David isn’t his real name. But for the young man we’re calling David, growing up in El Salvador was hard. His mother passed away when he was eight. Instead of going to school, he harvested coconuts so his family could afford to eat. But the real crisis came when a dangerous gang called “MS-13” came recruiting. David was 17 years old at the time.
“One day my cousin was terribly beaten,” David says. “While he was at work a group from MS-13 approached him at gunpoint. Luckily he was able to flee back home and he and his father did the necessary work to acquire the money it would take to travel to the United States.”
A few weeks passed and then David says one Saturday a note appeared from MS-13. It said that sooner or later they were going to catch his cousin and kill him.
Not long after they attacked David’s cousin, some of the MS-13’s went after him. He got away, but they kept threatening him, saying they were going to kill him if he didn’t join. This was too much for David so in the fall of 2014 he found a coyote—a human trafficker of sorts—that could take him on the dangerous, month-long journey to America.
Thirty-two days later, David arrived on the U.S. side of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I arrived at 10am. They held me for a whole day,” he says.
The U.S. border patrol probed him with questions.
“Why was I coming to the United States?” he says they asked. “Why did I not look for a different country? Why did I come to the USA if all we were going to do was bother others?”
David felt humiliated. He says he was treated like a criminal and not as a refugee trying to escape a gang. But because he was 17 and traveling by himself, David was considered an unaccompanied minor. And according to U.S. law, all unaccompanied minors—with the exception of those from Mexico or Canada, who are immediately turned away—get transferred to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement, known as ORR.
Immigration lawyer Helen Lawrence explains. “Generally speaking, they try to figure out where the kid is headed. They are generally not interested in seeking to deport the child but rather place them in a home.”
David’s stay at the ORR shelter was brief.
The Obama administration has developed a process immigration lawyers like Lawrence call “Rocket Dockets.” As soon as a child is placed with their ORR sponsor or guardian, a court case is scheduled. This sometimes gives the child less than a week to adjust or find a lawyer.
On the surface, Lawrence says, fast tracking these cases seems like a good idea. But these kids are traumatized and it can take time to find a lawyer. It can take even more time for them to open up to the lawyer about the horrible things they faced back home.
“So the kid may have barely arrived to their ORR sponsor and they have a hearing next week,” Lawrence says.
Then often they go before a judge who will decide their future before they are ready to open up. They’re at risk of being sent back home when they may have a real claim to stay.
Compared to some of those kids, David was lucky. After his time at the shelter he went to live with his brother in the Bay Area. David also qualified for a special immigrant juvenile status, which is filed when a child has been subjected to neglect or abuse by a parent or guardian.
“The United States believes that we have a duty to protect people from danger in their home countries, says Jean Yamasaki, a lawyer from the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant. “But if you can’t access a lawyer then you can’t really access that right.”
For David, being able to access a free lawyer made all the difference.
“I had nothing, no money to pay for a lawyer,” he says. “I had no vehicle. I did not know how to get to and from their office, but they helped me with everything. They even picked me up and gave me rides. Without them I don’t know where I would be. I would definitely not be in the situation I am now.”
Jean Yamasaki says he was lucky to get legal aid, but even with all that support, David still had a lot to deal with.
“He had to stop going to school after he turned 18 because there were too many financial pressures,” she says. “He needed to get a job so he got a full time job. He attends school two nights a week and he is really serious about continuing with his education.”
That doesn’t mean he’s not fortunate. Yamasaki says many unaccompanied minors who cross the border will likely be sent back to the very things they are fleeing from.
“Just horrific violence. Threats of death. The gang violence and recruitment is systematic and pervasive. It is not an option for them to come here. They don’t come here because they think it is just a good idea. They come here because they have no other choice. It bears witness to that...Parents are sending children as young as three years old because that is the best alternative that they have to being killed.”
David wasn’t killed. He managed to escape the violence, managed to escape being conscripted into the gangs. Now, at 19 years old, he’s here, in the Bay Area, working a full time job so that he can send money back to his family in El Salvador. He intends to learn English so he can be a carpenter or a technician. He recently received his green card, and in a few years he’ll become a citizen of this nation. He can’t wait, he says.
This piece is part of a series of stories, "Waking up to the American Dream," created by student journalists at Mills College in Oakland.