Lara admitted in sum and substance that he wired money to Mexico for the purpose of having [the girl] smuggled to the United States," Special Agent Edward J. Kelly wrote in the charging documents.
But Lara was not arrested at that time and instead left Maryland for Tennessee. He eventually was arrested by highway patrol officers in Tennessee, who believed he was fleeing, and sent back to Maryland to face the federal charges in Baltimore.
Moreno said Lara was not fleeing but that he had lost his job in Maryland and was seeking work in Tennessee because he needs to support his four children, who live in Honduras.
"He worked every day," Moreno said. "I worry about his children; who's going to take care of them?"
Lara had been living in the United States for about seven years and had entered the country illegally, according to court documents. His relatives said he had returned to Honduras at one point to build a house for his family.
Eventually, Lara hoped to return to Honduras for good, Moreno said. Now that he faces legal trouble, the best she said she hopes for is that he will be deported quickly.
While some immigrants hope to return home, many others are fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador, or simply seeking greater economic opportunities in the United States. Dealing with the surge of young immigrants coming from Central America in recent months has taxed federal authorities, local officials and charitable organizations alike.
The federal government is seeking temporary housing for large numbers of the minors, and has eyed sites in Maryland. But some of those potential locations — like an Army Reserve Center outside Westminster — have attracted fierce local opposition.
Meanwhile, the Office of Refugee Resettlement has the job of trying to find longer-term homes for the children with relatives or other guardians while their immigration status is determined in the courts.
Charity groups have been working to find attorneys like Keyes to represent them. Keyes said she thinks many of the children will be able to obtain the right to stay in the country if they get good legal support, but the volume of work will be taxing on the courts and the lawyers.
"It's a huge strain on the system," she said.