The U.S. Tries to Deport Not Protect Children Fleeing Violence in Central America
"We have too many footprints all over these countries for us not to take some -- not all -- the responsibility [in this] humanitarian refugee crisis," says Linda Green, director for the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona.
Green sees historical complicity because the U.S. government financially supported oppressive regimes in Central America during the "dirty wars" of the 1980s.
She was an anthropologist in Guatemala during the U.S.-funded counter-insurgency.
Central America still is coping with the aftermath of the massacres and abuses of that period, which spawned drug trafficking and gangs, she says. Extreme poverty also is the result of free-trade agreements with the U.S. that put farmers out of work, she adds.
In a way, the children's arrival from Central America is a positive story, she believes.
"They are coming out of hope," Green says. "It is against all odds."
With a brand-new green card and his 18th birthday behind him, Peña had to leave the children's shelter in November.
Local activist Jason Odhner invited Peña into his home after a call from one of the youth's attorneys.
"He seemed a bit frightened of me and the situation, not quite sure what comes next," Odhner says.
But Odhner, who speaks Spanish and travels often to Central America to do humanitarian work, has had experience with kids like Peña in the past year. Their presence quickly painted a grim picture of need and despair, and Peña's wasn't any different.
"He really, really wanted to belong somewhere," Odhner says. "He tried so hard to fit in. He tried so hard to be an adult because he was sort of on his own and because in so many ways, he was a kid."
After three months, Peña found a job at the McDonald's and a transitional dorm for people his age.
He enrolled in school, too. (Public school is available to all youth regardless of their immigration status.)
He promised that if he made money, he would donate to the children in need of cleft-palate surgery whom he used to see in TV ads aired in Honduras. It's called Proyecto Sonrisas, or Operation Smile, and he's already donated.
"They don't have a life like us, because they don't have a smile. Instead, God gave me one when he took me from the hands of death," he says. "I feel good. I did something good."
It's all been much easier than the life he had in Honduras. But it has been difficult in other ways.
His life now is split between the commute to school and work.
Early in the morning, he takes a bus, then the light rail to summer school. He's part of a special program that teaches English as a second language. He goes to a Central High School program that feels like a mini-United Nations. Most of Peña's classmates are refugee children from places like Myanmar and Somalia.
He's been told it might take him three years to finish high school. Then, he wants to go to college to be a journalist or a nurse's assistant.
Peña wants to be perfect. So perfect that he got frustrated when his summer school English teacher put red marks on his homework. He approached her and told her she should not have done that to his work.
"But the following day he came back and apologized," his teacher, Jane Geary, recalls. "That is very unusual because teenagers don't come back the following day and say: 'I'm very sorry, Miss.'"
She's noticed that Peña often is tired in class. Between work and school, she observes, "that doesn't give you a lot of time to be a teenager."
At the place where he lives, staff keeps track of his time. He has to check in and check out. Most kids there don't have much experience dealing with adult figures in their lives. And it's hard for Peña, too, when one of the caseworkers grounds him if he comes home too late. He must follow the rules, like going to school and working. There are chores, too.
And there are the headaches, which hurt more in the afternoon. There are issues buried deep in those headaches that he doesn't want to talk about.
"What happened to me -- I don't wish it on my worse enemy," he says tearfully.
That's why he wants his siblings to move from where they live.
"I hate that place. I hate that place where my family comes from," he says. He thinks about his sister, who soon will turn 15.
He relates some of his story as if telling it will make it stop playing in his head. He's sitting in a Salvadoran restaurant (because he hasn't been able to find a Honduran restaurant) in Central Phoenix. A young girl about his age refills his water glass. She is curious and outgoing.
Turns out, she goes to Peña's school. She has a group of friends who do volunteer work in a hospital. She wants to have his phone number so she can invite him to join. She's from El Salvador. She knows how it goes, she says -- how difficult it is when you first arrive.
He smiles at her, carefully, as if it hurts a bit, showing the little spaces between his pointy, sparkly teeth. He gives her his phone number.
She smiles and walks away, a bounce in her step.