I Am a 15-Year-Old Immigrant Who Came to America Because Gangs Murdered My Family. All I Want to Do Is Stay and Learn
When my father was murdered by gangs in El Salvador when I was seven, I thought nothing could get worse.
But then the gangs started threatening me, too, and beating up my brothers. I couldn’t go to school because the gangs there would come after me, and I wasn’t safe at home because the other gangs there came after all of us. There was nothing the police would or could do.
I was constantly under threat, as were my siblings. So in June 2013, scared of this situation, we made the decision to go to the United States – to try to escape the violence. I was 14, and my brothers were nine and 12.
We were all frightened to go, and we knew that it was very risky and dangerous. But it was riskier to stay where we were.
Still, fleeing El Salvador was scary: we knew there were lots of bad people who kidnap and capture travelers along the way to America, so we never really felt safe. We took buses, cars and taxis to get through Guatemala and Mexico, and everything looked so strange.
Through it all, I just kept thinking about our father’s murder, and our cousin’s murder, about all the bad people who wanted to hurt us in El Salvador, and prayed that we would find somewhere safe in America.
But when we got to the border, we had to make a choice. We were told that we probably wouldn’t get caught if we traveled through the desert, but people die there, and we were just children. So we went through the immigration checkpoint at Tijuana and were detained.
The American border agents handcuffed us, even my youngest brother, which was scary because none of us had ever been handcuffed before. We didn’t know what would come next. We didn’t know if they would just send us back right away, if we would even have a chance to tell our story to anyone, to make them understand, or if we would ever have any chance of living in the United States.
We were in the immigration holding center for about two days, and only then were we moved to a shelter for children, where we stayed for about two weeks. There, we were able to go to school, and the workers at the shelter helped us out a lot.
But that’s also when they told us about the court that would decide if we get to stay in America, because of how we got here. We got very worried, because we were thinking to ourselves, “Now we have to go to a court, and we don’t have a lawyer!”
After we were released from the shelter in July 2013 to await our date with the judge, we went to Washington so we could be with my mom. I had not seen her since she had been forced to flee El Salvador years ago (also because of the gangs). Seeing my mom again was the best day I had had in so long. I finally felt safe.
I’ve been attending high school, just like any other American teenager. Because our teachers don’t speak a lot of Spanish, they’re having us use the Rosetta Stone program – so each day we learn a bit more. It’s been difficult, but I’m really loving being so excited about school. This year, I’ve had excellent grades – as have my brothers – so it’s helped us feel better about our decision to leave, despite all the troubles.
But our court date is in September, so we’re more concerned than ever. We still don’t have a lawyer. We don’t know what to tell the immigration judge. We don’t know what the American laws are like. We can’t defend ourselves in front of a judge if we don’t even know the language, let alone the laws of this country. We really want to stay in the United States, but it feels like, if we go to the judge without a lawyer, it’s almost certain that he’ll send us back to our home country no matter what we say.
We have the chance for a better future here, a future that we can’t have in El Salvador: there’s so much violence there, and the opportunities to get ahead in life – education, work – just aren’t safe because of the violence. All we’re asking for is help: the help of an attorney, so that we can have a chance to stay and access opportunities that will help us be better and help society.
We just want to go to school and work hard and not have to worry about being hurt or killed, the way we would back home.
As told to Rafael Noboa y Rivera, in Spanish. “Ashley” is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project in a class action lawsuit against the US government for the right to be represented by a lawyer in her deportation hearing.