One night three years ago, Milton kissed his mother gently on the head, careful not to wake her, and slipped out of their home in rural Guatemala where he had lived his whole life. As his parents and six younger siblings slept, he caught a bus north. His goal: reaching the United States. He was 14.
“If I told them, I knew they wouldn’t let me go,” said Milton, who’s now 17 and declined to give his last name because he still fears violence from home, both for himself and his family. “But it’s not safe there. They’re killing people where I come from. I knew the best way to help my family was to leave and get an education and a job so I could send them money.”
Traveling on foot, on busses and trains, often sleeping outside, Milton eventually found his way across the border and ended up in Oakland, where an aunt lives. As national attention focuses on immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, Alameda County, where Oakland is situated, has been absorbing unaccompanied immigrant children for years — and in fact has the second-highest number of unaccompanied minors in California, behind Los Angeles County. They’re drawn to Oakland and the East Bay mostly through family ties — networks of relatives who can help ease the transition to a new country and refugee groups that place them with foster families. Even under the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, unaccompanied minors have continued to come to the United States.
Oakland Unified has embraced these students, offering a host of services to help them find housing and health care, academic tutoring, legal services, mental health counseling and other amenities. Since June 2013, when gang violence in Central America began to escalate, the district has enrolled more than 1,200 unaccompanied youth.
“In Oakland Unified School District, we are in the business of educating children, no matter where they came from or how they got here. We know the obstacles some of our young people have overcome to be here are unimaginable to most of us,” said Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “Anyone who needs to escape crime, violence and persecution in their own country, and who braves untold dangers on the journey to America deserves all the support we can give them.”
The district considers unaccompanied youth, and immigrant students generally, to be assets to the entire student population. “Our newcomer students are generally very hard-working, determined and inspire the rest of us every day with their tenacity,” said Nathan Dunstan, program manager for the district’s refugee and asylum program.
Using grant money from Salesforce, an internet advertising firm and the state and federal governments, Oakland Unified has hired social workers and opened “newcomer” centers at 15 schools to welcome immigrant students and help them acclimate. The Salesforce grant, $5.2 million, included funding for computer science and math education for all students districtwide, in addition to services for immigrant students.
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The district’s unaccompanied youth come from dozens of countries, including Afghanistan and Iraq, Eritrea and Myanmar, Somalia and Bhutan. But most of these children are like Milton, teenagers fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. While they seek asylum to be safe from violence, most are poor and see the United States as a country where they can get an education and earn money to send back to their families.
Until recently, fleeing violence was sufficient grounds to apply for asylum in the United States. But in June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ruled that violence in an immigrant’s home country does not guarantee asylum in the U.S. In recent months Sessions also ordered a “zero tolerance” policy at the border that’s left hundreds of children separated from their parents and placed in detention facilities or foster care. Only a few of those children are in the East Bay. Most of the unaccompanied young people in Oakland arrived before that policy went into effect.
Oakland Unified offers legal referrals for its immigrant students to help navigate the lengthy and complicated immigration system. Most of these services are free. Catholic Charities of the East Bay and Centro Legal de la Raza are among the primary resources.
Oakland’s unaccompanied youth end up alone in many ways. Some come to the U.S. with their parents but are left here alone if their parents get deported. Those children — in some cases, younger than 5 years old — either move in with relatives or are placed in foster care. Of the 659 unaccompanied minors enrolled in Oakland Unified in 2017-18, 65 were in elementary school.
Another route is through refugee resettlement programs. Those children, either with their families or alone, arrive in the U.S. via international refugee programs and are assigned by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement to certain cities, such as Oakland, receiving help with housing, job placement, medical care and English language classes from nonprofits like Jewish Family Services and Catholic Charities.
Oakland Unified had 700 students in 2017-18 who arrived via refugee resettlement programs. Of those, 70 came without their parents. (They are among the 1,200 total unaccompanied migrant students that have enrolled in the district since 2013.)
Milton, quick-witted and athletic, is from a small town in Guatemala, where his parents work as merchants selling food, clothing and odds and ends, earning just a few dollars a day. Gang violence is commonplace: Milton’s cousin and grandfather were both killed by gang members, and Milton feared he’d eventually be killed as well.
So he saved his money and planned his exodus. He spoke no English, had no idea how to get to the United States, where he would go or what he would do once he arrived. He just kept heading north, often hungry and terrified, until he reached Texas. There, he was apprehended by U.S. immigration officials at the border and because he was under 18, alone and requesting asylum, he was allowed to stay, according to the policy at the time. He spent about a year in detention facilities in Texas and Florida before government social workers found an aunt in Oakland who could sponsor him.
