To protect the identity of the panelists, names have been changed. Their stories are told with their permission to bring attention to the issues facing child migrants.
Maria was 10 when she crossed the border in the back of a pickup truck – the seat pushed so far back that it was pressing against her head. She wanted to scream from the pain, but she knew there was too much at stake. After what seemed like a lifetime, a border patrol officer asked the driver some questions, there was shuffling of papers and muffled voices in English, and she made it! She was in the United States. But things were about to get much harder before they got easier.
On November 1, 2016, I had the opportunity to attend a panel of three undocumented immigrants; two were in high school, and one was in college, like me. Their stories bring a human face to the spike in unaccompanied child migrants from Central America fleeing violence. These kids are refugees. They are fleeing gang violence, economic uncertainty, and unjust governments.
There are estimated to be between 60,000 and 90,000 child migrants in the United States, the majority of which are from Mexico and what is known as the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. These are some of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere, and many who remain in the United States fear death should they return to their birth country.
Imagine crossing the border into the United States by yourself – not knowing the language, the culture, and in many cases a single soul who could help you. When Fernanda crossed the border when she was 12, she came to the United States with the promise to her grandma that she would do well in school and fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer one day. Being a witness to the violence and corruption in her home country of Mexico, she wanted to work to change the laws and protect people that were being taken advantage of. However, after she and her mother worked so hard to get to the United States, she almost gave up. Kids made fun of her for not speaking English, and as time passed and she felt more and more alone, she became more depressed and began to cut herself. As her depression grew worse, the school assigned her to speak with a counselor. The only problem was the counselor did not speak any Spanish. What would seem like a pretty obvious problem was written off, and Fernanda continued to suffer because of it.
Currently in the United States, there is a drastic need for more bilingual teachers and counselors. While eight percent (over 25 million people) of the United States population do not have a proficient level of English speaking ability, there is an extremely small number of school employees that speak Spanish, or any other language for that matter. This is something the states and federal government continue to ignore, and children like Fernanda are denied the types of services their schools are supposed to provide for them.
Fernanda has found a counselor and is doing better, but what she has experienced in life has already affected her greatly. She fled violence in Mexico to find a better life here, and people were so cruel she almost gave up. With xenophobia on the rise, many more young immigrants are facing the sort of bullying that Fernanda suffered through.
Eduardo left El Salvador because of the violence as well. His mother left for the United States at night. With tears in his eyes, he explained it would have been too hard to say goodbye. He reunited with her ten years later. Crossing the border himself, he explained his fears of the gangs, his uncertainly over the intentions of the smugglers, and the many physical dangers he faced in the desert. However, it never fully hit him what it meant to be undocumented until now as a senior in high school. Eduardo overcame so much and worked so hard, only to realize going to college wasn’t an option for him, all because he didn’t have a social security number. Just nine digits.
Maria quickly made this realization as well. After leaving her grandparents in El Salvador to join her parents in the United States, she hit a wall. Being raised by separated parents that she did not remember took a toll. People bullied her as they did Fernanda; on one occasion she went to sit with a group of girls at lunchtime. Thinking she couldn’t understand, they decided amongst themselves to move because they didn’t want to sit with her. Maria spent the rest of lunch crying in the bathroom. Like Fernanda, she almost gave up, but decided what she risked was too great to throw away what she had worked for. She wound up graduating third in her class with a 4.0, but was told she would not be able to go to college because she didn’t have a social security number.
Why is the United States wasting the potential of so many talented young people? Eduardo expressed his frustration with the system by explaining, “I have dreams." Why has the United States forgotten this? In theory, we are a country founded on the boundless possibility of achievement that comes with hard work. We aren’t living up to our promise.
Fernanda, Eduardo, and Maria aren’t the type to give up. During their short tenure in the United States so far, they have made amazing strides. Fernanda is working towards her goal of being the first person in her family to finish high school and college, Eduardo is about to graduate high school and maintains hope that he can pursue a college degree, and Maria got a scholarship to attend a university. These kids are embodiments of the American Dream – when you work hard, it is sure to pay off.
They also show native-born Americans how tough it is to move somewhere new. Most Americans have never had to deal with the fear of not being understood or understanding those around you, earning a living for your family when the odds are stacked against you, or fleeing everything you know and love in search for a better life. Even though these experiences have made Maria, Fernanda and Eduardo wise beyond their years, they are not very different than their native-born peers. They still want to have friends, go to college, and lead a successful life. They love their families and sometimes get really sick of doing homework. And they deserve the chance to have their stories be heard and understood.
So, the next time you see someone who may be new, say hello. Everyone deserves a friend, and you’ll learn more than you could ever know.