Guatemalan teen in Detroit recounts escape from violence, poverty

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Detroit – — A surgical scar stretches along Oswaldo Ramos’ forearm where Guatemalan gang members broke it during a violent beating.

It is a constant reminder of the escalating beatings the teen endured for years before fleeing his home in San Marcos, in southwestern Guatemala. The 15-year-old is safe for the moment, living in his sister’s southwest Detroit home for the past three months.

His friend, also 15, was not as fortunate.

“He was kidnapped by gang members after leaving his girlfriend’s house,” Oswaldo said through interpreter Jose Alvarenga, 23, an undocumented student from San Pedro Sula, Honduras, who is taking up the cause of unaccompanied minors through the activist group, By Any Means Necessary.

“First they sent a fingernail to his parents for ransom, then a finger, and finally, they killed him when the parents could not pay the one-half million dollars ransom,” Oswaldo said.

“It was hurtful and scary not to see my friend any more, and I knew if I stayed in Guatemala, it would happen to me,” he added.

Oswaldo is one of the thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who are seeking asylum from their native countries. The teen, who arrived in Detroit three months ago, could be deported and faces a hearing before an immigration judge Oct. 16.

The teen fled the family home on April 2, without telling his parents. To earn money to pay for his planned escape into the United States, he worked a 12-hour, $6-a-day job picking coffee beans on a plantation in southern Mexico for about a month and a half. It is the same plantation his family often worked seasonally. “I ... left before the season ended so they’d think I was still there,” he said.

Oswaldo soon will be joined by dozens of other detained youth from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, who are bound for Wellspring Lutheran Services campuses in Farmington Hills and Bay City next month, and to Vassar, where a Grosse Pointe Park charity has proposed taking in 60 children.

A local immigration rights activist calls the plight of the Central American children a humanitarian crisis.

“These refugee children are not coming here for better jobs — they are coming for a chance to live,” said Samantha Magdaleno, an organizer with One Michigan.

That is why many of the children are alone, and traveling unaccompanied by their parents, she added.

“They know their kids will face a dangerous journey filled with threats such as dying from dehydration, starvation or being abducted,” Magdaleno said. “Still, the conditions in their home countries are so bad that they feel this high risk is better than keeping them in their home country.”

But many U.S.citizens don’t want the children here.

Protests nationwide, including a demonstration in Vassar, have been held seeking to bar the children from settling in the United States.

The issue has drawn the attention of U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, vice chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Committee and chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security. Miller, R-Harrison Township, said she is concerned about efforts within the U.S. goverment to help the immigrants find housing. She sent a letter July 11 to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services requesting information about the agency’s efforts to house the children in Michigan.

She said she has not received a response.

Miller has co-sponsored legislation that “would prevent HHS from housing illegal unaccompanied children in non-federal facilities without first consulting with state and local leaders.”

“I strongly believe that local communities deserve to know how this humanitarian crisis is going to impact them, and I believe that it is the responsibility of this administration to tell them,” she said.

Oswaldo wasn’t thinking about how his presence would affect area residents during his journey north to Metro Detroit.

“I’d start work at about 5 a.m. and work till around 6 p.m. picking coffee beans to fill 100-to-150-pound bags,” he said. “I already had a little money saved, and I worked at the coffee plantation for about a month and a half to save enough for my trip.”

After earning enough money, he bought a bus ticket to Mexicali. But after leaving the bus, he said he became disoriented and wandered across the border where he was picked up by U.S. border patrol officials. He was detained for three days in a San Diego jail and then transferred to a youth center in San Diego.

“The officials at the youth center called my sister to tell them I was in the country, and she then called our parents,” he said.

“I was very sad when I got caught because I was worried that they would send me right back,” he added.

Oswaldo said his parents knew about the constant gang beatings, but could not prevent them.

“They’d tell me not to go outside, but I wanted to hang out with my friends after school and not stay in the house like a prisoner,” he said.

Oswaldo, who has five siblings, said he now tries to talk to his parents every week.

“I want to try to help them out so they can get away and move somewhere safer,” he said. He has been working on landscaping jobs with his brother-in-law until school begins next week, where he will be attending Cesar Chavez Academy, near his sister’s home in southwest Detroit.

Magdaleno said Oswaldo and other unaccompanied minors should not be turned away.

“This is a humanitarian crisis,” she said. “Anyone with a heart needs to be willing to help these refugee children. How can anyone knowingly send refugee children back to the murder capital of the world?”

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