NEW BEDFORD — A small cross dangled from a black bracelet made of string on the wrist of a New Bedford High School senior set to graduate. It’s a reminder of the strong Catholic faith the student brought with her from Central America.
The student is undocumented. Her goal is to get her diploma and go to college, but due to her status, she doesn’t qualify for financial aid.
The young woman is among over 2,000 students at New Bedford High School. Roughly 45 percent of those high school students are English language learners, and like this student, a portion of those ELLs are undocumented.
On top of facing all that comes with being in the country without papers, the student has also faced verbal and sexual abuse, as well as homelessness. She lives with the resulting trauma.
This is where Immigrants’ Assistance Center’s Liz Lozada comes in. With an office at the high school, she manages a caseload of 30 students in addition to helping other students.
The 30 students are those Lozada has worked with since they’ve come to New Bedford High; 12 of them graduated June 7. These are students she sees on a continual basis. Outside of her caseload, she’ll also help other students however many times they need her. She’s worked with over 200 students since 2014, she said.
The majority of the students Lozada helps are English language learners, although she’s helped others too. She usually sees students who are unaccompanied, undocumented and at risk of dropping out. The students have dealt with trauma, violence, a poor educational background and language barriers, such as three New Bedford High seniors interviewed for this story.
There are 685 English language learners at the high school, according to Sonia Walmsley, executive director of educational access and pathways for New Bedford Public Schools. ELL students include those born in the U.S. who have been exposed to languages other than English and require language support to access instructional content.
The district doesn’t keep data on undocumented students, but Immigrants’ Assistance Center Executive Director Helena DaSilva Hughes estimated there are between 8,000 to 10,000 undocumented people in New Bedford. At the high school, 55 of 204 homeless students are considered to be unaccompanied but not all of them are immigrants.
The program for Students with Limited or Interrupted Formal Education (SLIFE) has been in the district for three years. A program called Newcomers helps immigrants transition to the American school system.
There are also grant funded summer programs for ELL students in the district and after school opportunities, including on Saturdays, for language support and MCAS preparation.
Lozada’s job goes beyond helping students and includes helping connect families to resources. Some students and their families aren’t aware that they have to come to school in order to have a good immigration case. Otherwise they are at risk for deportation, she said.
“Surviving and working are the priorities for the majority of immigrant families,” said Lozada, who tries to make both students and their families aware of the importance of education.
Thanks to secured funding, Lozada will be able to continue her work at the high school for more than the next two fiscal years. According to DaSilva Hughes, the program received $5,000 from the Grimshaw Gudewicz Foundation, $50,000 from an anonymous donor and over $26,000 raised by the Morrissey family band, Morrissey Blvd.
“Some of the students come here with no hope,” when they first get to the high school and then they graduate with high honors, Lozada said. “Seeing that, it’s definitely the best part of my job. They come here to succeed and I want to help them accomplish that.”
Here are stories of three students from Lozada’s caseload.
“My goal is to be an FBI agent,” said Alma Menjivar, 19. This summer, she plans to do an internship in the criminal justice field after her June 7 graduation from New Bedford High School. She has also earned a few scholarships and a National Honors Society medal along the way.
Menjivar had planned to apply to become a police cadet, but learned she needs to be a U.S. resident so that will have to wait.
She came to the United States legally from El Salvador in February of 2015 when she was 16 years old.
“I didn’t know a word in English, not even how to say ‘Hi,’” she said.
She took multiple English as a Second Language (ESL) classes and transferred out of that program at the beginning of senior year, instead taking Advanced Placement literature, statistics and honors chemistry.
Menjivar attributes learning English quickly to doing the work given, paying attention and asking questions and talking to people. She also got help from teachers and attended a free summer program at the high school to better learn.
“I’ve always wanted to go to college, especially because I’m going to be the first one in the family,” she said on a recent May afternoon.
“It’s something I have to do.”
Menjivar’s stepfather went to school until ninth grade and her mother only until second grade because she had to work. Both work in the New Bedford fish houses.
Menjivar herself doesn’t currently have a job, but she takes the bus home from school to take care of her 12-year-old sister.
She plans to apply for college next spring, she said, when she expects to have her permanent residency, or Green Card. She’s currently here on a Visa and has been told that doesn’t qualify her for financial aid.
When the time comes, Menjivar plans to attend Bristol Community College for two years and then transfer to a four-year school to study criminal justice.
Members of Menjivar’s family had traveled to the U.S. before her, resulting in her being separated from her mother and sister for four years.
“It was really hard,” she admitted.
She moved around a few times, to different homes of family members in El Salvador.
“I used to be at home every day and never go out,” she said. “It was basically a prison.”
For two years, she was told by family that she couldn’t go to school, explaining it wasn’t safe due to gangs in El Salvador, she said.
