[Marxism] Fleeing Violence in Honduras, a Teenage Boy Seeks Asylum in Brooklyn
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Sun Dec 7 09:16:28 MST 2014
NY Times, Dec. 7 2014
Fleeing Violence in Honduras, a Teenage Boy Seeks Asylum in Brooklyn
By JOHN LELAND
Here is Alejandro Rodriguez, 15, on a Sunday afternoon in Sunset Park,
walking under a tree with his father, wishing he were playing soccer
with his friends. And here he is on a rainy afternoon at Franklin Delano
Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, spiky bangs pushed down toward his
dark brown eyes, raising his hand in a class for English-language learners.
“I eat pizza sometimes,” Alejandro said, filling in the last word.
He speaks guardedly around grown-ups, and stares into his smartphone
when he gets bored or uncomfortable. He likes math, soccer and the band
In one month this spring, gangs in his hometown in Honduras tortured and
killed seven or eight children his age or younger, then threatened to
kill him and his brother if they did not join the gang. The boys had no
adults to protect them.
Now Alejandro, whose given name is Isaid, is in a deportation
proceeding, one round face in the surge of unaccompanied minors who
poured across the border from Central America this spring and summer.
Immigration agents picked up 68,541 unaccompanied children at the
southwest border in the 12 months ending Sept. 30, up 77 percent from
the previous year. More than 5,000 were then transferred to family
members or other sponsors in New York City and on Long Island.
Alejandro and his younger brother Jeffrey, 13, were two of that number,
picked up along the border in July, then placed on a plane by the
federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. They were two boys who had grown
into teenagers in one of the world’s most dangerous environments, going
to meet a father who had not seen them since they were little. Alejandro
worried before the meeting, he said, speaking Spanish through an
interpreter. “I didn’t know if I would recognize him,” he said of his
father, even though they had communicated regularly by Skype.
For their father, Luis Rodriguez, 31, the arrival of his children at the
border was both a danger and a gift — he had unlawfully come to the
country around a decade ago and had avoided involvement with immigration
officials. Now they had his name, address and phone number.
He, too, was anxious about the reunion. “My fear was that they weren’t
going to have that love for their father,” he said, also speaking
through an interpreter.
When Mr. Rodriguez saw Alejandro and his brother at the airport, he
cried. “I felt their affection immediately,” he said. “I felt in the hug
that they needed me.” He took risks by talking to Customs. But he said,
“It was worth it because this will be our first Christmas together since
he was 5.”
Alejandro and Jeffrey were born in San Pedro Sula in northwestern
Honduras, the country’s second-largest city. Their mother was gone from
their lives when they were quite young, and Mr. Rodriguez left for the
United States when Alejandro was 5 or 6, planning to return after a few
years. Even then, violence was a problem in San Pedro Sula, Mr.
It exploded after a 2009 military coup, as drug cartels and gangs waged
open warfare in the streets. From 2011 to 2013, the city had the highest
murder rate in the world, according to a Mexican research group, the
Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice (the group’s
study did not include the Middle East). Of the children detained by
United States immigration agents, more come from San Pedro Sula than
from any municipality in the world, according to the Pew Research Center
— 2,200 from January to May alone.
In Honduras, Alejandro, living with his grandmother and missing his
father, was left to watch over his younger brother. “He would ask why I
had left, when I would return,” Mr. Rodriguez said. “Sometimes on
birthdays he would want me to be there. My only hope was that we would
someday be together.”
Guns were everywhere, and gangs pressed teenage boys into service; girls
were raped or sold. “Men would stop us when we were on our way to school
and go through our things,” Alejandro said. Twice, gang members forced
both boys from the bus, and several times they threatened Alejandro with
guns, vowing to kill him if he did not join their gang, he said.
The boys asked their father to help them leave Honduras, but Mr.
Rodriguez remembered his own trip north. He was beaten and robbed in
Guatemala and Mexico, he said, at one point riding on the top of an
infamous freight train known as the Beast. Mr. Rodriguez is a compact,
genial man who smiles easily, but when he described his journey north,
he stopped in tears.
“You could be assaulted, robbed or killed and left in the wild as if
nothing happened,” he said. “These are not things you want for your
kids.” Even as their lives in Honduras became more and more precarious,
he told them not to come north.
Then on Mother’s Day in 2011, armed men arrived on motorcycles at
Alejandro’s grandmother’s house.
