Nearly 1 in 4 Students at This L.A. High School Migrated from Central America–Many Without Their Parents

Cindy Carcamo, Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2016

Gaspar Marcos stepped off the 720 bus into early-morning darkness in MacArthur Park after the end of an eight-hour shift of scrubbing dishes in a Westwood restaurant.

He walked toward his apartment, past laundromats fortified with iron bars and scrawled with graffiti, shuttered stores that sold knockoffs and a cook staffing a taco cart in eerie desolation. Around 3 a.m., he collapsed into a twin bed in a room he rents from a family.

Five hours later, he slid into his desk at Belmont High School, just before the bell rang. The 18-year-old sophomore rubbed his eyes and fixed his gaze on an algebra equation.

Minutes ticked by, and others straggled into the class, nine in all. Like Marcos, most had worked a full shift the night before–sewing clothes, cooking in restaurants, painting homes.

Most were immigrants from Central America, part of several waves of more than 100,000 who arrived as children in the U.S. in the past five years without parents, often after perilous journeys.

Many ended up in classrooms throughout the country. In Los Angeles’ Belmont High, nearly 1 in 4 of the school’s estimated 1,000 students came from Central America–many of them as unaccompanied minors.

They crossed the border to reunite with mothers and fathers or to find refuge from unprecedented gang violence at home. {snip}

Belmont Principal Kristen McGregor said it has forced the school to reimagine its role in its students’ lives.

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She first noticed a surge of students from Central America in the spring 2013. Some of the Guatemalan students spoke only indigenous languages, such as Quiche and Mam. She bought a Quiche dictionary. For the hungriest, McGregor turned a bookcase into a food pantry stuffed with canned peas, Sloppy Joe sauce and dried fruit.

When some students ended up homeless, she found places for them to stay.

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Marcos grew up in an indigenous village in Huehuetenango, a poor community where most residents speak Chuj. When he was 5, his mother and father fell ill. There was no doctor in town, and they died.

Orphaned, Marcos was taken in by a neighbor. She kicked him out when he was 12.

“You’re a man now,” she said. “You have to find your own way.”

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Like most children who make the journey to the U.S. without a parent or guardian, a smuggler — often referred to as a coyote–is paid to guide them along the trip.

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He made it to Falfurrias, Texas, where Marcos said he was kidnapped by two men who wanted him to pay $3,000 to let him go.

They spoke only English, and Marcos spoke some Spanish. They used a translation app on a cellphone, he said. Marcos said he was able to negotiate the price down to $1,000. His relative wired the money and bought him a bus ticket to Los Angeles. But immigration officials caught him in Arizona.

He was 13 at the time, so they gave him a notice to appear in immigration court, before releasing him to a half-brother he’d never met. A few months later, the brothers had a falling out, and Marcos struck out on his own.

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Marcos has at least one advantage over some immigrant students: He was able to receive a special immigrant juvenile visa, usually given to children who were found to have been abused, neglected or abandoned by one or both parents. That makes him eligible for legal residency, for which he’s in the process of applying.

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