“They have to find a way to guide themselves,” Lozada said, about students like Menjivar who have to navigate figuring out how to get to college. “In her case, it’s been like that since the beginning.”
“Now that I’m here, I have discovered that I can do a lot,” she said, not only for herself, but for her family and community.
Elmer Suarcalel, 18, lives in a New Bedford apartment with a friend, takes the bus to school and then gets a ride to and from work at a Fairhaven restaurant at 4 p.m.
He recently found out that he didn’t pass the science and English MCAS test due to his language barrier and because of that has more work to do until he can get his diploma, he said through Lozada who translated his Spanish.
His goal is to get his high school diploma and hopefully move on to college to become an engineer, but he’s responsible for his expenses.
Suarcalel obtained his Green Card at the beginning of the year. With his two sisters, he came to the U.S. in 2015 from Guatemala, illegally crossing the border with the help of a “coyote,” someone paid to assist them.
“The journey over here wasn’t easy because we got robbed, everything we had got stolen, and we were kidnapped … I thought we were going to die,” Suarcalel said. “Because there in Mexico are groups that will kill you if you don’t give them what they want. And they are really bad; they cussed a lot. I thought to myself, ‘This is the end,’ and I was really scared.”
Their coyote was kidnapped, too. They gave up everything they had and were let go. It was enough to make Saurcalel consider turning back to Guatemala, but seeking more opportunities in the United States he went on, with his two sisters, 13 and 17.
After being detained, he said he and his sisters were taken to what he described as a house in Texas. People there welcomed them and said they were there to help.
“At that point, I felt a huge relief,” he said. They kept busy with activities which helped them forget about what they went through, although they were supervised and had to form lines to get food, take showers and go to the bathroom.
Eventually, they landed in Logan Airport in Boston.
Coming to the U.S. wasn’t what he expected though. He faced abuse and homelessness.
At 15, he started working at a scallop company while going to school.
He found a temporary escape in going to church with his sisters. He’d confide in people at church who’d encourage him to keep going, he said. At one point, with a friend he was able to rent a small room from a churchgoer.
“It’s still extremely difficult,” he said.
However, now that he has his Green Card, Suarcalel said he isn’t afraid to be in the U.S. and feels free.
He’s on the National Honors Society, goes to school on Saturdays to learn more English, he’s a part of youth groups at church and likes to play soccer.
“When one wants things, one has to fight and one can,” he said. “Because first comes the storm, and after the storm comes a tranquility.”
The undocumented student is an 18-year-old young woman who graduated June 7, and due to the sensitivity of her case, The Standard-Times has omitted her name.
Her dark brown hair was pulled back in a bun. She wore a floral shirt, black pants and tan sandals.
Since she can’t go to school, she’s working on getting a job and using a certified nursing assistant certificate that she earned from Bristol Community College through a dual enrollment program. She’s looked for a job, but has been told she can’t be hired because she doesn’t have a social security number.
“I had an opportunity to take care of someone,” she said in Spanish, later translated by Denisse Pumagualle of The Standard-Times. “But when they heard I didn’t have my social, they said, ‘Then you are not legal here; therefore, we can’t give you the job.’”
Last summer, she cleaned houses for work and was paid under the table. But after the employer found out she did not have a work permit, she could not get the job again.
Health insurance is another problem.
“And, I can’t take care of my health, and I can’t even do that because then I get a bill of $200 and I am not working since I am only studying. And, I have missed school trying to fix this situation,” she said, describing complications with her state MassHealth insurance coverage.
The New Bedford High graduate came to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2015, a month before she turned 16 years old. She’s in the process of getting the documents she needs to be legal but her case is complicated.
She said she wanted to come here to meet family and get an education and doesn’t want to end up working in a fish house like her mother.
“Now, I do know some English and understand it. I would like to find jobs, I don’t know, doing other things where I can practice my English and involve myself in this country more, because that’s why I came here for. That’s what I want,” she said.
The young woman said she feels excluded when there are events involving opportunities to go to college, since she’s unable to go. She’s also faced homelessness, violence, sexual abuse and bullying and rejection, she said.
Undocumented immigrants who are working off the books are sometimes looked down upon, she said. In one instance, she wasn’t paid for overtime. “Sometimes people take advantage of that. I have lived it. Since I don’t have papers, they pay you little and sometimes they humiliate you,” she said.
The student said she goes to church four times a week and has found some support there. She always leaves feeling better and fulfilled, she said.
“I’ve always felt at peace at church. I’ve felt a lot of supernatural things. Then, I simply go there because if I feel low; then I feel better by the time I leave church.”
This article originally appeared on SouthCoastToday.com on June 16, 2018
You can see the original article here