What were you doing when you were a junior and senior in high school?
Studying hard? Playing sports? Secretly drinking or doing drugs to impress your friends?
For three Central American teenagers spotlighted in The Standard-Times today, their high school years consisted of fleeing murderous gangs and traveling to a foreign country to begin life anew in a world where they didn’t speak the language or know the customs.
For one of them, Elmer Suarcelel, he traveled across the desert from Guatemala when he was 15, accompanied only by his 13- and 15-year old sisters. Imagine.
He says they were nearly killed after being robbed by gangs. The “coyote” who they paid to take them over the border was also robbed. Imagine. The life of a 15-year-old.
Standard-Times reporter Aimee Chiavaroli this week documented the amazing lives of three young immigrants — one who came to the city legally, one who came illegally and has now obtained a Green Card, and one who came illegally and is still living in the shadows.
These are kids who were already on their own at a time when many American youth haven’t figured out how to get their college meal cards. By the time such Latino youths arrive, they’ve often been abused in every way imaginable.
Because of the great American public education system, these three kids — and that’s what they are, kids — were able to go to New Bedford High School and not have to worry about who wanted to kill them. Or rape them. They have made the most of it, with two of them becoming honors students.
You might be surprised to learn that Suarcelel has had to support himself while going to high school. No, I’m not talking about having a part time job for spending money, I’m talking about Elmer is responsible for making his living while he goes to school. When he first arrived at 15, he worked in a scallop house.
For 19-year-old Alma Menjivar, she stayed inside the house in El Salvador for two full years before she came to America.
El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world and gangs actively recruit teenagers into their ranks, willing or not. It was simply too dangerous to go to school there, she said. But Alma was lucky — her mother and sister were already in America and she was allowed to join them.
And then there is the 18-year-old woman who Aimee talked to who graduated from New Bedford High a few weeks ago but who is now stuck.
We’re not naming the teenager because she is in danger of deportation unless her application for asylum is approved. She obtained a certified nursing assistant certificate by going to BCC at the same time she was going to high school. This is not a kid who’s lying around the house playing with her smartphone. She’s ready, willing and able to do all she can to support herself. But she can’t use her CNA certificate for a job many Americans would turn their noses up at because she doesn’t have a Social Security number. And she can’t go to college even though she has the grades because unlike high school, college is not free and she doesn’t have the money.
The young woman says she’s cleaned houses for cash but even that kind of work is flighty when her employers find out her status. She’s stuck.
Now, it’s certainly true that some working-class Americans have felt pressure obtaining jobs at good salaries because undocumented immigrants depress wages and are willing to work in conditions that Americans shy away from. But there is also evidence that many of the kinds of jobs the immigrants do go unfilled because U.S. citizens either do not want them or there aren’t enough Americans to fill them.
The immigration laws in this country, are to say, the least, dysfunctional. But the situation is complicated, inextricably intertwined with our economies, legal and illegal. Part of the complexity is the role the drug trade plays in making places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras so dangerous that people don’t want to live there.
And then there is the depressed economies of these countries. Does the United States have a responsibility to try to help such neighboring countries become more successful? Is there more we could do to help these countries so their peoples will not be so desperate that they cross the desert carrying infants and two-year-olds?
These are not easy issues. We know they are not. The country is torn up over them. We are more divided over the fallout from immigration and its related poverty than at any time since the Civil War.
But Alma Menjivar, Elmer Suarcelel and the unnamed 18-year-old are just kids. They’re still just teenagers even though they have already seen some of the worst that life has to offer.
They’ve come to New Bedford trying to escape an awful world and seeking a better life. We’ve given them a chance at an American high school and we should be proud of that.
It certainly looks like they’re willing to pay us back for the opportunity we’ve given them.
Jack Spillane is the Sunday and editorial page editor of The Standard-Times.