Uprooted: Immigrants recount journey to the U.S.

| April 26, 2011 | 0 Comments

Franciscan Father Eugene Michel of Sacred Heart in St. Paul talks with “Rubén,” an undocumented Latino immigrant, at the church on Good Friday, April 22. Photo by Jim Bovin / for The Catholic Spirit

Franciscan Father Eugene Michel, pastor at Sacred Heart in St. Paul, has told The Catholic Spirit that he believes many of the people who attend his church are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, El Salvador and other countries.

For this third installation in a three-part series examining the impact of U.S. immigration policy on parishioners at Sacred Heart, Salvadoran immigrants Rubén, 20, and Enrique, 18, who asked that their names be changed to protect their identities, spoke with reporters from The Catholic Spirit and Spanish-language Catholic newspaper Espíritu Católico about their immigration journeys, the trials they have faced in the U.S., and their hopes for the future.

They met as members of Sacred Heart’s youth choir. Enrique is documented. Rubén is not. Despite that difference, the two friends share much in common, including their homeland, their passion for music and their Catholic faith.

These are their stories, in their words.

Rubén’s journey

At the age of 14, Rubén trekked nearly 2,000 miles from El Salvador to the United States to live with his mother, who came to the U.S. undocumented four years earlier in search of work. Rubén’s mother paid a “coyote,” or human smuggler, to transport him across three borders.

In the six years Rubén has lived in Minnesota, he has learned English, graduated from high school and been accepted to attend college. But because he is undocumented, his future remains uncertain.

When my mom came to the U.S., there was very little work in El Salvador and she didn’t earn enough money to support us. At first I thought, ‘Why would she want to go to the U.S.?’ But she told me that someone had to earn money for the family.

My mom didn’t have documents to come to the U.S. legally. My aunt tried to get her a visa, but it wasn’t possible. I didn’t want her to go because I thought I wouldn’t see her again. It was so far away.

I lived with my cousin and my aunt in El Salvador from the age of 10 to 14.

When my mom asked me if I wanted to come to the U.S., I told her yes. I thought that it was going to be by plane, with everything normal, but it didn’t turn out that way.

My mom never told me how much she paid the coyotes to bring me here. I know that it was a lot of money, but I’ve never wanted to ask her. The worst part is that you never know whom you’re trusting your life to because a lot of times the coyotes say they’ll take people across the border, the people give them money, and then the coyotes leave them in the desert to die.

I came with other people from my country and from other countries, but I was the only one from my family. I was 14 years old, and I didn’t know anyone.

When we crossed from El Salvador to Guatemala on the way to the Mexican border, it was by bus. We walked and traveled by car and bus in Mexico. We walked for one day and one night through the desert after crossing the U.S. border.

It was difficult and dangerous because we had to walk through places that were unfamiliar to us. When the border patrol passed by, we tried to hide, but we were out in the open. There were shrubs with thorns, and we didn’t know what animals were there, like snakes or scorpions.

One time we thought that the coyotes had abandoned us because they left and didn’t come back for two or three hours. We were cold, we didn’t have any food, and our clothes were torn. That was my mom’s fear, that they would leave me somewhere, because I was young.

There were times when I was scared, but the people I was with told me not to worry, that we were almost there and that nothing was going to happen. We could see Tucson in the distance, and a man told me that was where we were going. It looked close, but it was still very far away.

My mom came for me in Arizona, and from there we drove for two days to Minnesota.

When I was making the trip to the U.S., I wasn’t very scared, more anxious because I wanted to get there. It’s now when I think about it and how difficult it was that I think it really was dangerous. Thank God nothing bad happened.

I came here in 2004, and the next week I started school.

At first, things were kind of bad for me at school. I started eighth grade in the middle of the year. I didn’t know any English. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have any friends. My mom got an interpreter to help me with my classes and my homework, and things went well after that.