But living with his aunt didn’t work out, and Milton moved into a house in East Oakland with other immigrants. He enrolled at Castlemont High School and learned English by listening to pop songs on the radio and watching TV.
Thin and muscular, he earns money to pay his rent by working after school and on weekends as a roofer and in a taqueria. Even living in one of the most expensive regions in the country, Milton still manages to send money home to his family. Here, he says, he can earn $50 a day, a fortune compared to the $7 a day his parents earn in Guatemala.
With help from his teachers, counselors and his soccer coach at Castlemont, Milton graduated high school in June. He plans to enroll at Oakland’s Merritt Community College in the fall to study business, in hopes of someday opening his own restaurant or construction business. His request for asylum was approved and he’s on track to become a U.S. citizen in a few years.
He talks to his mother every few days on the phone. The first few weeks after he left home she was frantic, he said, but later she came to understand why he left.
“I told my mom I want to be a different person. I want to get an education and a diploma. I want to do something with my life,” he said. “She’s proud of me. She’s not mad at me any more.”
Despite his successes, Milton says he’s still homesick. He hasn’t seen his family in almost three years and simply misses having them around. That, more than anything else, has been his greatest hardship, he said.
“I miss my brothers and sisters but I miss my mom the most,” he said. “She’s the best person in my life. What do I miss? Everything, all of it. She’s a very good cook. She did stuff for me like laundry so I didn’t have to do it. She’s always there for me.”
For students whose parents are thousands of miles away, teachers, counselors and coaches become the most reliable adult role models. Oakland Unified offers guidance for teachers on how to make unaccompanied youth feel welcome and safe at school. At some schools, Catholic Charities of the East Bay and other agencies provide counseling to unaccompanied youth to help them cope with the ordeal of leaving home and surviving on their own.
With enough support, unaccompanied youth can succeed in school and thrive in their new country, said Michelle Rostampour, case manager at Oakland International High School, where all 413 students are immigrants, 27 percent of whom came without their parents.
“They’re dealing with so many layers of trauma — from their home country, traveling to the U.S., acculturation once they get here, being separated from their families, living with people who might be strangers. Plus the usual stress of being in school and just being a teenager,” she said. “It takes an incredible amount of hard work and support, but in my eyes, the more they feel respected and cared for the more likely they are to succeed.”
Jackson, 16, a student at Oakland International High, has had a rocky time since he left his home in Honduras about nine months ago. His troubles actually started before that, when gang members at his high school ordered him to sell drugs for them.
“I said nope,” he said, declining to give his last name because he still fears gang violence. “They would have killed me. I told my mom. She told me I should leave to be safe.”
After saying goodbye to his mother and grandmother he joined an uncle heading north. They rode 27 days on top of a train, hanging on by attaching their belts to a railing, finally arriving at the immigration checkpoint in Calexico, on the California border. There, Jackson’s uncle was arrested and sent back to Honduras. As a minor, Jackson was allowed to stay.
Alone, Jackson spent 22 days in a detention facility in Southern California before social workers located a cousin in Oakland. Jackson lived with the cousin for a few weeks but then the cousin moved without telling him, leaving Jackson alone. After sleeping on the street a few nights, he ended up at a youth homeless shelter near downtown. There, case workers referred him to the Alameda County foster care system. He now lives in a private foster group home with other young people in Berkeley, as he awaits for his asylum case to move forward. Like Milton, he’s receiving free legal assistance to shepherd his asylum request through the courts. Although both boys could be deported at any time, they’re hopeful their legal cases will be successful.
Rostampour said being in foster care has benefits for Jackson. He doesn’t have to work to pay his rent and is entitled to certain benefits, such as job training and help getting into and paying for college. Jackson hopes to be an electrician someday.
And like Milton, Jackson has found solace in soccer. It’s helped him make friends, take his mind off his challenges and build self-confidence by doing something in which he has some expertise.
Quiet and pensive, Jackson doesn’t smile much. He said he’s homesick and doesn’t feel comfortable at the foster home, but he’s determined to succeed in the U.S., if not for himself, then for the sake of his family in Honduras.
“I want to graduate from high school and work, maybe go to college. I want to see my mom and grandma again,” he said. When asked if he likes Oakland International High School, he brightened a little, gestured around the campus and nodded. “This is good. All of it.”
Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.
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