Last September, Williams Guevara left behind his family’s cramped two-bedroom home near San Salvador to travel hundreds of miles by foot, by car, and in packed mini-busses to get to the US. He was 17. He was scared, he says, but making friends along the way made it a little better.
“That was the good part. I think it was the only good part,” Guevara said.
He was apprehended by border patrol just as he crossed into Texas. He spent 24 days in federal custody before being sent to Baltimore County to be reunited with his older brother.
Guevara arrived here just as the number of unaccompanied Central American minors crossing the border began to surge. Since October, some 57,000 children and teens made the journey north without a parent or guardian. More than 2,200 of those kids have come to Maryland -- the vast majority are living with relatives already here -- and about 1,800 more who are in federal custody are expected to be placed in the state.
Guevara says he lacked opportunities in El Salvador, but it was the abuse he suffered at his father’s hands that forced him to leave. Back home, Guevara’s father made him work late into the night taking care of the chickens they raised. That late work that made going to school hard. Guevara says his father drank a lot, and when he was drunk, he was violent. “He was a soldier in the civil war, so he had flashbacks,” Guevara said.
Scott Rose, a Frederick-based lawyer, says Guevara’s father escalated the abuse, first beating him with belts and ropes, and escalating to the flat side of a machete that left scars on his body. “The point where the pain of staying was greater than the pain of leaving – when his father moved from belts to machete, was the point he decided to leave,” Rose said.
Rose helped Guevera apply for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or SIJS, a program for migrant children who’ve been abused, abandoned or neglected in their home country that offers a pathway to citizenship. In order to get SIJS, a child or young adult has to have a guardian in the US, and then goes to state juvenile or family courts for a judge’s determination of abuse, neglect or abandonment and that it’s not in the youth’s best interest to be reunited with his family. Then that is submitted to a federal immigration court, and the young person can apply for a green card.
The number of SIJS applications has spiked in recent years, more than doubling since 2010. Immigration judges are approving more, too, but it’s still rare. Last fiscal year, judges approved just 3,434 in all.
Scott Rose’s teenage son Austin convinced him to offer pro-bono help to young migrants. Austin, then a high school student, speaks Spanish and helps his father with the paperwork. Together, they’ve taken on 8 of these cases.
"When you’re the father of a 17 year old and you witness that kind of pain in another child, it hits you in a different way. You become so grateful for the protections of the united states, you become so grateful for a system that keeps your kid safe," Rose said.
The pair point to ‘safeguards’ against fraud built into the SIJS process. The perilous journey itself, Scott Rose says, is a deterrent. He says that juvenile court judges are skilled in assessing whether a bad situation actually constitutes abuse, neglect or abandonment.
“No one we’ve talked to is making these things up,” says Austin Rose. “No kid wants to say their parents did these bad things.”
Many of the newly arrived unaccompanied minors in Maryland, like Williams Guevara, are finding their way to the Esperanza Center in Fells Point to find help making their case to stay in the country.
“We’re busy throughout the whole center,” says Adonia Simpson, who runs Esperanza Center’s legal clinic. “Health services is doing more physicals for kids who are enrolling in school. We’re seeing more consultations for minors who want to seek legal representation on their cases.”
Right now, there’s a three-week backlog to get legal advice. Simpson says many of the unaccompanied minors will apply for asylum as victims of gangs, or to reunite with parents here legally. Others may qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. But she says it can be a struggle just to get children – almost all of whom have experienced trauma, either before they left home or on the journey -- to share their stories.
“It’s a difficult process because you’re dealing with kids,” Simpson said. “And culturally a lot of times these kids don’t understand what happened to them is abuse. So it’s a matter of getting the clients to be comfortable with you and getting them to open up.”
For Williams Guevara, he’d rather focus on the opportunities here, going forward. He’s in high school; he has a summer job. And if he gets his green card, he says he might go on to study engineering or computers.
“I can go to college. I want to go to college,” Guevara said. “And I can travel, I want to see my mom. I miss her.”