“Suddenly they stopped and opened fire without saying anything,” Mr.
Rodriguez said. “Alejandro and his brother ducked under a car in order
to escape the bullets, but their uncle was killed.” The gunmen told
Alejandro and Jeffrey that if they went to the police, “they would have
to face the consequences,” Mr. Rodriguez said.
As his father spoke, Alejandro seemed to withdraw from the conversation,
revealing no emotion. He is hard to read, often omitting or glossing
over what are clearly horrific experiences.
Rebecca Press, a lawyer at Central American Legal Assistance who is
representing Jeffrey (who declined to speak for this article) and
Alejandro, said the boys’ experience was typical among her clients. “The
young people we come in contact with have been exposed to high levels of
violence and been threatened themselves,” she said. “There’s a level of
trauma that nobody seems to be dealing with.”
Even in a town as violent as San Pedro Sula, the killing of children
this spring was shocking. The children had been kidnapped, tortured and
executed, probably for not cooperating with gangs. After that, the gangs
stepped up their threats against Alejandro and his brother, Ms. Press said.
In early June, the boys saw a news program about American immigration
officials’ allowing unaccompanied minors into the country. The report
was false, but the boys had no way of knowing that.
Two weeks later they left home, carrying a change of clothes, water and
some food. Because of their father’s opposition, they did not tell
anyone they were leaving. Alejandro wore a knife on a chain under his
shirt. They had 6,000 lempiras (about $283), which Alejandro divided
among hiding places on his body.
On a series of buses, they crossed borders into Guatemala and then
Mexico, meeting other travelers on the same route. Alejandro stayed
awake, keeping watch over his brother. For days they talked as little as
possible, so that their accents would not give them away as foreigners.
Transfer points were the most dangerous. Three times they saw fellow
passengers robbed or beaten by gangs, but no one bothered them. After
the third robbery, near the United States border, they found a pay phone
and called their father. “We told him that we were already in Mexico and
could not turn back,” Alejandro said.
Mr. Rodriguez had been frantic since learning the boys had left home
five days earlier. “I was happy to hear from them but was also angry at
the same time because of what they had done,” he said.
By then they were part of a group of about six, the others all adults.
The group crossed the Rio Grande into Texas by makeshift raft, just
branches tied together with shoelaces. Their plan was to seek border
agents on the other side, rather than risk wandering on their own in the
June heat. “We thought we might get lost and never be seen again,”
They found agents soon enough, officers who had detained a group of
migrants ahead of Alejandro’s group. At an intake area, the agents gave
them food and a change of clothes, and questioned them: Where were they
from? How old were they? Why did they leave?
“I thought I was going to be sent back, because there was not a lot of
space and a lot of people,” Alejandro said. “If you have a bad attitude,
you’re sent back. We were very quiet.” Then the agents asked the boys
for their father’s contact information.
Alejandro was vague about how long they were held in Texas. Maybe it was
three days, maybe longer. Finally they were put on a 2 a.m. flight to La
In New York, there were adjustments to make. The streets and language
were alien. Their father had started a new life, with a wife and a son;
his apartment, a studio, was barely big enough for the three of them,
let alone the addition of two adolescent boys. Mr. Rodriguez worked in
an auto body shop, earning $800 a week — enough to support them, he
said, since he had previously been sending money for the boys to
Honduras. His wife, from El Salvador, stayed at home.
For many families, reunification comes with tension and recriminations.
But if there are stresses in Alejandro’s home, neither he nor his father
The boys were directed to appear on Sept. 11 in Federal Immigration
Court, part of an accelerated docket for minors that was created to
discourage children from crossing the border. At the courthouse they
were met by representatives of the city’s Departments of Education and
of Health and Mental Hygiene, who helped them enroll in school and in a
free health insurance program. The Department of Homeland Security
provided a list of free lawyers, including Ms. Press’s group.
Ms. Press filed petitions for asylum, a process separate from
Immigration Court, on Nov. 13. If the petitions are denied, the case
will proceed in court.
On a rainy morning before Thanksgiving, the halls of Franklin Delano
Roosevelt High School sang with polyglot chatter. Students there come
from more than 50 countries, and 39 percent are classified as
English-language learners, taking most of their classes in Spanish,
Chinese or another language. Police officers monitor the halls, but
there are no metal detectors for students to pass through. The school
has a graduation rate slightly below the city average, but SAT scores
are slightly higher. For Alejandro, who chose Roosevelt from a list of
eight because he preferred a big school, this is his portal to his new life.
