In the fall of 2016, right before school started, Ana, a young mother of three teenagers, approached me in a panic: Her two sons, Leo and Angel, were stuck in immigration detention near the border and she couldn’t get them out.
Her daughter, Laura, had crossed the border the year before without getting caught, but Leo and Angel had been apprehended in Texas not long after crossing with their coyotes. The United States government has a policy of releasing minors who cross unaccompanied into the care of their parents pending their deportation hearing, but to do so Ana had to hand over all over her personal information — fingerprints, date of birth, address, bank statements — to the government. The process was even further complicated by the fact that Angel was autistic, and thus deemed more vulnerable, so the vetting process took longer and there were more hoops to jump through for Ana to be granted custody of her own kids. Stuck in detention, Leo and Angel called her every chance they could. They were panicked and distressed. “When can we get out, Mom?” they’d ask.
Ana was beside herself. Her kids had escaped gang violence back home and now, after all this time apart, and afer having survived the perilous journey Nnrth through Guatemala, Mexico and across the Rio Grande, they felt farther away than ever.
“Can you help me?” she asked.
There was little anyone could do but wait.
I am an administrator at a school called Oakland International High School in Oakland, California, which serves 100 percent newly arrived immigrant students. Laura, the middle child, was an 11th grader at Oakland International and, if Ana’s sons managed to get out of detention, Ana would enroll them with us, too. In the meantime, she worked as a housekeeper, with no papers, frantically searching for a lawyer who could take on her kids' cases when they were finally on the other side of detention. That way, she knew they’d have a fighting chance of avoiding deportation to El Salvador.
Leo, Angel and Laura are just three of a growing population of young people crossing the border by themselves without papers — and without their parents. Historically, around 7,000 too 8,000 unaccompanied minors were apprehended and detained in the United States each year, but in 2012, the numbers doubled, then more than doubled again the next year. The number of unaccompanied minors has now reached historic highs, with approximately 40,000 crossing last year alone. Meanwhile, unauthorized adult crossers, like Ana, are at historic lows.
As a young mother, Ana left El Salvador nearly a decade ago, after friends of hers had started running with the gangs. Her kids stayed behind in the care of her parents. If she could get north, she thought, she could avoid the problems of her friends and send money back for her children to have a good life. After her own treacherous trip north, she made it into the United States. She took English classes and got a job as a housekeeper, dutifully sending money home each month. But within just a few years, she started to see stories on the news from back home; gang violence was spreading like a rash throughout El Salvador and Central America, and young people, teenagers like her kids, were their main targets. It was teenagers like Laura, Leo and Angel who were being recruited into the gangs, and who were most often being killed.
Ana sent for Laura first, then began saving again. But one day, from inside their house, Angel and Leo heard a massacre outside. They listened in terror as the screams of the dying filtered into their house.
“I knew I had to get them out of there,” Ana told me. So she began to save up enough money to pay for coyotes, or human smugglers, to bring them north, too.
Fleeing a brutal war
In addition to my work at the school, I am a writer. Last fall, I published a book called "The Far Away Brothers: Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American LIfe," in hopes to better understand why it is that so many young people like Ana’s children are leaving El Salvador, what their journey is like to the United States and what awaits them once they are here. Why is El Salvador hemorrhaging people — young people in particular? My book follows the story of two identical twins from El Salvador who, like Ana’s children, are born in the wake of the country’s protracted and bloody civil war and raised in tandem with the rise of El Salvador’s brutal gangs. When they end up on the wrong side of the gangs, they are forced onto the road, first one, and then the other, moving north toward safety, with no one but each other to protect them.
This sounds like a sensational story, but, in terms of numbers, this is increasingly the norm. At Oakland International High School, a school of just 400 students, more than 125 are unaccompanied minors, nearly all of them from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Almost all of them cite a fear of gangs as their reason for coming north.
Because Ana is undocumented, she was advised not to go to immigration court with her kids. So in fall 2016, I accompanied them instead. They were petrified as we boarded the train and made our way through downtown San Francisco. In the pews of the court they sat silently, legs jittering, waiting for the judge to call their names. All we were doing that day was asking for their case to be reset for a future date so they could have time to find an attorney and prepare their case but, regardless, they felt certain that they could be deported that very day.
They weren't. But the future isn't guaranteed, either.
Since that court date over a year ago, Ana has found an attorney for her kids. It is far from a sure bet, however, that their asylum claims are granted. Ana remains undocumented and is likely ineligible for immigration relief given how long she has waited to apply.
This Thursday, Leo, her youngest, will go to court. Once again his mom won't be able to accompany him. And this time, it’s higher stakes: He’ll have to explain to a judge why it is that he is afraid of returning home to El Salvador. If the judge doesn’t believe Leo's story, he’ll be ordered removed.
“Send me back,” Ana told me the other day in tears. “Send me back, I’ll go back, I don’t care what happens to me. But don’t take my kids.”