[Some names and identifying details have been changed.]
Giovani is 17, from El Salvador, and came to the United States alone in December, making him one of tens of thousands of Central American minors who have crossed the Rio Grande unaccompanied this year. He is lanky and tall, with a hard stare but a fast smile. Giovani left El Salvador twice, with the help of a coyote, traveling by bus through Mexico. The first time, he was detained by Mexican authorities in a hotel raid, and placed in a facility for two weeks until they were able to reunite him with family back home. The second time, he found himself alone in the Texas scrub, not knowing which way to go, and so he turned himself in to Border Patrol agents. After a brief detention in Texas, he took his first plane ride to Chicago. When the plane landed, he broke from the pack of children on the runway to touch the fresh snow on the ground, the first he had ever seen.
But Giovani’s journey had its origins in 1998, when his mother, Maria, left El Salvador to escape her boyfriend, a violent man who regularly hit her and stopped her from working. Maria is a tired-looking woman in her early 40s. A server at a restaurant, she has spent endless hours on her feet in low-paying jobs.
After realizing that she could not make ends meet in El Salvador, Maria took Giovani, then 18 months, and his brother to their grandmother’s, mortgaged her home, and used the money to get to the United States, which she says was a difficult choice, especially as it meant leaving her children. She describes the fifteen-hour walk through the desert as difficult but bearable, especially compared to where she ended up: Kansas City in the middle of winter. There was snow everywhere, and the desert had only been one link from a hard life to another.
Maria’s trip came at the tail end of a wave of Central American migration to the United States, when civil wars had engulfed the region. In the 1980s and early 1990s, as right-wing governments battled leftist rebels in Guatemala and El Salvador, and a leftist government battled right-wing rebels in Nicaragua, hundreds of thousands were displaced. As many as 1 million Central Americans fled to the United States. Then, as now, some demonized the newcomers as invaders, while others urged that they be recognized as refugees.
During the 1980s, asylum lawyers faced the challenge of convincing immigration judges that violence was actually taking place in Central America. The Reagan administration, fighting the last decade of the Cold War, was doing its best to keep the brutality of US-allied governments out of the news. The State Department, which weighed in on most asylum cases, would deny widely documented massacres. In El Mozote, El Salvador, where government death squads raped and slaughtered as many as 900 people, the State Department reported that nothing had happened. During the height of the genocide in Guatemala, President Reagan told reporters that the dictatorship had gotten a “bum rap” on human rights.