Can immigrants still find the American dream? Joel Guerra is living proof
The American dream is really the world’s dream. Freedom, opportunity, security, and hope for a good life. That’s the beacon this nation shines. Joel Guerra, born in Honduras, knew what it means from an early age. It was an irresistible call.
Guerra was born in the capitol city Tegucigalpa in 1999.
That nation is one of the poorest and least developed in Latin America and in 1998 Hurricane Mitch devastated major parts of the country. His family struggled to survive for six years and finally decided to come to America. Entering the country with a work Visa they came to Seattle. His father worked in construction and was able to support the family. But in 2011 his father got sick. So sick he could no longer work. The tensions and inability to provide support drove the family apart and Joel’s father went back to Honduras in 2012. Joel stayed with his mother and she tried to make it work but after just 30 days, she realized they had to head back too. Joel had learned English and had become accustomed to the culture. He knew how to speak Spanish but could not write it or read it. It was extremely difficult for him to adjust yet again. His peers naturally knew more and he grew depressed. His taste of life in America lingered in his mind.
The threat of gangs is real
At age 15 he was being approached by gang members. Their technique was more subtle than you might imagine. “They wouldn’t force you to join, not at first,” Joel explained, “ They would just try to get you to be their friend and go do things with them, so you’d be part of the group. Then later they’d want you to be wild in the street and do crazy stuff.” He resisted the offers and finally made a decision.
“I was there for four years and I called my Aunt in Seattle and told her I wanted to continue my life there… she said ok and said she would help me until I graduated from high school.”
Heading back to the U.S.
Thus began his journey back to America. His family had moved to the mountains of Central Honduras to Siguatepeque and Joel needed to somehow get to the Texas border, a distance of more than 1,960 miles. The trip took forty five days. He walked, sometimes 8 hours at a time, rode buses and got rides and finally made it to the Rio Grande River.
Most immigrants don't already know the rules
At this point it’s probably useful to understand that there is an assumption made by many people that people seeking to come to America from all over the world have all been educated in proper immigration procedures. They haven’t. Young people especially do not understand where the approved points of entry are, what the proper paperwork entails, and can’t afford an attorney. Beyond that, the 81 percent increase of Hondurans coming into the country during the first decade of the twenty-first century, was the largest of any immigrant group. Their numbers rose from approximately 160,000 in 2000 to 300,000 in 2008. Many Hondurans were given temporary protected status due to the continuing impacts on their economy from the Hurricane. That status was extended several times, including an extension to July of 2010; it grants work authorization and protection from deportation but does not assure permanent residency. As many as 80,000 Hondurans came to the United States under temporary protected status. Most Hondurans are small-scale farmers with average income of only $1,700 per year. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, it was estimated that 59 percent of all Hondurans were living below the poverty line. Approximately 20 percent of adults were illiterate, and 25 percent of the children were chronically malnourished.
Entering America again
Once at the border, Joel encountered others there, seeking asylum too. Boarding a boat, he crossed the river. “But I knew that there was a law that students under the age of 18 can come to the U.S. and would be sent to their families here. That’s why I turned myself in to immigration. I was in jail for 8 hours in Harlingen, Texas. I was in two jails and a detention center. It was tough being there because you can only call your family once a week.” He was held there for thirty days and had his sixteenth birthday while in custody.
Finally his aunt sent him a plane ticket and he was released to fly to Seattle. He had to pay her back. He applied for official asylum status. According to the Immigration and Nationality Act, the asylum interview should take place within 45 days after the date the application is filed and a decision should be made on the asylum application within 180 days after the date the application is filed, unless there are exceptional circumstances. But the system is overwhelmed and now in doubt given the current adminstration's policies and pronouncements regarding that status for immigrants.
For the record, Joel also wants to become a U.S. citizen as soon as possible. To qualify to apply for U.S. citizenship via naturalization, he will need to meet the following requirements: Be 18 years old and above at the time of application. Be a lawful green card holder (permanent resident) for five years. Have established continuous residency for 5 years and be physically present in the U.S.
But after getting the green card the process can in fact take years.
