Closer Look: Strangers in a strange land

Seventeen-year-old Miriam Mendez tells how she and her brother, Marcos Soliz, spent weeks walking to a better future.

They plodded through the deserts and mountains of Mexico from their native San Marcos, Guatemala, for days at a time without food, a bath or a break. They did so in the hopes they would find jobs and an education in a new land to support their impoverished family back home.

“I decided to come here to get a better future, to work, to help my mom, my dad, and make money here,” Mendez said in Spanish in an interview with The Daily Item.

Eventually she and her brother swam across the Rio Grande with the clothes on their back, diving in on the Mexican border and emerging on the other bank in the United States.

A quick fact sheet on federal government's unaccompanied minors program

They made it almost 2,000 miles from home before they were caught. Not long after crossing into Texas, U.S. border patrol agents apprehended the pair, who were alone except for a black-market guide, known as a coyote, who guided them throughout the dangerous trip for $3,000 per person. They still owe the coyote money.

The agents turned the two unaccompanied minors over to the federal Health and Human Services department, which placed them into a network of shelters across the country, many of which are in Texas, while a pro-bono lawyer guided them through immigration proceedings and social workers scrambled to locate their family or appropriate sponsors back home or here in America.

“They asked us, ‘Why did you come to us, what are you going to do here?’” Soliz said. “We said we came to work and study … that we have a family that’s very poor.”

Eventually the two said they were released to a friend in Lynn, who signed papers proving he or she had a relationship with the youth and promised to supervise them in America.

Two of 70

Mendez and Soliz are just two of about 70 unaccompanied minors who have showed up in Lynn this past year without any parent or guardian, requesting to enroll in Lynn Public Schools despite hardly any formal education, and confounding city officials about how to educate them.

“There’s no clear explanation as to how they came here except what they share with us,” said Hana Walsh, the director of Lynn Classical’s English Language Learners department.

Mendez and Soliz now attend afternoon classes at Lynn English High School, learning how to read, speak and write English with about 20 more Central American youth with stories just like theirs. Another 40 or so unaccompanied youth study at Lynn Classical High School during the day. All of the students range in age from 14 to 21.

Their sudden presence is unlike anything the public school system has ever dealt with, said Eunice Aldrich, the director of Lynn Public Schools language support department.

“We’re still trying to figure out the best way to handle this,” she said. “The speed at which it’s occurring is something we have to take a deep look at.”

Unaccompanied minors from Central America started showing up in Lynn about three years ago, but never more than five at a time attended Lynn schools, said Gene Constantino, the principal at Lynn Classical. But in January 2012, about 17 came from Central America to Lynn without guardians or parents, and by December of 2012 there were 60.

“Last year it exploded,” Constantino said.

More are likely on their way.

“We were told this year it would be a crazy amount,” he said.

The sudden increase of Central American youth making the dangerous, illegal trek to America is a federal problem, too.

By April 2012, the federal government had received the same number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border as all of fiscal year 2011, said Lisa Raffonelli, a senior communications specialist with HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

No federal or city official who spoke to The Daily Item could give any sure reason why these numbers are increasing, but the six minors said extreme poverty, lack of jobs and crime forced them to make the trek, or el camino.

“In Guatemala, there’s no money, and if we try to get a job in the city, there’s crime, there’s beatings, there’s a mountain of problems,” Mendez said.

Congressional mandate

Once they reach the states and are apprehended, Raffonelli said her department is mandated by Congress to provide the youth with access to immigration lawyers, mental and physical health services, case managers and family reunification processes.

She said its not uncommon for unaccompanied minors to apply for and receive asylum status, allowing them to live and work legally in America.

In Lynn, she said records show unaccompanied minors resettled with extended family such as aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers-in-law, first cousins, family friends and even spouses.

All six of the unaccompanied minors who spoke to The Daily Item said HHS released them to live with friends in Lynn, no older than 20 to 25 years old.

All of them said their goal is to learn English and get a job — first to pay off the coyotes, later to send money back home.

Like 17-year-old Marina Romero, many are orphans and the oldest of multiple siblings.

“When you’re the oldest, you have to take care of your little brothers and sisters,” Romero said. “It’s difficult.”

But their presence in Lynn Public Schools is a huge challenge for school officials. The students are far behind their American peers, school officials said.

“Some of them have gotten to the third grade, some of them have never been to school,” said Berta Tavares, a Lynn Classical teacher who was hired to work with the youth this past year.

As it became clear these students didn’t fit in a traditional classroom, the city hired Tavares and one other teacher to teach a class at Lynn Classical for immigrants with limited education. And Constantino said the school will have to hire more specialized teachers as the classes fill up, even overflowing this month into Lynn English’s after-school program.

Aldrich said that, for now, the money to educate these new students comes out of the school budget.

“The population just has to be supported by the people who live here,” she said.

Constantino said he feels it’s the city’s responsibility to educate any Lynn resident of school age who asks to be.

“It’s the right thing to do, to educate them,” he said.

But still he worries what will happen when these students, who after a year or two move onto the basic level of English as a Second Language, are forced to take state assessment tests.

“The state needs to help, because if these students take the [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test], it lowers ours as a school’s, and that’s all people see,” he said.

Even so, he and Classical teachers are encouraged by the fact that many of the students are motivated to learn, recognizing that they put their lives in danger to be sitting in an American classroom.

“They have an opportunity to get an education, they understand that, and they want to go on,” Tavares said.

That’s exactly what one unaccompanied minor, who declined to give his name for fear of being deported, said he thinks every day he wakes up.

He said he and his classmates have dreams of holding careers, not just jobs. They just want a chance to get ahead in life here in Lynn, and possibly return to Guatemala a little bit smarter, a little bit richer, he said.

“We all have the right to fight for our life,” he said. “It’s something inexplicable you realize on el camino.”
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