Petula Dvorak writes in her regular local column in the Washington Post:
“Their dreams — to become a lawyer, an interior decorator, a sailor in the Navy — are a lot like the dreams that other kids at their Maryland high school have.
It’s their nightmares — seeing relatives killed, paying off coyotes, being raped at the border, spending weeks in a detention center, being homeless in a new country — that make them so different.
“They’ve survived untold horrors,” said Alicia Wilson, the executive director at La Clinica Del Pueblo, which is working with Northwestern High School to help these teenagers.
The Hyattsville school has absorbed dozens of these students — part of a wave of more than 150,000 kids who have crossed the U.S. border over the past three years fleeing violence in Central America.
We usually hear about these young immigrants only when they’re accused of committing heinous crimes — such as the two undocumented students charged with raping a 14-year-old classmate in a bathroom at Rockville High School. Or when they become victims of heinous crimes — such as Damaris Reyes Rivas, 15, whose mother wanted to protect her from MS-13 in El Salvador but lost her to the gang in Maryland.
In country with a growing compassion deficit, plenty of people resent these kids, demonizing them along with other undocumented immigrants. But I wish those folks got to spend the time with them that I did. They’re funny, vulnerable, hard-working and stunningly resilient.”
Exactly what I found in more than a decade as a trial judge at the Arlington Immigration Court. The young people were among the most memorable of the thousands of lives that passed through my courtroom. “Funny, vulnerable, hard-working and stunningly resilient,” yes they were all of those things. To that, I would add smart, courageous, talented, motivated, and caring.
Many appeared at the first Master Calendar speaking only a few words of English. By the time the second Master rolled around (often 9-12 months on my overcrowded docket) they were basically fluent. And, they often were assisting others in the family to understand the system, as well as taking on major family responsibilities with parents or guardians holding down two, or sometimes three jobs.
I checked their grades and urged/cajoled them to turn the Cs into Bs and the Bs into As. Many brought their report cards to the next haring to show me that they had done it.
I recognized the many athletes, musicians, chess players, science clubbers, and artists who were representing their schools. But, I also recognized those who were contributing by helping at home, the church, with younger siblings, etc.
Just lots of very impressive young people who had managed to put incredible pain, suffering, and uncertainty largely behind them in an effort to succeed and fit in with an strange new environment. They just wanted a chance to live in relative safety and security and to be able to lead productive, meaningful lives, contributing to society. Pretty much the same things that most off us want for ourselves and our loved ones.
More often than not, with the help of talented, caring attorneys, many of them serving in a pro bono capacity, and kind, considerate Assistant Chief Counsel we were able to fit them into “the system” in a variety of ways. Not always, But, most of the time. Those who got to stay were always grateful, gracious, and appreciative.
Even those we had to turn away I hope left with something of value — perhaps an education — and the feeling that they had been treated fairly and with respect, that I had carefully listened and considered their claim to stay, and that I had explained, to the best of my ability, in understandable language, why I couldn’t help them. Being a U.S. Immigration Judge was not an easy job.
Overall, I felt very inspired when I could play a positive role in the lives of these fine young people. “Building America’s future, one life at a time, one case at a time,” as I used to say.