Child migrants in the U.S. on their first Thanksgiving

The Canadian Press visited a Maryland high school to chat with some of the child migrants from Central America who arrived in the US this summer

HYATTSVILLE – For thousands of young migrants, this is the first American Thanksgiving.

The unaccompanied minors were the biggest U.S. news story this summer, with their arrival en masse prompting noisy political debates and demonstrations along the southern border.

The news crews eventually moved onto other stories, the protesters packed up and left, summer turned to fall.

But the vast majority of the kids are still here in the U.S., living in legal limbo as their immigration files proceed through the system. They’re in different parts of the country, mostly with relatives. And this week they learned in school about America’s most sacrosanct secular holiday.

The Canadian Press visited a Maryland high school to chat with some of them, and was allowed to conduct interviews on the condition that it protect the identity of students at Northwestern High School, just outside Washington, D.C.

Invited to pick her own pseudonym, a girl from rural El Salvador chose “Juliet.”

The soft-spoken teen blushed over lunchtime while being quizzed about what she’d learned that morning. It was clear as Juliet started speaking, however, that she’d paid attention in class.

She even cited a pretty precise estimate of the crowd size on the Mayflower.

“The pilgrims lived in England,” she replied.

“They wanted to build a church but they weren’t accepted. So they came in a ship _ more than 100 of them _ and they got to Massachusetts. It was cold. They had to get used to a new life. They didn’t have food, or the proper clothing. So the native Americans taught them how to plant and hunt.

“After that, they gave thanks.”

Juliet is now celebrating that same holiday. She’s doing it with her sister and brother-in-law – legal U.S. residents who sent for her in a hurry when they heard of trouble back home.

If she sees any parallels with her own story, she doesn’t mention it.

For one thing, her journey to Thanksgiving occurred mostly on land.

It began in a Central American farming region known for growing watermelons, corn and squash. She’d enjoyed life there until men from a gang began milling about her high school: “They started bothering people…. They asked for money, they threatened people… They killed people. If a girl refused to join them, they’d rape her.”

She said the gangbangers started pressing her to join. They would wait for her after school. So she started leaving earlier, before classes were done. Eventually, her sister arranged for a car to pick her up with two other relatives. The 17-year-old got a ride to Mexico, then took a bus to the Texas border.

At that point, she stepped onto a modern-day Mayflower: a raft across the Rio Grande.

Juliet was pretty lucky. She had to pay a few tolls, but didn’t experience any violence or major extortion during her month-long journey, unlike others who have been kidnapped, robbed, killed or gang-raped while using human smugglers to escape Central America’s drug war.

Another student had a little more trouble during his trip.

The boy said he was repeatedly hit up for cash _ about US$7,000 in total. He grabbed a notepad to illustrate it with a hand-drawn map of the area between Guatemala and Texas. He drew seven points where he was required to pay off human smugglers or, in at least two cases, uniformed men in Mexico whom he assumes were police officers or federal agents.

He says the uniformed Mexican men bluntly declared: “Give us $200 to pass.”

“I didn’t expect it,” said the boy, who chose “Josue” as his pseudonym.

“But I saw everyone else pay, so I did too.”

Fortunately, Josue had the cash. His parents were working in the U.S. and sending money back to El Salvador, where he’d been living with an older sibling.

His family was far better off than many others making the journey.

When asked what’s the best thing about living in the U.S., he mentioned the new international cuisine he’s sampled. He said Italian’s his favourite. He also loves the advanced technology in the U.S., including the latest-model cellphones. His teachers say he excels at school and often tutors other kids.

His only gripe? He gets lost sometimes, walking around suburban Maryland.

But that’s okay, Josue says – he’s got the Google Maps GPS downloaded onto his phone, and he also gets to use a better iPad now than the one his family had in El Salvador.

The life experiences here are vast.

Some students arrive free of trauma, with close family like Josue. It’s the exact opposite for others.

Some have been viciously attacked or left alone. One boy witnessed his dad being murdered. A small-business owner, the father refused to keep paying protection money to a gang – and he was shot and killed with his son sitting in a truck next to him.

That diversity is reflected in educational outcomes.

In one Maryland county alone, Prince George’s, about 1,300 unaccompanied minors were brought in over the last year and united with family members or guardians.

“I think a lot of the kids are on the honour roll,” said Patricia Chiancone, an outreach counsellor for the public schools in that county. “You’re going to have your real successes, your kind-of-in-the-middles, and your not-doing-wells – just like anybody.”

The school system tries to identify students with mental-health issues and provide counselling.

It also offers seminars with lawyers – because the kids’ legal prospects also vary:

Some have been, or will be, deported. President Barack Obama’s recent executive order on immigration doesn’t cover them. Many who’ve already appeared in court have been granted an extension, in some cases of up to 18 months, to find a lawyer.

Some will stay, under refugee status. Chiancone estimates that perhaps 40 per cent might be eligible to stay under humanitarian programs – like the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status visa, or political asylum.

Another condition for interviewing the kids was that The Canadian Press would not report details of their personal immigration status.

Juliet actually wants to return to El Salvador someday, when it’s safer. She misses her parents, who still live there. She also misses her old church choirs – she belonged to three of them.

In the meantime, though, she wants to study to be a pediatrician. Migrant children are entitled to an education while they’re in the U.S., thanks to a 1982 Supreme Court decision.

Juliet knows about the controversy caused this year, during the temporary surge that saw 66,000 detentions and an unknown number of other migrants who slipped past the U.S.’s southern border.

Some migrants told stories, in detention centres, about how their bus was greeted by angry American protesters.

“I just asked myself, ‘Why?”’ Juliet said, softly. “I know some people won’t work, won’t study, will just cause trouble.

“But I know most people who came here want to do something with this life.”

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