In the past decade, more than half a million immigrant children have made the journey to the U.S. alone in search of their loved ones, refuge and a shot at their vision of the American dream. But once in the U.S., many of these children end up working hard jobs in exploitative conditions.
In August, the owners and managers of a Virginia company were sentenced to serve prison time for trafficking Central American children and forcing them to work at a commercial laundry overnight. One 13-year-old girl was told she’d be killed if she didn’t work, according to allegations made in court documents.
Earlier this month, a Frontline investigation in partnership with The Public’s Radio found dozens of migrant teens in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who described working long hours cutting heads off salmon, picking bones out of cod, and cleaning lobsters in seafood processing plants in violation of child labor laws.
U.S. lawmakers have held at least a half-dozen hearings on Capitol Hill this year to debate how the U.S. government can protect unaccompanied minors and other immigrant children living in the U.S. from exploitation. Meanwhile, the national headlines continue to focus mainly on the unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors who continue to arrive at the U.S. southern border.
The Center for Public Integrity spoke with Salvadoran author and poet Javier Zamora, 33, earlier this month to learn more about how his journey as an unaccompanied minor shaped his life in the U.S. and what he sees as missing from the debate over immigrant children.
Zamora came to the U.S. alone when he was 9 to reunite with his parents. He published a memoir in 2022 titled “Solito,” which recounts his harrowing journey in a child’s voice.
Zamora’s moving narrative helps illustrate the pain and yearning felt by parents and children separated by borders. It shines a new light on the sacrifices and trauma that countless others have experienced in pursuit of a better life.
*Excerpts of this conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What do you think is missing from the headlines and the debate over unaccompanied minors and immigrant children? What should people know about these children that they might not be hearing?
I think journalists should really be asking themselves, “Who are these stories for?” Because it’s not for us, it’s not for survivors. There’s still this notion that we must show and convince those who don’t know what’s happening at the border. I would disagree and say that everybody [expletive deleted] knows what’s happening at the borders. We know too much!
The feelings from these stories, from these images, have been distilled and squeezed out. It doesn’t matter that you see a dad and his daughter dead on the riverbank; that image really [expletive deleted] me up, and I can’t forget it. It doesn’t matter that that image got thrown around everywhere…nothing changed.
So, I think what is missing is our voices. Those who have lived it; telling people that this country doesn’t treat us right. Those are the things we need to hear now; we’re in a different stage of talking about immigration.
We’re in a stage of taking the mic and giving it to immigrants themselves. Because now we have spent enough time here, now we have tools, now we have learned this language, we have mastered this language, now we have lived in these places and these organizations and these institutions, and so now we have a better understanding of this country not wanting us here.
Q. How did the journey you took to get to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor shape your life?
I think the journey defined my time in the United States. When you get to this country and you’re undocumented and your parents are telling you not to tell anybody how you got here, the first thing you learn is to lie, and lie well, and to hide and hide well.
I went through this deep assimilation period and quickly learned not to speak as much Spanish in public and pretend and tell people that I was born in this country. I want to say ninth grade was my peak assimilation, where I could hide the accent and would tell people that I was born in Marin General Hospital, like most people my age at the time.
During that assimilation period, I wouldn’t even think of El Salvador. I would refuse to talk to my grandparents when they called my mom. I would pretend that I was busy because I didn’t want to be reminded of the trauma, of what had happened, and I didn’t want to be reminded of the distance. It took reading Pablo Neruda and Che Guevara to really make me question what I was doing. When I was 17, I began to process my journey through poetry.
Q. If you had an opportunity, what would you say to the millions of immigrant children who survived the journey north and are living in the U.S.?
I would like to tell them that you can’t run away from your trauma. You can’t run away from loneliness.
For me, the acknowledgment was thanks to my therapist, who is also a child immigrant who came here when she was 4. I didn’t realize that for the 20 years before I met her. I wanted to make what happened to me disappear. I wanted it not to have happened.
I thought I would forget if I didn’t think about it. I think that’s also a very cultural way of dealing with trauma, to think that it’s going to go away, that time can fix everything, that time is going to heal the wound. But that’s not how the brain works.
The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can begin to embark on this journey of acknowledgment. You don’t have to tell anybody, just tell yourself. I would rarely pause and think of the people that helped me get here. And I would rarely pause and think of myself and that little 9-year-old kid. I used to see him as this pathetic, helpless, annoying little kid.
But when you begin to look at yourself and what happened to you, you will find that you are [expletive deleted] amazing. And that you made it here not by luck but because of who you are. And that makes you a strong person and someone that you shouldn’t be ashamed of.
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