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Tiny deportee?

Girl, 5, faces immigration hearing that could separate her from her family if she is ordered to return to El Salvador

Karla Morales-Solis sees her parents in anguish, but does not understand why. Just 5 years old, Karla, who was smuggled into the country illegally last fall, may be deported to her native El Salvador.

Her parents are struggling to decide what to do if a judge rules against her after Karla's final hearing on Oct. 23, four days after her sixth birthday.

Karla's mother, 28, breaks down when she thinks she might be separated from her daughter, but she also worries about leaving her own parents behind in Revere. The mother entered this country illegally and declined to give her name out of fear of being caught by authorities.

Karla's father, Carlos, 25, who was granted a temporary work permit six years ago, agonizes over the thought of staying behind without Karla, whom he only met for the first time nine months ago.

"You don't really have any breaks from it," Carlos Morales, a maintenance worker at Wal-Mart, said in Spanish.

"You wake up with it, you go to work with it, and you go to bed with it," he said. "Every day, the suspense builds toward the day of the hearing."

Immigration lawyers say that while it is unusual for a child of Karla's age to face deportation, the dilemma faced by her parents is familiar. Families are often forced apart, as some members gain legal status and others confront punishments for entering the country illegally.

Michael Gilhooly, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, declined to comment on the case because it involves a child and is currently under consideration in Boston Immigration Court.

Victor S. Maldonado, the lawyer representing Karla, said she was one of the youngest clients he has seen in his 10-year career as an immigration attorney.

He now represents eight Salvador an and Guatemalan children, including Karla, in deportation cases.

"It's so unusual that you are suddenly sitting in the defense chair and your client is a 5-year-old peanut," Maldonado said. "She just waltzes in there."

Last September, Karla came to the United States, several years after her father first made the journey seeking relief from low wages and poor schools in El Salvador.

In 2004, Karla's mother also came north, but there was not enough money to pay for Karla's passage. Settled in Revere, the family last year hired a coyote, a border smuggler, to bring Karla to them. She was caught with the smuggler near the Texas border and transferred to a detention center for immigrant children in Texas.

On Fridays, Carlos Morales would call Karla, their conversations muffled by Karla's sobbing. Nearly a month later, he arrived in Texas, two dolls in tow, laid eyes on his daughter for the first time, and was able to take her home.

"It was a feeling I can't explain," he said of seeing the little girl with the midnight- black hair and shy smile. "I wanted to eat her alive with kisses."

The family keeps the 26 dollar bills given to Karla at the Texas detention center in her piggy bank, a reminder of each day that they were apart once their daughter came to the United States.

Karla's parents and grandparents had hoped that immigration reform would pass in time to make legalization a possibility for the 5-year-old, but those efforts failed in the Senate last week.

"I had prayed that this law would spare Karla the turmoil, the scars, that she has had to experience being separated from me and her family," Morales said. "But now all we have left is struggle and to ask the Lord for help."

Morales's visa does not expire for another two years, leaving open the possibility that he will stay behind for at least a short time to support his family economically if they return to El Salvador. But in the meantime, he tries to avoid thinking about it.

"We know there's the risk of another separation," he said, "but we try not to give each other and Karla more than we're ready to handle."

Sitting in a law office earlier this week, Karla, who had just finished prekindergarten in Revere and was planning to attend kindergarten in the fall, remained oblivious to the conversations going on around her. Her favorite thing to do, she said, is homework, although she is also an avid swimmer and loves to eat hamburgers.

She hummed quietly and beamed as she made a crayon drawing of boats and fish.

"I want to stay in the United States," she said in Spanish, "with all my family and with my mom and my dad."

Hernandez can be reached at jhernandez@globe.com.

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