Asylum-Seekers – why? By Laura Kohl
About three years ago, Carmen and and her son, Juan, lived with Juan’s siblings and their extended family in Latin America. Life was difficult. Carmen had to live most of the time in a larger city several hours away, to earn money to feed her family. Juan was 14. The gangs were legendary and powerful in their whole district, and really, in much of the whole country. Gang members were trying to recruit Juan. Carmen confronted them one day, and said that it would be “Over her dead body!” And the gang members replied, “Well, so be it.”
Carmen took Juan and fled, leaving her other children with her relatives, breaking her heart that she had to do it. Mother and son took 21 days mostly walking, hitching a few rides, and getting a few train trips as they headed to the United States to seek asylum. Nothing was easy, nothing was given to them. Over the long days, they were robbed, threatened and mistreated. They were also helped with a bit of food, or emotional support. They were two of the fortunate ones. Others making the same trip were raped, beaten, and even murdered. Carmen felt she had no choice but to get Juan out of harm’s way.
In the summer of 2014, they made it to the US border in Tijuana and requested asylum. They were put in handcuffs, pushed around, and left in holding centers for four cold, brutal days. The local Interfaith Communities were working with Immigration to get people out of the detention facilities and into temporary housing.
A good friend and fellow Quaker stepped right up and opened his home to a family – any family – needing this shelter. Carmen and Juan moved in with his family. I met them at that time – since my husband and I speak Spanish, as they did, and their host family spoke no Spanish. We worked with them, helped them, and tried to help them plan.
A few weeks later, Immigration notified them that they were moving to New York to live with very distant relatives (2nd cousins). The cousins did not have space for both Carmen and her son so Juan stayed with them in NY, and Carmen was left adrift. She was often homeless, and emotionally traumatized. We continued to be in contact.
After a year in New York, in 2015, Carmen and Juan were able to return to California through all of our efforts. They moved in with the original family again. For the first several months, Carmen had to have the ankle bracelet permanently placed on her leg to ensure she was locatable. She kept it on for 90 days.
Both mother and son were seeking asylum, and were in the system with regular hearings, visits from Immigration, etc. They were being supported by the Quakers. My husband and I continued to spend a lot of time with them, assisting as we could.
Juan attended school in San Diego for the 2015-2016 school year. It was a struggle. Three areas were problematic – housing was tight, severe medical issues continued, and no one had time to help him academically.
For all of those reasons – in addition to the legal issues which were looming – my husband and I took him into our home in November, 2016.
An Update as of March, 2017:
– Juan has a high B average in his grades, for the 2nd semester in a row. He attends a continuation school in San Marcos so that he can catch up his credits to graduate in June of 2018. It has been helpful that I am a teacher.
– Juan’s medical needs are taken care of – including completed dental work, getting much-needed glasses, and having ongoing mentoring and counseling.
– My husband and I are his permanent guardians.
– Juan’s Asylum Petition is moving along, with the wonderful support of Casa de Cornelia Law Firm.
– Carmen’s legal case (separated) is in good hands with outstanding Attorney Carmen Chavez.
– Juan continues to do art – Anime, and play soccer, and is currently in a local Youth Theater Production of The Third Wave with Patio Playhouse Community and Youth Theater.
Juan is a gifted and responsible young man who has seen and experienced more than children should have to endure. He is determined to make it through, and to help others. He is remarkable and we are lucky to have him in our home.
(Names have been changed for the article)