Francisco Aguirre, a guitarist and composer who fled to the U.S. to join his father and escape gangs in his native El Salvador, has written a song called “Como Lo Imaginamos,” or “How We Imagine It.”
But his life here today is nothing like the 18-year-old Aguirre, who risked his life crossing the border, had imagined it.
After accidentally bringing a knife to South Philadelphia High School and being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Aguirre is now under threat of deportation.
Nor is life in the U.S. what David Mendoza imagined. Like Aguirre, he came from El Salvador to join a parent, crossing the U.S.-Mexican border with an uncle when he was 13. Though he graduated from high school, he is unable to get identification, a good job, a driver’s license, or money for college.
“I came to the conclusion if I can’t have status to go to work or go to school, why [should] I be here?” he said.
Aguirre and Mendoza are among what some advocates estimate could be more than a million school-aged undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
These children and teenagers face a host of challenges; worrying about being caught, their home and school lives can be nerve-wracking. Even if they graduate from high school, it can be hard or impossible to obtain or afford higher education.
And a small mistake can throw their lives into disarray.
Police call Immigration
For Aguirre, that mistake happened after Memorial Day weekend, when he went to school with a knife in his backpack that he had used the day before to cut watermelon at a family picnic. He has the knife for his after-school restaurant job, where he washes dishes and prepares food.
The forgotten knife set off school metal detectors. Carrying a weapon, regardless of intent, is in violation of the District’s code of conduct and also a crime. School officials called the police, who took him into custody and – suspecting that he was an illegal immigrant – contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Prior to this incident, Aguirre had petitioned for asylum in the U.S. because he had come to escape gangs in El Salvador, who had threatened him when he refused to join. But the petition was denied, and though his father has legal status, he does not.
ICE took Aguirre to an immigration detention center. Because he was a minor, he was released to his father on the condition that he wear an ankle bracelet until his immigration case is resolved – which could take years.
With the unwieldy device on his leg, he is unable to play soccer or other sports. He spends hours every day charging his ankle bracelet, just like a cell phone or a laptop.
Aguirre returned to South Philly after a ten-day suspension. At the time, it looked as if he would be put in a disciplinary school this fall. But after five teachers wrote letters in his support and his employer confirmed that he needed the knife for work, he was allowed to re-enroll. He has a court date for the criminal offense in late September.
Aguirre’s detention by ICE sent a shock wave through the immigrant student community at South Philadelphia. Zac Steele, a parent organizer with the South Philadelphia community group JUNTOS, said that parents and students could become reluctant to speak to authority figures, including school counselors and security guards, jeopardizing school safety. The fact that Aguirre was arrested first before being turned over the ICE was lost in the rumor mill, he said.
Many students, like Aguirre’s peers at South Philly, are wary of ICE activity.
“There’s the fear that your parents could be picked up at work,” said Regan Cooper, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC). “That all can happen while the kids are in school, so we have seen some kids clinging to their parents, especially after there’s been somebody picked up in the neighborhood.”
Deborah Wei, principal of the FACTS Charter School in Chinatown, said that “kids constantly feel unsafe.” To stay ahead of ICE, “families move every month to avoid Immigration,” Wei said, adding that students’ schoolwork and test scores can suffer as a result.
While all children in the U.S. are entitled to public K-12 education – schools, in fact, cannot inquire about a student’s immigration status – this entitlement does not extend to college.
A dream deferred
So David Mendoza, 20 – a graduate of Olney West High School, a youth minister in his church, a jazz musician, a student activist, and an aspiring businessman – is stuck.
Since graduating from Olney, he has been working “under the table” in a manufacturing job. With his current income, it would take him years to save up enough money for college – and without documents, he can’t get a higher- paying job.
Although he works regularly, Mendoza has little left over to save for college tuition after helping his mother with the mortgage and sending money back to the grandmother who raised him.
He is ineligible for federal college loans and must pay foreign-student rates to any school that will admit him without papers, which puts even Community College of Philadelphia out of reach. Pennsylvania, where an estimated 800 undocumented students graduate from high school each year, does not offer undocumented students in-state tuition rates like some other states.
Many other students don’t make it to graduation, since given their lack of options, it makes more sense to begin earning money for their families rather than stay in school. Mendoza persevered despite knowing his college prospects were limited, but admits it was hard to stay motivated.
“I don’t want anything to stop me from setting my goals,” he said.
Efforts to pass federal legislation that would address these obstacles for students like Mendoza who came here as children, the so-called DREAM Act (for Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors), have stalled. The proposed law would give “conditional permanent resident status” to students who have been in the U.S. for five years, graduated from high school, and came to the U.S. before age 16.
In the meantime, Mendoza knows that he is not living up to his potential. Now, he wonders if his life would be better if he were back in El Salvador.
Even though the country has a fragile economy, at least there, he said, “I would have more freedom.”