My family’s immigrant story begins in Northeast Mexico during the Mexican Revolution. Amidst the chaos and destruction, ten-year-old Maria Muñoz, my great-grandmother, was left behind while her mother sought safety and financial security in the United States. Maria arrived in the United States a short while later. I know little about her childhood, but by the early 1930s, my great-grandmother had divorced an abusive man, supported her family on her own, developed a love of American food, and had become a heck of a dancer. Her example gave me strength and was a source of pride throughout my life. However, I never thought much of her early years until I began to work with immigrant children.
Six months ago, I began my position as a Supervising Attorney in ProBAR’s program serving unaccompanied children. ProBAR is an ABA-sponsored legal services organization located in deep south Texas. I had spent over eight years working almost exclusively with adults, and I was nervous to make the change. I was comfortable with adults—they could explain their story, and they knew what had compelled them to migrate. I felt up to the challenge of defending my adult clients. I was very worried that children would simply be too innocent or too naïve to be able to help me help them. When I began working with them, my impulse was to focus on the case before me—fill out forms, take declarations, find supporting evidence. But with children, the process was simply different. As I talked about forms of relief, they thought of how relieved they would feel when they reunited with their family. As I pressed about the circumstances that led to their journey, they focused on how they survived the trek. Frustrated, I tried something else—I stopped talking and started listening to whatever they wanted to tell me. What I heard was astounding: journeys made with little more than a prayer for preparation, terrifying nights spent in jungles, long days without food or water, weeks spent negotiating with cartels for their release, and miraculous moments where children prayed and remembered the phone numbers of family members ready and willing to receive them. As I listened, I realized that – though they did face unique vulnerabilities, these children were also agents of their own destiny. Many knew that their lives would be hard in the U.S., but they saw the goal—family, safety, food, education, freedom—as well worth the sacrifice. In other words, these children were the heroes of their own stories.
As my listening improved and I learned more about the children I served, I couldn’t help but think of my own great-grandmother. She would have been only 11 years old when she arrived in the United States. What had she seen? How did her early years shape her into the woman who would become a core part of my family lore? While I will never have a real answer, what I do know is that the children arriving today are no different than my great-grandmother a century ago. Now, when I listen to their stories, I recognize that I have the honor and privilege of helping them become the central character of their own family’s lore. As our country struggles to create humane and long-term solutions for these youth, I hope that we remember that their stories literally are our own. These children are the beginnings of new chapters of America, and we should be excited, not scared, to see what comes.