By Alice Kenny
Fifteen years old, hungry and alone, Elvis Garcia hitched rides, scrambled atop freight trains, and dragged himself through deserts for 1,200 miles to reach his promised land, the United States.
His native Honduras had turned into a wasteland where teenage gangs held shootouts on village streets. Nearly half the nation’s full-time workers earn less than the minimum wage. Many work full time yet earn just $5 per day. Children have little to do but play pick-up soccer games with deflated balls. Many parents are MIA, some raped and killed, others fleeing in search of better lives.
Now, after nine years that included 49 days in a stifling El Paso, Texas detention center, helping hands from strangers and success in school and on the soccer field, Elvis counts himself among the lucky. Once an unaccompanied, undocumented minor, Elvis today is a U.S. citizen. He graduated from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. And he now works as a Catholic Charities Immigration and Refugee Services case manager and part-time soccer coach for a team of U.S. citizens and undocumented teens.
Elvis’ experience as a former unaccompanied minor and now a mentor to them offers a rare glimpse into challenges faced, possibilities for life-transforming success or abject failure and how help as small as a soccer ball or as big as legal team can make all the difference.
“In a nation that prides itself on the fact that everyone accused of a crime – murderers, rapists – has a right to a lawyer, undocumented immigrants, even when they are unaccompanied children, are not entitled to a public defender,” writes reporter Sonia Nazario in The New York Times. “These children – some as young as 2 years old – have no one to help them.”
Well, not no one. Fortunately for Elvis, a family he met agreed to sponsor him towards citizenship. And fortunately for a growing group of a young New Yorkers, Catholic Charities is stepping in to offer comprehensive support. Its immigration and refugee services staff helps apprehended unaccompanied children. They provide free legal representation. They offer case management support. And now, through a growing medical-legal partnership, they look out for the whole child, from giving needed immunizations to offering sports and a social life that help children stay in school and out of trouble.
Elvis is part of the team of Catholic Charities immigration specialists that provide this support. And while he values the key case management services he offers these lonely unaccompanied teens, some of his favorite, most valuable hours, he says, are the ones he spends volunteering each week coaching Saturday Soccer with teens from the Medical-Legal Partnership Immigrant Youth Clinic.
A joint partnership between Catholic Charities and Montefiore Hospital Community Pediatrics Children’s Health Programs, the clinic provides free medical, legal and mental health services to unaccompanied immigrant youth in the Bronx, regardless of immigration status. The program has now expanded to include Saturday Soccer through a partnership with South Bronx United, a non-profit in the South Bronx dedicated to fostering social change and academic achievement on and off the soccer field.
“Like me, a lot of these kids came to this country with no knowledge of the language and culture,” Elvis says as he kicks a ball on the team’s soccer field near Yankee Stadium in the South Bronx. “Soccer is something we know, something we did every day. Soccer is something we can relate to where everything else is new and different.”