‘I’m trying to be something,’ -migrant kid striving to create a new life in the United States

Houston has emerged as the nation’s top destination for unaccompanied migrant children seeking safety, opportunity, and family.

Alex crossed the border at age 11 with the help of a coyote. Photograph: Michael Starghill, Jr./The Guardian

By Nathan Otaba,

Alex was surrounded by cars and aircraft practically as soon as he crossed the Rio Grande River. He was an 11-year-old boy who really wanted to see his mother. Border authorities handcuffed him and placed him in a cold cage.

That was Alex’s first taste of America, which he believed would become his new home. Even when he was released from government detention and reunited with his family in Houston, Texas, his future remained uncertain at best. He recalls a friend telling him to return to El Salvador during school.

“When you don’t belong somewhere,” Alex explained, “they will go to great lengths to make you feel unwelcome here.”

Unaccompanied migrant children like Alex, who journey north without a parent or guardian in search of safety, opportunity, and family, have made Harris County, which comprises most of Houston, the top destination worldwide.

Many come from the northern triangle of Central America and have been victims of state-sponsored violence, gang activity, death threats, or domestic abuse. In a desperate bid to escape poverty and persecution, they risk their lives by traveling to the United States.

“This is not a decision to be taken lightly. It’s almost as if it’s being made for them because they don’t have any other option but to come – or to leave,” said Salma Hasan, senior attorney for Houston-based Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).

Unaccompanied minors are flooding the southwest border this year, where they are carried away to freezing hielera holding cells before being moved to government shelters for weeks or months. Their lives in the United States, however, do not completely begin until they are released into communities across the country, marking the beginning of their new normal.

Even if they’ve never met before, the majority of young migrants move in with relatives. Before starting school, many students did not speak English and did not know how to read or write.

They face deportation in immigration court. To stay lawful, they rely on laws designed to protect victims of heinous crimes, abuse, neglect, abandonment, or oppression. They are frequently qualified for numerous protections.

“Yes, children are coming because they want more access to things like as education and employment. They’re also coming because they are legitimately not safe in their community. And it’s a question of life and death for some of these kids,” said Jodi Berger Cardoso, an associate professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.

Alexa endured a month-long bus voyage from Honduras to the US-Mexico border when she was 14 years old. She got off at 5 a.m. in San Diego and wandered for nearly an hour, looking for an officer to take her into custody.

She was picked up and transferred to a hielera (Spanish for “refrigerator,” because the cells are quite cold), where she could hear others wailing around her. She remarked in Spanish, “I guess I spent the entire night crying,” missing her family.

She now resides in Houston with her mother, a city she has grown to adore. But adjusting was difficult when she didn’t know anyone and didn’t know what to do.

“The most challenging thing, in a few words,” Alexa remarked, “was making the United States my new home.”

‘The thing that was missing was maybe hugs or kisses,’ Alexa said. Photograph: Michael Starghill, Jr./The Guardian

Joyful reunions, and getting to know a long-absent parents.

Alex talked to his mother Mirna on Facebook Messenger practically every day while in El Salvador. On Mother’s Day, though, he will worry because he couldn’t give her gifts or cuddles. He’d question why God would separate small children from their mothers.

“I used to put the blame on myself. ‘I didn’t ask to be born like this,’ I said. “If I didn’t ask to be born, then my mother should leave,” Alex explained.

It crushed Mirna’s heart that Alex only knew Alex her through pictures when he was a child.

“He would often say to me, ‘Mom, I want to get to know you.’ ‘But in person,’ she clarified. “It would be painful for me because I couldn’t be there”

Mirna moved to the United States in order to work two shifts and support her children from afar. Even illegal migrants can find work in Houston in fields such as construction, agriculture, hospitality, and domestic work, where employers don’t inquire about their immigration status or language skills.

Harris county, just hours from the border, has more northern triangle immigrants than virtually everywhere else in the US, so there’s at least a sense of belonging. That is one of the reasons why Houston is such a hotspot for unaccompanied minors.

Randy Capps, director of research for US programs at the Migration Policy Institute, said, “You have a vast community there of family members, possible sponsors, networks, etc. to support people.”

“You have infrastructure – housing and jobs – that has been built up through time, stronger in some parts of the city than others. So that’s a good starting point.”

