Undocumented immigrants in Baltimore seek refuge in soccer

The Patterson High School soccer player pulled off his hoodie to reveal a dark blue jersey bearing the name of Neymar, his favorite player, and joined his teammates on the sunny practice field.

While the jersey offers the 17-year-old a connection, if mostly in his dreams, to the Brazilian superstar, the sport itself provides the undocumented immigrant from Guatemala something more tangible: a respite from anxiety at a time of stepped-up immigration enforcement.

“Maybe they can separate me from my mother. That makes me afraid,” said the player, who asked to be identified only as Duglas because of his immigration status.

President Donald J. Trump has called for more aggressive immigration enforcement to reduce the numbers of undocumented immigrants in the nation, estimated by the Pew Research Center at 11.3 million people in 2016.

Fear of arrest or deportation among illegal immigrants is particularly evident in the area’s soccer communities. The world’s most popular sport, it attracts players who grew up playing the game in other countries, and consider the sport part of their cultural heritage.

“We’ve noticed a trend of lots of anxiety or fear,” said Casey Thomas, director of the Baltimore office of Soccer Without Borders.

The international nonprofit helps refugees and other immigrants acclimate to the United States through the sport. The Baltimore program has 350 participants — boys and girls, most in grades 6 through 12.

Since some families are split among members who are in the country legally and those in the country illegally, Thomas said, “a large or looming stress is worrying about whether their parents, uncles or grandparents are going to be there when they get home.”

The program includes refugees from Syria and other countries. Some spent extended periods in resettlement camps before making their way into the United States.

Owing partly to its location in the densely populated Washington-to-New York corridor and a reputation among immigrants for being affordable, Baltimore is a landing spot for many families fleeing strife in their home countries or seeking better educational or job opportunities in the United States.

Baltimore schools serve about 1,700 immigrants — students born outside the country who have been in U.S. schools less than three years. The figure accounts for 2.1 percent of the total enrollment, according to a recent analysis conducted for the school system.

More than 1,400 Baltimore students were born in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala or the Dominican Republic. There is no available breakdown on how many are undocumented.

Soccer Without Borders, which receives funding from local foundations, individual donors and other sources, organizes sessions to listen to local immigrants and advise them of their rights. Earlier this year, Thomas said, she accompanied an undocumented 16-year-old boy from Honduras on a check-in with immigration authorities. The boy didn’t have an attorney.

Many of the youths endured “traumatic journeys” coming to the United States, Thomas said, and now are subject to bullying or isolation at their Baltimore schools. She said the program offers them “the opportunity to play — to have a space where they can be crazy and rambunctious,” and act like kids.

Mohamed, a 16-year-old Syrian refugee, said he spent four years in a resettlement camp in Turkey before arriving legally in the United States last December. He asked to be identified by only his first name because he and the program didn’t want him singled out. He hopes to go to college and one day become a nurse.

“We have, like, family” in Soccer Without Borders, he said.

In Southeast Baltimore, home to many of the immigrants in Soccer Without Borders’ program, concerns spiked this summer after authorities arrested Lizandro Claros-Saravia, a high school soccer player in Montgomery County. He was deported to El Salvador in August.

Claros-Saravia, 19, had a scholarship to play soccer at Louisburg College in North Carolina. He and his brother, Diego Claros-Saravia, 22, were arrested in July at what they believed what would be a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Baltimore, their legal adviser said.

Brett Colton coached Claros-Saravia on the Bethesda Soccer Club.

“I got a text from one of my players the day after he had been detained saying, ‘Did you hear what happened to Lizandro?’ ” he said.

Colton said the deportation rattled other undocumented players.

“There is a tremendous amount of anxiety,” he said. “Now that this is out there, there is a reality that they could have the same fate.”

Colton, who spoke with Claros-Saravia before he was deported, called him “a fantastic kid. I think he missed two practices in four years — when he had multiple exams the same day.”

There were hugs and tears in July as his soccer teammates and their family members protested the arrest outside the Department of Homeland Security headquarters in Washington.

“Stop Separating Families,” one protester’s sign read.

ICE officials said the brothers were caught by Customs and Border Protection at a New York airport in 2009 “attempting to fraudulently use a Guatemalan passport and visa under a different identity.”

The brothers didn’t have criminal records. Officials say they were granted stays in 2013 that allowed them to remain in the country for another year. But subsequent stays were denied, and deportation officers instructed them to purchase tickets to leave the country.

ICE said it focuses its enforcement on national security, border security and threats to public safety. But officials also said that anyone in violation of immigration laws can be arrested and possibly deported.

The pair arrived in the United States too late to qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protected hundreds of thousands of people who were brought to the country as children from deportation. The Trump administration has rescinded the program, effective next March.

“There was no consideration given to the humanitarian factor,” said Nick Katz, senior manager of legal services at CASA and an adviser to the brothers. “The reality is we’re seeing across the board mothers deported, people who have been here 20 years deported.”

Those who know the brothers say they left El Salvador this fall to attend the Nicaraguan campus of an American college.

Trump made his pledges to remove undocumented immigrants, end DACA and build a wall on the Southwest border central during his presidential campaign last year. Supporters lauded his toughness on the issue.

The international soccer players at Patterson High School were paying attention to Trump, said Dan Callahan, coach of the varsity boys soccer team.

“I know with some of the kids there was that anxiety with the policy changes and the travel ban and all the ICE stuff that was happening,” Callahan said. “Kids were talking about it.”

A recent practice included a spirited, small-sided game — meaning the field was shorter than the regulation pitch, and there were fewer than 11 on a side.

Patterson doesn’t have practice jerseys, so players wore their own jerseys, shorts or sweats. They argued good-naturedly and generally acted like teenagers.

“When we’re playing a real game I don’t like them to kind of be showboats,” Callahan said. “And so they have to play more like a team. But these games they like to show their friends up and dribble between their legs and that kind of stuff. It’s an outlet for them.”

Duglas said he arrived in the United States in 2015.

On the field, he said, his worries recede.

“When I play soccer, I forget everything,” he said.

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