Central American teens who landed in Baltimore find legal limbo and heartbreak

Exel Estrada, left, and his younger sister Lizbeth Estrada wait on Lombard Street for the bus to Patterson High School in May.
Exel Estrada, left, and his younger sister Lizbeth Estrada wait on Lombard Street for the bus to Patterson High School in May. (Amy Davis)

Every day after school, he was in a rush. Exel Estrada would run into his Highlandtown rowhouse, pull off his Patterson High School uniform and throw on a pair of bleach-splattered black pants and an old Ravens shirt. He had barely enough time to catch the bus to his cleaning job at a public elementary school.


While other teenagers were doing homework or playing sports last winter, Exel, 17, maneuvered the vacuum over the ABC's of a green kindergarten carpet, working as hard as he could to please his boss. He figured the job was temporary. The supervisors knew Exel was undocumented and had given him a chance, but if he couldn't eventually produce a Social Security card, he would be fired.

At shift's end, around 9 or 10 p.m., Exel would shove open the school doors, his feet aching, and head into the freezing night. Dinner was a bowl of cornflakes. His homework had to wait for the moments he could fit it in: the bus ride to school, a 20-minute free period, lunch or a slow moment during class. Around midnight, exhausted, he crawled into his bed.


This has been his life since he was about 9 years old, growing up poor and mostly alone in Guatemala. Work came first; education was squeezed in around the edges. He longed for that to change.

Thousands of teenagers like Exel have made their way to the United States in the last few years, fleeing violence and poverty in Central American countries. They journeyed hundreds of treacherous miles without adults, dodging those who might rob, rape or kidnap them. Once they crossed the border, many — like Exel — were quickly captured and detained, then sent to live with relatives.

As they wait for their cases to come before a federal immigration judge, they live in legal limbo. For them, nothing is easy, and little is certain. The parents they carried in their hearts during years apart seem like strangers. They struggle to learn English and keep up in school — sometimes after little formal education — while working to help support their families.

A lifetime is at stake: If they can't overcome the forces working against them, these teens will lose the dream of a foothold in the middle class. They'll wind up in low-wage jobs, living in the shadows.

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More than 5,300 teenagers have arrived in Maryland in the past two years, mostly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. They are everywhere: behind counters serving ice cream, cleaning schools and working in construction. Yet they often feel invisible.

Not since a century ago, when thousands of immigrants unloaded every week from ships in Locust Point, have so many immigrants made Maryland their home — nearly 850,000, or roughly 14 percent of the population.

This latest wave has helped reignite the long-running debate about immigration policy. Some political leaders argue that these and 11 million other immigrants who are here illegally cost taxpayers millions for education and health care and should be deported. Others are calling for construction of an impenetrable wall along the Mexican border.

Baltimore leaders, meanwhile, see an opportunity for economic growth. They believe the city's future is tied to the trajectories of these new arrivals. Immigrants are making their way to Highlandtown, stabilizing neighborhoods and opening new ventures in empty storefronts. They're also filling empty classrooms in a school system that lost 25,000 students in two decades. In just seven months last school year, the city added 1,000 foreign-born students.

For Exel, the journey north was born from a simple calculation: He saw people living without purpose, surrounded by danger and poverty. "It's not like [the United States]. People don't get opportunities," Exel said. "You think your life can be better."

A mother and son: strangers

When Exel arrived in the United States in September 2013, his mother was just a memory. She had left their home in Guatemala to find work here when he was 8, and he hadn't seen her in years. He had survived a tough journey to the border, followed by a month of detention in Texas, and finally, after permission from the court, a plane flight to Baltimore to be reunited with her.

Exel's Journey

At BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, he walked past her without a flicker of recognition. Then he heard her call his childhood name, "Ariel. Ariel." She hugged him, and they both began crying.

Their first meal together in an Eastern Avenue restaurant was delicious. Having not eaten much that day, he gobbled down a cold-cut sub with French fries. His mother was warm. They were glad to be back together even if they really didn't know one another.