Family tensions arise
“When I got here, everything was so good at the beginning.” He reunited with old friends and other family members and started school at Evergreen. “My aunt had very strict rules and the main rule was that I had to go to church every day. So it was tough going to school and having to go to church too. It was complicated because I wanted to do sports. I couldn’t say anything because she was helping me. Then a year and half ago and I was talking to her. ‘I want to do new things. I want to play football,’ and after I told her that she turned her back on me. It was so hard. I was seventeen and she told me I would have to start paying rent and buy my own food. So during the summer I started working with my uncle as helper doing construction. He would pay me a really low amount. My aunt told me I would have to drop out of high school and take care of myself. This was all because I didn’t want to go to church and do the stuff that she wanted. It would have meant going to church every day. All the money I earned with my uncle is how I paid my rent.
After she told me to drop out, I started crying, went to my room, and I called my A.P. Calculus teacher. He told me to just pay my rent and ‘We’re going to figure it out.”
Despite the conflicts at home, Joel turned out for football in the fall, playing cornerback for the Wolverines. “It was awesome. The football experience was so great. I had never played football in my life but I always wanted to, and I love it. I wasn’t even a starter, then I became a J.V. starter and then the Varsity starter. I was so happy.”
Joel kept studying, working hard on his homework, eventually achieving a 3.6 GPA which is honor student territory. He also won the bi-literacy medal and the tassel for honor students.
A friend comes to his aid
But the money he had saved ran out.
“I didn’t have a social security number so I couldn’t get a job. He applied for it but the process took nine months. During that period his aunt kicked him out of the house twice. “I didn’t know where to go.”
He called a friend he had made by being the leader of a local youth group. She made him a deal. ‘You walk and take care of my dog every day and I will pay your rent.”
Joel took her up on it and though his aunt told him she did not believe him and that she thought he was selling drugs, he paid his rent for the next three months without fail.
The tensions at home continued. He was living with two aunts and an uncle but walking on eggshells the whole time.
“My aunt was angry every time I would go out,” Joel said. He was speaking by phone with his mother once a week and she had re-married and though his step father was supportive, he and Joel were never close. “There was nothing my mother could do. She was so far away.”
A breakthrough at last
When last December arrived Joel got a very special Christmas gift.
His Social Security Card.
It meant he could finally seek a job. Through the YWCA at Greenbridge he got help with how to seek a job. They felt that the YWCA Starbucks Youth Opportunity Program would be ideal for him and they helped him as he was going through the training at Starbucks to improve his resume, cover letter, and interview skills.
“I was so happy I started crying. They hired me. It was my first official job.” He now has a work permit that is good for two years and it can be renewed.
Joel set his sights on Washington State University and left to go to a introductory conference there in Pullman, WA. This inflamed his whole house. “I told them where I was going but they didn’t believe me. Before, I had gone to Camp Waskowitz for three Saturdays for Literature Camp but they didn’t believe me about that either.”
When he got back from the conference he was extremely motivated. “There were a lot of undocumented students. I thought at first that undocumented students can’t go to college.”
Working at Starbucks he proved to be impressive. “I’ve only been working here for three months and I was given a ‘Partner of the Quarter’ award.” He’s working 35 hours a week and saving his money but he also applied to attend WSU as well as to WSFA (Washington Application for State Financial Aid). This law allows undocumented non-citizens, who are unable to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) due to their immigration status, to apply for State Financial Aid.
Three weeks ago the financial aid was approved and he had already been accepted by Washington State University. He wants to study Civil Engineering or International Business with a minor is Spanish. He will start there in August and transfer to work at a Starbucks in Pullman.
America still works
America has always rewarded people willing to work hard. But for Joel Guerra he had to overcome distance, loneliness, being held in detention, and the doubts of his own family. His single minded focus on building a life of achievement is paying off for him. In a time when immigration is so controversial, he is living proof that the melting pot of America is still a remarkable crucible for success.
Come to America "legally", welcome. Period.
To all others don't bother your not wanted, we have enough criminals as it is.
Terry, once you, as a citizen, learn the difference between “your” and “you’re”, we *might* care about your opinion. Until then....
Joel, thank you so much for sharing your story! I can see you have worked hard, sacrificed a lot, and overcome much to build a good life for yourself. I wish you there very best!