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He Was Once An Unaccompanied Minor At The Border, Now He Works In The Valley's Fields

Flickr user Derek Dirks, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0
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Working 11 hours shifts in corn fields in Mendota is some of the hardest work to do. Add school and immigration court to the mix and you might start losing track of the days, like one teenager who recently moved to the Valley.  

“I would wake up at 11 at night to make food and leave at about 12:15,” he says in Spanish. “We go into work at 1 a.m. and get off at noon that day.”

The 18-year-old says his long graveyard shifts on the corn fields were exhausting. He would lose track of the days while trying to stay in his routine. So now, he says he’s working in the watermelon fields because it fits better with his schedule.

The young adult, who we’ll call M, traveled to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. Valley Public Radio is letting him stay anonymous because of fears of violence.

“If you’re out on the street you don’t know how can harm you, the police or gangs,” M says. “You don’t feel safe anywhere. You don’t feel safe around gangs or the police.”

M says he crossed the border when he was 17 and is currently seeking asylum. He says he saw and experienced violence in his life often, whether it be from gangs or his stepdad. Now that he’s here, M says at least he can count on law enforcement for protection.

“When I report something to the police here it’s different,” M says. “When I was in my country, one time someone wanted to kill us in El Salvador. My mom called the police, and they didn’t come until the next day.”

It was difficult to build a life in El Salvador or even go to school, M says. In the small town he lived in, he says most kids would stop going to school by the time they’re teenagers.

“I think I have more opportunities here,” he says. “Once you turn a certain age it’s not as easy to keep studying unless you have a lot of money.”

And M’s family didn’t have a lot of money. Unfortunately, M is just one of the thousands of other unaccompanied minors who are escaping tough and dangerous situations. When they finally get to the states, it can get even harder.

“There’s no attorney appointed to them by the government so the kids have to find their own attorney,” says Katie Annand, an immigration attorney for Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND. “They are living with a relative of some degree usually who might have their own kids, might have you know their own economic obstacles and so they’re paying for an attorney can be very burdensome.”

KIND is one of the only nonprofits in Fresno that provide free attorney services for unaccompanied minors. Annand says there is zero guarantee unaccompanied kids will get some form of legal status, and many continue to get deported every day.

“They have to meet the burden to show that they’re eligible for some kind of immigration case which is very hard to do especially right now,” Annand says. “So kids without attorneys are at a very big disadvantage.”

Even kids with attorneys who are not specialized in youth immigration law are also at a disadvantage, Annand says because so much has been changing.  

“There’s lots of nuances to being able to seek protection in the U.S. It’s definitely not an easy process for the kids,” she says.

And, for M, it hasn’t been an easy process. But, he says it’s been better than his life in El Salvador.

“Back there I had a lot of stress,” he says. “I didn’t like my life. Also well living in El Salvador it’s not having a life. If people see you prospering there they’ll try to take what you have.”

M says he doesn’t know how his life would be if he stayed in El Salvador. But, he says, it would be a life he wouldn’t want to live.

Here, he’s getting ready to enroll in college courses. If he is able to get legal residency, M says, his goal is to join the army and eventually become a psychologist or lawyer. He says he just wants to help people. 

Monica Velez was a reporter at Valley Public Radio. She started out as a print reporter covering health issues in Merced County at the Merced Sun-Star.