José1, a 14 years old recent immigrant from El Salvador, had been left with his paternal grandparents at three years of age, when his mother came to the United States to join her husband. The parents had to work for many years to repay the debt they had incurred from the trip and in the very long and expensive legal process of obtaining their permanent residence papers. The experience of being undocumented and crossing the border by land had proven so dangerous and frightening, that they decided not to bring José that way, but to wait until they could get their own legal permanent residence, so they could claim him and bring him safely by airplane2. Many years went by before they could accomplish this. In the meantime, José was growing up under the care of his “tata” and “mama” as he called his grandparents, surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts and friends. He heard from his parents sporadically, as getting international calls and letters was complicated in the small village where he lived. He was aware that his parents were always sending money to his grandparents to help with his care. Then, for Christmas and his birthday he would get some nice clothes, which did not always fit. But “mama” knew how to fix that. He knew he would join his parents in the United States, some day, “where he could have a better future”, his “tata” said. Sometimes he liked to daydream about how that could be nice, but for the most part, he did not think about it. It meant leaving “tata and mama” and that put a weight on his chest and a desire to cry. In the meantime, his siblings, Jacqueline and Pedro, were born in the U.S. and José’s parents now had a family. They all came for a brief visit when the “papers” were ready, as they had to get them to the US embassy in El Salvador. They told José his father would come back for him, as soon as his “green card” was ready. That would take about a year more. José found this “people” very nice, but it was very hard for him to call them “mamá and papá.” He started to feel a very confusing mix of emotions about going to live with them, but “tata” said he had to do that, they were his parents, his family. Tata assured him everything would be fine. He would really like it there in the United States. But as he ate his wonderful freshly made tortilla, he could see a tear rolling down her mama’s cheek that she quickly wiped off and in that moment he felt a certainty in his heart, that it would not be “fine” or even easy.
1. All names and identifiers in this blog have been changed to protect confidentiality.
This is the story, or variations of it, that I found again and again in my work as a bilingual resource counselor and psychologist for the Arlington Public Schools in the Greater Washington D.C. area. Previously, I had also worked counseling Latino children and their families in a community mental health agency, in the heart of the Hispanic section in Washington, D.C. near the Adams Morgan area. When our request for renewed funding failed to come, I took a job to start working in a school system in Arlington, a county in Northern Virginia. Initially, I thought I would greatly miss the clinical environment of a mental health setting, one I had enjoyed for many years before, first as a clinical psychologist in Chile and then in Seattle, before coming to the east coast. I told myself that this would be just a temporary professional move for me. To my surprise, I found myself applying all my clinical training and experience in serving the Latino students I was working with and loving the idea of being available to them every day in their own environment at the high schools and middle schools where I ended up spending the next 20 years of my professional life. It was so enjoyable to have the intimate contact of talking whenever possible with them, as in the hallways on their way to class, or taking them out of their classroom. In addition I learned to appreciate my easy availability to their parents, who found coming to the school setting much closer and less threatening than going to a mental health clinic, and who could walk-in to my office or make an appointment directly with me, whenever they came to have a conference with a teacher or a counselor. All of this gave me a tremendous advantage in my possibility of helping them. I was incredibly lucky also, because this was a school system that believed and recognized the need of supporting the mental health of the immigrant child, as a foundation to educating them and helping them adapt to their new life. Therefore, my job description was carved to respond to that need. So, as a bilingual resource counselor, I was not burdened with also doing scheduling of classes and reporting grades, nor was I doing a lot of testing like my fellow school psychologists. Thus, all my energy went to helping students and families in crises, through individual and group counseling and short term family counseling, as well as prevention, through workshops and education. In addition, a lot of my time was also spent in finding and referring students and families to all kinds of community services, especially mental health services, and working closely with many different social service agencies, the courts, etc. In the inside of the school system, I could also help identify students in need of special education services and utilize my training as a school psychologist, (acquired while living in Seattle), in advocating for them. So I was one professional with a multitude of hats, but all in the benefit of the mental health of my students.
