Across borders, through detention, and into Colorado classrooms: The journey of solo children

At 15, he made the long, frightening trek across Central America and the U.S.-Mexico border with a smuggler. Then he continued on an even longer journey, in search of his father in Colorado.

But what sent William into despair, and depression that pushed him to cut himself, happened in a U.S. holding center for migrant children: a long detention, a bout with tuberculosis, and the fear of never seeing his family again.

Every year hundreds of children are arriving in Colorado schools with uniquely challenging stories after crossing the border into the U.S. without their parents.

William — who asked that we withhold his real name, out of fear of jeopardizing his quest for citizenship — was one of the earlier unaccompanied minors arriving in the United States after fleeing life-threatening conditions at home.

School districts don’t keep track of whether their students are unaccompanied minors, and teachers say they would only learn about such a background if a student chooses to share it.

Chalkbeat took a look at the numbers of unaccompanied children who are resettling in Colorado and who these children are, as part of a Migrahack event organized by the Colorado Media Project and the University of Denver. Migrahack brings together journalists, community partners, web developers, and designers to use data to tell a fuller story about immigration in our community.

Some unaccompanied minors have one or two of their parents living in the U.S., but are considered unaccompanied if they crossed the border without a parent or legal guardian.

In the past year, the number of children getting released to a parent, relative, or other sponsor here in Colorado has more than doubled, with the majority being released to homes in Arapahoe County. According to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data, 182 children were released to homes in Arapahoe County from October 2018 to September 2019.

Video produced by Yesenia Robles, Kaley LaQuea, Hannah Brown, Jessie Kriebel.

William, who is now 21, arrived in Westminster as a 15-year-old after a long journey north across borders.

After his uncle ousted a marijuana operation in his hometown in Guatemala, threats were made on William’s life. His mother worried that one day he would vanish on his way home from school, so she sent him with a smuggler to meet up with his dad who was in Colorado.

William’s group was caught just after crossing into the U.S. He says he was scared, unsure what was going to happen next.

“Everyone was crying,” William said. “An agent asked me how old I was. When I told him I was 15, they said everything was going to be fine for me.”

But it took a while.

First, he was held for processing in a cold, smelly room, he said, while they located his dad and started his paperwork. Then, he was transported to a temporary facility. It had concrete floors, a shared toilet, and wire cages. Some of the children said the food was drugged. He saw some with blisters on their wrists from the handcuffs. Toddlers were crying, he said, and children had to share a single blanket.

After two days, much of which William said he doesn’t remember, he was flown to Chicago, to stay in a better equipped holding center while the government tried to verify whether his dad was really his dad, and whether his home would be suitable for William.

At that center, William was required to take classes and was allowed some recreation time outside.

“We had classes to learn English, and supposedly to learn how to read,” William said. “They taught us that we shouldn’t ever touch a white person because, they would say, ‘you don’t want to get arrested.’”

A few days in, William got sick. The doctors told him it was tuberculosis and started him on treatment. William fell into a depression. He worried that he would never see his family. Some of the other children had been there for months.

“I started cutting myself,” he said. When a counselor from the facility found out, she had him call his dad to tell him.

His dad asked him to stop, and William said he did. After about a month at that facility, one day officials suddenly told him to pack up his things and wait for a ride — at 2 a.m. He was picked up, transported to the airport, and after a flight where the anticipation filled him with nausea, he reunited with his dad in Colorado.

He enrolled in school when classes were well into the second semester.

“It was terrible,” William said. “I didn’t understand anything. I had to take a history class with all the other kids and math and science, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just going to class just to go.”

He recalls being told to sit next to another student who spoke Spanish, who the teacher hoped would guide him. But William was ashamed and afraid, and struggled for more than a year to get adjusted in school.

Some school districts, including Westminster, have classes for new immigrant students, which could include unaccompanied minors, to get extra support for learning the English language. Some districts programs also group newcomers with other students with similar backgrounds.

But in many districts any teacher may be responsible for helping these students.

High school teacher Leticia Guzman Ingram works with newcomer students at her school in Basalt, teaching them English and culture for two hours a day. She has worked with students who are unaccompanied minors, and encourages other teachers to build relationships with all of their students, to get to know their background so they can connect students to whatever resources they need.

“It’s so important to get to know them and to see where they come from,” Guzman Ingram said. “All of us have different struggles. But we need to understand there are challenges and there’s also strengths.”

In her class with newcomers, Guzman Ingram takes students into the community to practice their English. They go to the supermarket, and students must ask questions in English to locate things they might need to shop for.

“It’s all so they can feel safe in their community,” she said.

Home visits are another key that Guzman Ingram advocates for in teaching newcomers and other students.

She recalls a time when she did a home visit for a student that was falling asleep in class and missing homework assignments.

“I was ready to lecture this mom, but when I found her, I was so lucky, she told me her story first,” Guzman Ingram said. It turns out the student had picked up a job, working until 2 a.m.

“I couldn’t believe it, this student I thought was lazy was actually such a hard worker,” Guzman Ingram said. “My whole mindset changed.”

She changed how she supported him in school, and talked to his other teachers too.

“If I didn’t hear his story, I think I would have given up and maybe brushed him off,” she said. Instead, the student graduated and is now an electrician, making more money than many teachers, Guzman Ingram said.

William said he eventually found educators he felt safe with in Westminster and who helped him. One of his favorite classes was choir, because singing made it easy to learn English, he said. Now, having graduated, William is in college, hoping to earn a degree in computer science, and maybe a second one in math.

It’s only recently that he entered into counseling, to address the trauma from his trip across the border.

He considers himself lucky. His younger brother recently made the same trip and joined him in Colorado, but William knows his brother went through more difficulties. His brother couldn’t cope in school, and has dropped out. Their dad has since gone back to Guatemala.

William wishes teachers understood students like him and his brother, and were more patient.

“It’s not easy to start a new life in a new country,” he said. “Sometimes you just want to be treated as equal. We’re the same as everyone, we’re not bad people. And we are here because we had no choice. It’s not something we want.”

Clarification: After initially providing incorrect information, the Westminster school district has said it does have a newcomer program. This story has been updated to reflect that.