A day in Immigration court

Detroit — I accompanied a teenager to immigration court. She is one of the thousands of unaccompanied youth who traveled alone from Guatemala to Detroit. She was detained in Arizona and allowed to come here because she has family members here. All of the family members are also undocumented and none of them speaks much English.

When we got to court the first time, the judge told her that she could apply for asylum. We sought the advice of several lawyers and found that she was not eligible for asylum under the very narrow guidelines. She is not a victim of torture. Fear of starvation is not grounds for relief. Fear of despair. No. Fear of no possibility of an education. No.

We got to court and the judge admonished her for not having filled out the application for asylum. The judge let me speak, although I am not a lawyer, not an official anything. Just a neighbor who was asked for some help. I told the judge that we had sought advice from lawyers whom I could name. She said that the girl should fill out the paperwork and let CIS [Citizenship and Immigration Services] decide if she is qualified.

Imagine your child leaving home, traveling across treacherous lands filled with cartels, a young girl alone. With the cash she would need to pay her way, saved, borrowed, begged from an entire village in abject poverty. While I was thinking about this, I got a call. It was this girl’s father. She would not say that she was abandoned. She would not say that she was abused. She told me that her father had fallen off a roof and was disabled and could not support the family and she had come here to support them.

Her father thanked me for accompanying his daughter to court and for whatever we could do. He asked if I was planning on taking her tomorrow to court. Of course, I said. He told me that it was a great relief to know that his daughter had found someone who speaks English to help her navigate this frightening situation. He wished she did not have to leave and hopes she does not get deported.

It is impossible for us to imagine this terror. The terror of parents who love their children and yet cannot feed them, cannot offer any future to any of them. Everyone there depends on money sent home. There are many reasons for this and most of them lead back to U.S. policy.

The people travelling out of their homelands don’t know why they can’t live there. Most do not know what NAFTA or CAFTA [trade agreements for North America and Central America that crushed local industry and agriculture] are. Only what Homeland Security is, CIS, ICE. Indigenous people whose native languages and humanity are completely intact are escaping crushing poverty and encountering terror.

In court, the girl was given a brief reprieve to fill out the paperwork. In the process of working on it with her, I learned a lot more about the violence of Guatemala.

I don’t have any answers. If someone asks for help and there is nothing you can do, just say yes. Go with them to wherever. Go to court. Go to school. Translate if you can. Help fill out papers if you can. Imagine your child in a strange land, in the hands of strangers. We have only this day and our little gift of U.S. citizenship that we did absolutely nothing to earn.

Amor y lucha

Elena Herrada is a Chicana activist and elected member of the Detroit Public Schools board of education in-exile.