“Quiero ser chef.” “I want to be a chef.” Braulio’s face lit up as he told me this during his legal screening. His cheeks rounded and his eyes brightened as a big smile formed. This was his response to my question, “Why did you leave your country?” In the hundreds of legal screenings I have done, I had not received such a precise, illustrative answer. I felt inspired by his enthusiasm, and I also smiled. The inspiration was replaced by dread fifteen minutes later when I had to mark Braulio’s intake with a “U.” U means unknown relief. U means that according to the information the child has disclosed during the screening, it is not clear that they are eligible for a visa. U means that Braulio’s intake will be put in a pile with others that we do not refer to an attorney once they are released and living in another part of the U.S. while in court proceedings. U means that Braulio will likely be deported. As I write the “U” on the upper corner of his intake, I feel a sinking in my stomach.
Wanting to be a chef, wanting to study or work, wanting to live with a parent or sibling who is already in the U.S., or wanting to escape extreme poverty and hunger is not enough. On intakes like that, I have to write a “U.” And don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of children I meet who are fleeing gang violence, who have been abused by their parents, who have suffered injuries because of working as small children in dangerous conditions. But there are others, like Braulio, who either do not disclose to me, or just honestly haven’t experienced such horrendous traumas. And without that compelling trauma, they are not eligible for any legal relief or any path to potentially stay in the U.S.
This reality makes me feel frustrated, sad, hopeless.
I am frustrated by a legal system that cannot serve Braulio. It is not that legal assistants like me and attorneys do not want to help kids like Braulio; of course we do! But there are so few attorneys and legal teams who are already working tirelessly to help children who DO have a strong case, who have experienced substantial trauma, and, therefore, might have a chance at obtaining a visa. In an overburdened legal system, strong cases must be prioritized. If a child is to receive legal assistance, the sadder, more traumatic the life story, the better!
I am frustrated by policies that do not provide any options for people who are starving, who can no longer make a living due to global environmental and economic factors, or who want to be with family members who are already working in the United States to support their hungry, struggling loved ones back home. It is one thing to understand on paper that economic migration is not authorized, but it is another to look into a smiling child’s eyes when he says, “Quiero ser chef,” and know that he doesn’t stand a chance in this system.
With these immigration policies and these inadequate legal systems, we as a nation are telling Braulio that he is unworthy. He is unworthy to share in what we have and enjoy everyday in this country. He is undeserving of the time and attention of attorneys. Braulio is marked with a U. He is unknown.