High school was more difficult, and I was more stressed. A lot of people told me to be careful so that immigration agents wouldn’t catch me. I saw what was happening to immigrants in the news, and I didn’t know what to do or what to think. My mom worries, and when she worries, I worry, too.

Another problem was that my classes were in English and it was still difficult for me, so my grades dropped. But in 12th grade I was doing better, and my teacher told me I should apply to colleges.

I applied to two colleges, Century College and Minneapolis Business College, and was accepted at both. I was going to go to Century, but I had family problems. So college is going to have to wait. I think that’s the most difficult thing that has happened to me, having to wait to go to college. I can’t go because my mom doesn’t have much support, there are a lot of family issues, and we don’t have enough money.

It’s been very difficult here. It’s just my mom and me, and it’s been very hard for us. But my faith has helped me. My family told me: “God should be first; don’t put anything in front of him. You must trust in God and he’ll help you.” All we have to do is be patient and keep praying, and God will help us.

I miss my family in El Salvador. I grew up in the countryside, and I really miss it. When you come here, everything changes — the weather, the language, different people. You have to start over.

It hurts a little when I hear people say: “What are you doing here? Go back to your country.” Maybe if they were in the same situation, they wouldn’t say that.

I would like people here to know that there isn’t a need to discriminate against us immigrants. I see in the news that the border patrol has caught some immigrants bringing drugs, and because of them it makes people think we’re all bad. They think all undocumented people are bringing drugs, that we’re stealing jobs, or that we come to do who knows what. But most people come to work, to study and to make things better for their families, to give everything they have.

My dream is to get some kind of documentation to go to college or to join the armed forces. I want to be able to stay here, to help my mother because she has sacrificed a lot, and to make a better life.

Enrique’s journeyThanks to his grandmother, who came to the U.S. undocumented but later became a citizen, Enrique and his family were able to come to the U.S. legally. Now 18, he is about to graduate from high school and looks forward to attending college.

A lot of times there has to be someone in the family who comes to the U.S. illegally to try to get papers, and in my case it was my grandmother. She got her papers and made arrangements to get the rest of the family’s papers.

I’m blessed to have come here legally because of her.

When I was 10 years old, we came by plane, thank God. My mom was pregnant and my little brother was born here.

We lived with my grandmother for a while. We didn’t know any English, and we didn’t have any money. We made due with what my grandmother gave us. We lived that way for two years until my mom found a job.

I felt very bad because my grandmother’s husband was so violent. He was horrible. Then, one day he left. Maybe because of that I didn’t like living here when I?was younger.

My mother saved some money, and we went to El Salvador for a month for vacation. I told my mother that I didn’t want to go back to the U.S. She told me that I belonged with her, but I stayed.

In El Salvador, I lived with my paternal grandparents. I have a lot of respect for them. They made me who I am today.

Two years ago, my mom told me that I had to come to the U.S. In El Salvador things were getting more difficult, and there was a lot of violence.

During those three years that my mom was away, my thinking changed. My mom became a citizen, and now, thank God, we have a place of our own to live.

My dad had the good fortune to come here legally, but I didn’t like the way he brought his wife and 2-year-old son here illegally. It was very difficult because it took them four months to get here. Immigration agents caught her with the baby, but a family in Texas helped them.

During my first year in the U.S., it was difficult to adjust to my environment. It was hard to fit in. But now I feel like I belong. I have friends and family.

It hurts not being with my grandparents. Of everything I left behind, that hurts the most. But my grandfather always told me that in El Salvador there weren’t opportunities, that I had to come here. And thanks to them and their sacrifices, here I am.

This year I’m finishing high school. At first I didn’t want to go to college, but my mom encouraged me. With my grandparents in mind, I applied to Min­ne­ap­olis Business College and was accepted. I’m going to study to be a medical assistant.

Julie Carroll from The Catholic Spirit and María Capouch from Espíritu Católico conducted this interview and translated it from Spanish. It has been edited for space and clarity.

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