Opinion | I Left El Salvador to Protect My Family. It Didn’t Work.

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The morning I left, I awoke at 5:00, bathed and got dressed. All the while, I cried like a small child. I’d cried a lot when my mother died, but this was different. I was worried that something would happen to my sisters when I was gone. My father hugged me. He didn’t want me to see that he was crying. I warmed up some beans and said, “Papá, let’s share a plate of frijoles.” A white car with black windows drove up. A couple of the gang members who had been threatening me walked up to the car. But before they could reach me, I got in and we drove off. Inside the car were the coyote and his helper, who was driving. The coyote wore a dress shirt and black shoes. He’d made this trip many times.

It took us a month to reach the American border. When we arrived in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, I got separated from the coyote and became lost. I had no money, nothing to eat. Three days later, the coyote found me. He took me and another migrant to a bridge to cross. Border guards were checking people on foot, so we grabbed bicycles and rode across. When an officer standing in a booth turned toward us, I ditched the bike and ran. But the border guards on the United States side caught up with me and handcuffed me.

I told them that I’d fled gangs in my country. One agent said in Spanish, “All of them say this!” Another yelled, “We don’t want people like you.” They asked: “Why did you enter this way? Why didn’t you go to another country?” I told them that I had an aunt here and I didn’t have anyone in other countries. I also had two stepbrothers and a stepsister in the United States, but I didn’t have any contact with them at that point. When I told the agents I was 16 years old, they took off my cuffs. Then they took off my belt, my shoes, all my clothes, and searched me.

An officer called my aunt and she confirmed I was her nephew. But after they hung up, they said I was going to a shelter in San Antonio.

The shelter was clean, and the staff made sure that we could play and that we would attend school. As soon as I could, I called my aunt. She said that she couldn’t take me because she wasn’t working and my sponsor had to be able to support me financially. So one of my stepbrothers, whom I knew only from photos and who lived in California, agreed to sponsor me.

The shelter allowed me only a couple of phone calls, so I wasn’t able to talk to my father until a few days later. When I heard his voice, I felt like crying. He fell silent, and then asked if I was safe. He advised me to “hang out with good people you’re going to learn things from.”

I stayed in the shelter for a month. I celebrated my 17th birthday there. Finally, I was sent to live with my stepbrother in California.

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