The majority of the students I worked with fit in the low- income category and a great number of the children qualified for free lunch in school. Some parents were illiterate and many barely finished elementary education in their native country. I know that if you, the reader, also work with Latino immigrants similar to these; you too are very familiar with stories like José’s. It is the “reunited family experience”, acting like a boiling pot of emotions for both parent and child, as you will see through the stories in here. A “pot” affecting the whole family profoundly, because each member has to adapt to the new experience of bringing children left behind in their country, after years of long separation, and into the family here. This experience also weighs heavily on the possibility of the child to adapt successfully to the new culture and become a good student and citizen. Furthermore, as it has been proven by research: the reunification with the parents, after a long separation, is significantly related to depression and anxiety in the young people that are going through this experience. (C. Suarez-Orozco, 2002)
The story, however takes a turn for the worse, when the children left behind cannot wait for the parents to bring them with the legal papers in the safer way that José was lucky enough to experience. Sometimes the caretakers – usually the grandparents- cannot continue to care for the child, because they start getting too old, there is death or illness in the family, or the child is in imminent danger of joining, or being victimized by the many gangs proliferating in the countries in Central America, particularly. These groups are growing increasingly now that the government is taking a stronger stand against the drug cartels in Mexico, which, according to the news, has meant that these operations are fleeing south now, utilizing more and more the gangs of teenagers and young adults existing in the poor countries of Central America, where the government does not have the resources to crackdown on them. (Booth, (2011) Gangs, which are also growing in membership and strength from all the teens deported back to their countries for their delinquent activity in the USA and who come back home with an excellent training on the ways of the urban street gang “ a lavida loca” the “crazy life” ( Rodriguez, (2005). At this point, the caretakers then ask the parents to remove the teens from that perilous environment and bring them over to the United States. In other cases, perhaps the family as a whole has been targeted for extortion activity, wherein the gang is asking for what is called “rent” money from them and threatening that if they do not pay, they will retaliate killing or hurting the kids in the family, or gang raping the young adolescent girl in their care; all of this only because it becomes known that the family may have a little bit more money, as they have someone in the USA working and sending money to them. In another instance, perhaps, already siblings have been hurt or even killed, from trying to get out of the gang and everybody is terrified. These stories are hard to imagine, or even believe, for someone living here in a quiet middle class neighborhood and away from this kind of horrifying violence. A real nightmare, where the victims are totally helpless, because even the police is terrified of retaliation; or because some are themselves corrupted and involved with the delinquent activities going on; or simply because there are not enough police officers. Thus, the teenager is sent to the US through the clandestine system of crossing the border undocumented, getting sometimes here, either traumatized by the experience, or perhaps unhurt by a miracle. In this process, at first there is the long journey of crossing different countries to get to the Mexican towns close to the border, by bus or on foot, or jumping on moving trains – a particularly popular one is called The Beast because the experience is so dangerous. These trains are periodically stopped by the police looking for people travelling clandestine and people have to jump off and on again, or hide, while also paying off, with very limited resources of money,the many gangs that threaten to throw them off the roof of the train where most travel, when they do not comply with their request and watching the less fortunate that are thrown off, or fall in the haste to hide and who are severely injured. They are all attempting to find a safe way of getting to a border crossing point, trying to avoid being robbed of their hard collected money by all the many predators along the way. Then, the youngsters, many times alone, or in the company of adults they may not even know, attempt to cross the river Grande, a natural barrier between the United States and Mexico, trying to waddle, swim or on board of precarious rafts over somewhat more shallow, but very treacherous waters, to go across the border and enter the USA. Or, if they have the large amount of money needed, paying coyotes that may hide them in crates, in suffocating inhuman conditions, aboard trucks to avoid having to cross the river, where many people perish. Many of them end up being caught and sent to any of the youth centers for detained unaccompanied minors run by the local immigration offices. This ensues as a consequence of them getting separated from other family members, or from other companions, who perhaps have been caught by the immigration officers in the border. They then end up wandering lost, in the heat and with no water, or food, until they are spotted and then carried to centers in Texas, Arizona,or California. At this point, a relative or parent is contacted wherever they may live in the US, to come and get the youngster. Reunited with the parent or guardian, the youngster has to wait for a court appearance with a parent or guardian and an assigned lawyer, in front of a judge in the court district where the family lives. The judge then initiates a process where the court will decide if the child is to be deported back to his country of origin. This process usually takes many months, while the family and the youth wait in a painful limbo, trying to gather legal help to advocate for the minor’s stay. Of these youngsters crossing the border undocumented, the ones at greatest risk are the girls (as well as any women travelling this way) who through this long journey to El Norte risk getting rape by the same coyote that took the money for the “safe” passage, or if travelling alone, by many of the gangs that abound in the Mexican border towns or even by some corrupt border guard (Rosario, (2009) (Nazario, (2006).
This process has now changed for the many unaccompanied minors arriving in the last 2 years in increasing numbers, because their aim is not to hide, but to surrender to immigration officials on arrival, in the hope that they will be granted asylum by the courts once they are taken in front of a judge. However, the high numbers of minors arriving have overwhelmed the border centers and these children and sometimes teen mothers with babies have to be transported by bus to places as far away from the border as towns in the east coast, where they wait to see a judge before they can be reunited with their families. At this point, the judicial process will clarify their status as ready for deportation, and send them back, or ready to start the process of applying as candidates for asylum, because they are the victims of violence at their home country. Long waiting periods at every step, a lot of uncertainty and changes and time to question the scary next period of reuniting with parents and family they have been separated for a long time and are now more like strangers to the child.