A perilous journey


June 27, 2004, midnight | By Elena Chung | 16 years, 7 months ago


Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

On the edge of the Rio Grande River, during a black night in June 2003, Tom, a sophomore, waits with nine others. After 27 days of walking and hitching rides, Tom is within reach of Texas, but cameras, police cars and helicopters threaten his passage.

Less than a year later on April 27, 2004, Tom is surrounded by the soft whir of computers, laughing and joking with his friend. In a Nike shirt and adorned with a silver chain and rock-star leather armband, Tom has begun to firmly immerse himself in the culture of a country he once only dreamed of.

But Tom still has a lingering concern—possible deportation. He doesn't have social security, green-card admission or permanent residency in the U.S. He is among an estimated 55,000 illegal immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area, according to Coordinator Jill Rauh of Central American Resource Center.

Riding the waters

For many of these undocumented immigrants, the journey from foreign countries to the U.S. is rough and dangerous especially along the well-guarded U.S.-Mexico border, Rauh says.

Tom traveled from El Salvador for a better education. Led by a coyote – a paid smuggler trafficking immigrants across the border – Tom crouched along the banks of the Rio Grande and prayed he'd elude the camera. Watching with binoculars, the coyote yelled, "Run!"

As the group quickly waded and swam to reach the other side, only Tom and another man of the nine made it across the river to Texas. The other seven were not so lucky; they could not swim across fast enough.

However, Tom met more obstacles when he and the other man could not find the pick-up car, and a disheveled and dirty Tom was picked up by police who questioned him and sent him to a half-way home for immigrant teenagers in Houston.

Frank, a freshman, tried multiple times to leave El Salvador for the U.S. over the course of a year. On the first try, the Mexican police caught him and sent him home. The second time, the Mexico City police imprisoned him for six months because he was a minor without any papers.

On his third and last attempt, Frank's family paid $5,500 to a coyote who led 72 other men, women and children on a perilous trek through the Mexican mountains that involved hiking arduous miles, eating only handful-sized portions of food and drinking dirty black water. They hid from officials under rags and swam in the cold waters of the Rio Grande while many fell ill. "It was difficult for many people because they were sick," Frank remembers.

The American Dream

Despite difficulties, Frank reached the U.S. without getting caught. He is determined to stay because of the wealth of opportunities. "Sometimes I was scared, but I wanted to come to the U.S. I heard the stories of many good things," he says smiling, his eyes alit.

Like Frank, many undocumented immigrants attempt to enter the U.S. because of the poverty in their homeland, explains Rauh. "Most often, they come from countries in very bad conditions economically with high unemployment," she says.

From a fatherless family of eight siblings, Frank came alone to support his loved ones in El Salvador by sending them money. "I wanted to work," he says resolutely. "I have to; it's important because they need me to have a job."

Alone, Jim, a freshman from El Salvador, crossed the Texas border in Oct. 2003 in order to surprise his parents whom he had not seen since he was one. His parents left his homeland for the U.S. to start a better life, while Jim stayed with his grandmother.

One day instead of visiting his relatives in Guatemala, out of the blue, Jim decided to reunite with his parents and meet his American-born younger siblings by entering the U.S. He also says he came because he wants more options for a secure future. "The schools have the same amount of stuff, but there are more chances here where I'll have a better life," he says. "I want to rise above."

Reality check

After reaching the U.S. many undocumented immigrants still face challenges, Rauh says. "On one hand, there are these dreams. They see they could have opportunities to do something. But it's opposed by this fear," she says. "They live in fear of deportation constantly."

Frank understands that without documentation, he must be careful, especially when he considers the consequences of discovery—deportation and restriction from returning for up to ten years. "I would like to know what to do to get the papers. Sometimes, I think if they catch me, everything will fall apart," he says, looking away.

With obstacles like deportation, immigrants often face trouble completing their education because of hardships outside of school, says ESOL teacher Pilar Romero. According to the Interim Report of the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans, only 40 percent of undocumented children finish school.

Such impediments often hinder undocumented immigrants' future goals, says Jon Estralla, a senior policy associate at the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "For these kids, there is no hope to realize their dreams—their lives," he says. "They can't give back to the community by becoming nurses or doctors."

While Frank dreams of furthering his education in order to get a higher-level job, he realizes that he may have to look elsewhere. "I would like to go to college and to get a career," he says. "But if not, I'll be a plumber."

Accepting fate

For many undocumented Blazers, the future is uncertain, says Romero. In class, she notices that Jim is constantly worried, unhappy and not concentrating because of his situation.

Even though Jim was reunited with his parents in Maryland, at the border, immigration officials caught him while he was hiding by a lake. His first immigration court hearing on April 21 was postponed because he did not have a lawyer. At his second hearing on May 12, Jim was told he faces possible deportation on Sept. 11 unless he can provide a letter of support from CASA de Maryland, a private renowned organization that works with immigrants. "If they send me back, I will stop my schooling. I won't have the opportunities that I have here. All my efforts to be here will be turned to nothing," he worries.

Rauh explains that undocumented immigrants are often troubled because of the legal challenges. "They are looking for the American Dream, but because they are undocumented, that Dream is not accessible to them. They find themselves full of frustration and despair," she says.

With months until the final decision about his residency, Jim can only wait, while his future hangs in the air. "If they decide to send me back, what can I do? I wish I could stay, but I don't know," he says with a helpless shrug.



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Elena Chung. After several failed attempts to start a school newspaper in elementary school, Elena Chung, a senior, has finally fulfilled a lifelong goal to write for a paper. When she's not hunting down sources or finishing loads of work, she enjoys taking photos, cooking, reading, watching … More »

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