In algebra class, the teacher, Adnan Gomez, gave a word problem in
English (“Julie lives four blocks east of F.D.R. and David lives four
blocks west of F.D.R. ...”) while addressing the students mostly in Spanish.
Moments later, Alejandro raised his hand to solve a simple problem. When
Mr. Gomez asked him to explain his reasoning, he did so in Spanish.
At Roosevelt, Alejandro was placed in relatively low-level classes,
primarily because of his deficiency in English, said Steven DeMarco, the
school’s principal. Each day he has three classes in English as a second
language. Alejandro said his grade point average was around 85. Mr.
DeMarco said that teachers and guidance counselors watched students for
signs of trauma, especially among recent arrivals from Central America —
“changes in their personality or something they write” — but that they
had not seen any signs so far. The school does not ask students their
The city’s Education Department does not keep track of how many recent
undocumented immigrants have been added to the school system, or whether
they have exhibited any effects from past traumas, said Milady Baez,
senior executive director of its Department of English Language Learners
and Student Support.
On Thursday, guidance counselors citywide began a training program with
the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in
response to the surge of unaccompanied minors. The training runs through
At school Alejandro plays on a soccer team with other recent immigrants.
He made friends quickly, he said.
“We talk about how we arrived, how we’re feeling, how was the trip,” he
said. “We all get sentimental.”
But he still gets uncomfortable around English speakers. “When I get
lost in conversation, I go on my cellphone so I don’t feel awkward,” he
said. People on the street, he added, “would look at me and I didn’t
know if they were saying something bad about me.” In a strange city, he
found it hard to ask for directions, even from adults, because he did
not know whether he could trust them.
After school one day, Alejandro and some Spanish-speaking friends were
waiting for the subway, listening to music on a portable stereo, when
another group of teenagers started yelling at them. “They said they
didn’t want to listen to music in Spanish,” Alejandro said. The words
escalated into blows; one boy was smashed into a metal garbage bin,
bloodying his mouth.
Typical teenage stuff — but for Alejandro, it can be life-altering. Any
serious trouble with the police or at school might endanger his
immigration case. “You have divisions in the cafeteria, and fights
between Chinese, Latin, Arab and black kids,” Alejandro said. “They make
fun of the way we speak, and the music.”
Alejandro practicing parkour moves during his subway trip home on
Wednesday afternoon. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
Mr. Rodriguez said he had told Alejandro to keep his distance and to ask
for help from teachers, security guards or police officers. “But he
says, ‘If I’m attacked, I will defend myself,' ” Mr. Rodriguez said.
When father and son watched President Obama’s prime-time speech last
month announcing an executive order to grant temporary legal status for
up to five million immigrants, their reaction was mixed.
Mr. Rodriguez can now live and work for three years without fear of
deportation because his youngest child is an American citizen. But for
Alejandro, the president’s words changed nothing.
Still, he said his life had improved since he came north. He feels
secure on the streets in a way that was impossible in Honduras. He has
friends who are helping him learn English.
His lawyer, Ms. Press, said he was a good candidate for asylum, with a
decision likely in early 2015. Though he does not neatly fit into the
law’s five eligibility groups — foreign nationals with a well-founded
fear of persecution because of religion, race, nationality, political
views or membership in a social group — asylum officers have interpreted
the criteria broadly for minors, approving a much higher percentage of
children than of adults. Because Alejandro witnessed his uncle’s killing
and because he lacked “effective familial protection,” he could be
considered part of an at-risk social group, Ms. Press said.
If that fails, she said, she will seek special immigrant juvenile
status, for children who are abused, abandoned or neglected by one or
both parents — in Alejandro’s case, by his mother. Even with the
accelerated docket, a final hearing on that application would probably
be two years away, she said.
In the meantime, he has soccer, school and a budding romance — interests
that were perilous in Honduras, not so scary here. He has the luxury of
thinking about the future.
He said he would like to be a police officer, to be “protecting people
and cruising around.” That, too, was different from Honduras, where the
police could be as dangerous as the gangs.
“Here you can serve calmly without fear of being killed,” he said. It
seemed like a dream to him. “But you need 60 college credits,” he added,
his spirit cooling at the thought.
He grinned a little bit. In time, that hurdle, too, might seem more
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