leave or die.

Maria and I with her grandparents at the school she left before her seventh grade year to come to the U.S.

July 29, 2014 @ 7:45 p.m.

“They said that they would kill either me or someone in my family.”

Hilda, the grandmother of my student Maria haunt me. After finishing my bowl of the hot soup she made, I asked her why Maria was sent to the United States.

This soup was delicious and made me sweat like nobody's business on this incredibly hot day.
This soup was delicious and made me sweat like nobody’s business on this incredibly hot day.

Hilda said that her mother had been working to get her papers — her green card — to get Maria to the U.S. But when the gang members threatened her family, she knew she had to get Maria out of El Salvador.

“He said a family member and I immediately thought of Maria, who is like a daughter to me,” Hilda said.

She and her husband run a small grocery store at the school Maria attended (more on that later). And she and her husdband was giving the gang protection money, in essence, money to protect herself, her business and her family from gang violence.

But instead of figuring out a way to pony up money she didn’t have, she began to pray. Hilda asked God for a miracle, for a way to get Maria out of the country. Maria’s mother had been working to save enough money to bring Maria to the U.S. Soon enough, Maria’s mother called and said she had the money for Maria’s papers and everything was ready.

Away Maria went, leaving Ahuachapán, a city about an hour’s drive west of San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, for U.S. capital, Washington D.C.

What about the gang?

Hilda said they never came back to her for the money and she never paid any protection money again.

Maria is just one story of many students at my school who are come here under duress, legally or sin papels, without papers.

But why are so many children coming to the U.S.? With more than 90,000 expected to arrive by the end of September, EL Salvadorian activist Marta Benavides, said that there’s only one reason: Fear.

The subject line from a recent email Benavides sent reads, “Children don’t travel over 1,000 miles alone on a whim. Right now, the children fleeing are threatened, terrified, and alone.”

Another student I taught a few years ago applied for asylum after arriving in the U.S. at 14 after quickly leaving home to escape the gang who wanted to kill him. The minute he heard the threat, he called his dad, who was in the U.S. and left his grandparents’ house that night. It took him two days to reach his uncle’s house where he enrolled in school. But after seeing a member of the same gang in the neighborhood, he called his dad and told him he had to leave again. This time, his dad told him to come to the U.S.

He had a grueling journey from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico before reaching Texas. He did this without any family or friends accompanying him, only the coyote.

So why are these youth on the run? Here are the top two reasons based on what the families I spoke to in El Salvador have said.

  1. Much of the threats come from the growing disparity between those who have families in the U.S. or another country who is able to send remissions home, which leads to a higher financial quality of life for those who have family who are sending remissions. Gangs, who also deal in the movement of drugs and human trafficking, use this as a method of control and revenue. Threaten a family and they will either pay the money requested or not. If they do not, then the children have little other choice than to migrate somewhere else, usually, the safest place is with the parents who left to make money in the U.S. or Canada.
  1. The U.S. deports many immigrants — documented and undocumented — when they commit crimes in the U.S. The Atlantic Monthly reports that the Obama administration “deported a record 1.5 million people during his first term of office. In 2012, 55 percent of deportees had criminal convictions for drug offenses or driving under the influence, according to U.S. immigration officials.” Some of them try to make their way back into the U.S., but others stay in the countries of their deportation and rejoin or join gangs, further engaging in criminal behavior. Several people in El Salvador said that because they have cell phones it’s incredibly easy to talk back and forth between people in the U.S. and El Salvador to organize criminal transactions across borders.

As I sit here in Santo Domingo looking at pictures of angry “Americans” holding signs at the U.S.-Mexico border and at immigration hearings, I cannot help but wonder about our humanity as people and about the ignorance that compels them to act so callously.

Where is their knowledge of our own history as Americans? These “protestors” (I call them harassers) have forgotten the kindness of the first Americans, the Native Americans who gave the starving Puritans food and offered peace when they were unable to fend for themselves.

Maybe it is fear. Fear always begets fear and if we look at what the American government did to the natives, then perhaps these folks are fearful of their own extinction at the hands of the next generation of American immigrants.

Maria's Uncle Juan took us into the mountains near Ahuachapán, where we saw a fields of coffee,  I tasted a raw coffee bean and drank my first cup of coffee,  ever in life. Her uncle is a professional soccer player and plays for a professional team in El Salvador.
Maria’s Uncle Juan took us into the mountains near Ahuachapán, where we saw a fields of coffee, I tasted a raw coffee bean and drank my first cup of coffee, ever in life. Her uncle is a professional soccer player and plays for a professional team in El Salvador.

I wish they could come to El Salvador and see the families I see, meet the people I met, the rolling mountains, the smoking volcano, and not to mention the food, Oh, My God!

I’ve never tasted mango as good as what I had in El Salvador and the Dominican habichuela, simply magic on a plate, gives me life abundantly!

The reason why so many children are leaving home in droves is because they want to stay alive. Shame on adults, so-called grown folks, who choose to yell at them instead of embracing them. As a teacher who is charged to serve all students and families equally, I am saddened, then angry that this is the welcome mat these children experience after the journey they experience, alone.

The New York Times reports that a recent poll shows 69 percent of Americans support U.S. government aid to Central American children who flee without their parents, while their claims are being investigated.

Where are these Americans? Where are they? Because from here, I don’t hear their voices in the fray and in times like these empathy seems to be a casualty sacrificed to politics. Here, in the Dominican Republic, where read the U.S. news cycle, the silence on this side of the world is deafening.

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