San Antonio Tragedy is also a Story of Hope & Resilience

I joined the Young Center’s San Antonio program as a staff attorney in January 2017, less than a year after graduating law school. Not surprisingly, whenever there’s a national news story about immigration—especially one involving children—my family and friends text me, call, or send news links to my Facebook page. So on Monday, July 24, 2017, I awoke to messages from friends and family across the country. They had heard the news that more than ten migrants died after being abandoned in a trailer truck in San Antonio. I assured them that not only did I know of the tragedy, but that I was certain I’d have some opportunity to contribute and help through my role at the Young Center.

The previous day, a close friend who is an immigration attorney had alerted me to the unfolding crisis and sent me a link to the story, much like this one http://cnn.it/2wRfc6V.  What I read really hit me. To be honest, I had to stop reading the article and do something else.  At the Young Center, where we deal with extremely difficult cases on a day-to-day basis, I’ve learned to recognize when I am feeling emotionally overwhelmed and to take the time and space I need to compose my thoughts and feelings. So that is exactly what I did that Sunday morning.

But, the next day, my Young Center colleagues and I jumped into action. We soon learned that authorities had rescued children from the truck and transferred them to government custody in San Antonio. My colleague Bessie Munoz and I contacted the directors of each shelter so that we could be appointed as Child Advocates. Why? We knew these children had been severely traumatized. They needed advocates to champion their best interests—to ensure that every decision made by the government would honor and safeguard the children’s health, safety, and well-being. In particular, the children needed advocates who would push for their swift release to family members in the U.S.

In just a few days, the federal government appointed me to serve as Child Advocate to multiple children who had been rescued from the trailer truck in San Antonio, including Jorge.* I’ve worked on many cases at the Young Center, but the nervousness I experienced as I waited to meet Jorge for the first time reminded me of my very first Case Assignment meeting as a Young Center attorney; I was unsure of just what would happen but knew I had to step up and be present.  When Jorge entered the office with his inquisitive gaze and eager smile, I knew I would get through the visit. I left the shelter with a renewed belief in humanity. This boy had been through an experience I could never imagine, trapped for hours in a hot unventilated trailer, seeing people die, not knowing whether he would be rescued. But Jorge had a positive energy that was infectious. He spoke of his family and how desperately he wanted to be with them, but he was patient and understood he’d have to wait. Despite all he’d been through, he welcomed me into his life, sharing bits of his story with me as we got to know one another, and as I advocated for his quick and safe release to his family.

I am humbled on a daily basis by all of the kids we work with—their tenacity, their openness, or in some cases, their careful and thoughtful approach to working with new adults in a new country. But my very first meeting with Jorge was unique because of Jorge’s absolute insistence on positive thinking. His focus was on being with his family—where he knew he’d be safe.

Just a couple of weeks after our first meeting, Jorge was released from government custody and reunified with his family. As relieved as we were with that development, we recognized that there is still so much advocacy for us to do on Jorge’s behalf. Although he is with family, he is still in removal proceedings. Thankfully, an attorney has determined that he is eligible for legal protection from deportation. In the coming weeks and months, we will do our level best to advocate with immigration authorities and persuade them to grant Jorge a visa. A visa is necessary to safeguard Jorge’s long-term safety and well-being; in sum, legal permission to remain in the U.S. is in Jorge’s best interests.

I’m grateful and proud of the fact that Jorge trusted me and the work I was there to do, that he opened up about what he wanted and his hopes and dreams for his future. The time we spent together, although short, made such an impact on me.

Staff Attorney and Child Advocate, Young Center San Antonio Office

*Pseudonym.