Immigrant parents sometimes expect to stay in the United States for a limited period of time, but their plans are sidetracked. Meanwhile, their children may be exposed to increased threats at home.

Alex observed as older guys in El Salvador were offered two choices: join one gang or the other. He was concerned that he would be next.

So, in 2014, he set out with his brother, aunts, and cousins, accompanied by a drug-trafficking coyote and a human smuggler who threatened to abandon them if they spoke up. Alex sat on the ocean for 16 hours, frightened of drowning, before making it to the US-Mexico border — and eventually to Mirna.

Alex has almost no words to describe how happy he felt when he and his mother were finally reunited. He expressed his happiness by saying, “I was happy.” He cried because it felt so amazing.

Alex with his mother, Mirna, and cousin Dayana. Photograph: Michael Starghill, Jr./The Guardian

However, after a honeymoon period, young migrants may be caught off guard by the reality of relying on someone who hasn’t been physically present for the most of their existence.

Suddenly, they’re meeting their parents’ spouses and strangers who were born in the United States. Parents may be distracted by other commitments after a decade apart. The youngsters will occasionally act out, withdraw, or even flee.

“A lot of these youngsters didn’t have their parents as primary caregivers,” Berger Cardoso added. “Upon reunification, that really upsets the family structure, because the parent wants to parent, and the kid is like, ‘You’re not my parent.’ ‘I don’t know who you are.’

Even though Alexa’s mother was thousands of miles away, she never felt alone. “The only thing lacking were maybe hugs or kisses,” she explained.

However, she only had two memories of seeing her mother in person before arriving in the United States. She had always assumed they were merely dreams because they were from when she was a baby.

Alexa found it difficult to speak with her mother at first. She wasn’t used to being around by her all of the time. Her mother had never lived with a teenager before. They did, however, find a way to make it work. Years later, they’re still inseparable, with matching mother-daughter tattoos and a profound bond.

Alexa, now 18, says she doesn’t need anyone else if she has her mother.

‘I’m trying to be something

Alexa was so terrified that her palms were sticky with sweat when she went to immigration court in Houston. Her mother was obliged to explain why she had “abandoned” her baby daughter in Honduras after the judge ordered her to study and learn English.

Alexa commented, “The court feels incredibly heavy.” Thousands of migrant children form plans and ambitions after spending weeks, months, or even years in Harris County. Alexa can’t decide if she wants to focus on human and migratory rights or psychology. Alex wishes to pursue a career in dentistry. Dayana, his cousin, aspires to be a lawyer.

However, in immigration court, all of those possibilities might vanish in an instant. Because of the large number of unaccompanied children in Harris County, there aren’t enough attorneys to go around, and many children and their families are left to figure out intricate immigration laws and processes on their own.

Their cases wind their way through an overcrowded bureaucracy, with the vast majority of them going unresolved for years. And as the children wait, they risk losing everything.

“Immigration court is a place where the child, while being a child, is effectively on the defense,” Jennifer Nagda, policy director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, explained.

“It is an antagonistic space where, at the end of the day, the government is attempting to remove the child from the country.” Alex had never rode the metro or seen such enormous buildings before his first court appearance. He was agitated by the motorways and skyscrapers, and the court’s phony security presence made him feel as though he had done something wrong.

He was frightened of being deported back to El Salvador at the time. Instead, he was given a green card, which is the best possible outcome for kids like him.

Despite this, he is concerned. He admitted, “I know we don’t belong here.”

He persists in his efforts. And he’s gone a long way since he was a scared little boy trapped in a hielera.

He pushed through pandemic-era classes and 12-hour overnight shifts at an IHOP chain during his senior year of high school, sleeping three hours per day. He finally graduated in June.

“For me to come (sic) to this country with nothing, not knowing about the culture, not understanding English, nothing at all,” he added, “I couldn’t ever envision myself finishing high school.” This autumn, he’ll attend college on a $72K scholarship.

“In the future,” he continued, “I’m aiming to be something.”

3 Responses to ‘I’m trying to be something,’ -migrant kid striving to create a new life in the United States

  1. Parbriz Man ÜL 1992 August 27, 2021 at 4:25 pm

    I really like the colours.

  2. Naya October 7, 2021 at 2:43 am

    God has a master plan for you , so beautiful you will see ..just keep doing what your doing

    • admin October 7, 2021 at 5:30 am



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