"I was really happy," said Exel's mother, describing seeing the skinny teenager with a serious expression and soulful brown eyes. (Because she is in the country illegally, she would not allow The Sun to identify her.) "I left him so small, and he was so big."

For the first several weeks, they got along well, but then the relationship deteriorated. There was little time to be together, because she cleaned hotel rooms downtown five days a week and put in extra hours cleaning houses. When she was at home, Exel felt her attention was focused on siblings he hadn't even known about — a much younger half-brother and half-sister born in the United States.

Exel felt pushed aside. He felt his mother didn't appreciate how hard it had been for him, how abandoned he felt after she left Guatemala.

Exel Estrada, far left, at his mother's rowhouse with, from left, his cousin Derick (green shirt), half-brother Edgar, his mother, and half-sister Jemima, who were getting ready for school. Exel reunited with his mother, who left Guatemala before him, but some tension developed between them.
Exel Estrada, far left, at his mother's rowhouse with, from left, his cousin Derick (green shirt), half-brother Edgar, his mother, and half-sister Jemima, who were getting ready for school. Exel reunited with his mother, who left Guatemala before him, but some tension developed between them. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

His mother believed she had sacrificed to come to America, worked long hours and sent money back to her family so they would have a better life. She and the extended family had paid smugglers more than $7,000 to bring Exel and his 15-year-old sister, Lizbeth, who came at different times, to the United States. As in the case of many Latino immigrant families, the teens worked after school to help pay back a portion of that money.

"The only issue is that they have raised themselves, practically," Exel's mother said through an interpreter. "Sometimes I don't like their attitude, and I try to correct them, and they say I don't have the right to correct them."

All the pent-up anger came out one night. Exel's mother wanted to teach her children that she was in charge, and that Lizbeth didn't have the right to go out when she wanted. She took Lizbeth's cellphone away from her. Exel shouted at her.

"I told him, 'Shut up!' I grabbed the belt. I wanted him to see I was not playing, and that I had the right to punish him," Exel's mother recalled, adding that she never intended to use it. A fight broke out, and she was hit with the cord from a cellphone charger. She called the police, then told them she didn't want her children charged.

Such fractured relationships are being repeated for thousands of Latino parents and their recently arrived teens from Central America. Reuniting is so fraught with tension that the parents sometimes wind up kicking their children out, or the children leave on their own.

They are strangers.

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"They are strangers," said Robin Hamby, the family partnerships specialist in the public schools of Fairfax County, Va., which was hit with a wave of these students earlier than Baltimore. When school officials saw how upset and distracted the new students were by these family issues, they developed a six-hour course in Spanish to help the parents and their estranged children reunite. Some of the parents, he said, "are not demonstrative to begin with. They never realized the importance of saying, 'I love you,' to their child, or giving them hugs."


Exel's mother feels fortunate that her children got to America, but she isn't sure she can ever stitch the family back together. "It has been really, very, very hard. I don't know if I would ever get their trust back."

At age 8, a family broken apart

She can't bring herself to describe the moment she walked away from her husband and children, and the Guatemalan mountain town where they grew coffee. She cries, running her index finger across her cheek to control the tears. Still, no words come.

Exel remembers that day in excruciating detail. It was a Monday. He came home from school, and his mother wasn't there. Everyone in the family was crying — his sisters, cousin and even his father. He was just 8 and felt no emotion because he couldn't imagine not seeing his mother again. Within a few months, his father also left, and Exel understood that the family had broken apart forever, like a glass shattered on the floor. It was the end of his childhood.

Exel Estrada (right) with his sisters in Guatemala around age 8 or 9.
Exel Estrada (right) with his sisters in Guatemala around age 8 or 9. (Courtesy photo)

His grandmother, Juana Guerra de Estrada, took in Exel, his siblings and cousins. All six of them arrived from their mountain village, El Playon, their heads full of lice, their clothes worn and dirty. His grandfather assigned each of them a part of the field, and Exel began a new life, working on the farm every day from 5 a.m. to 4 p.m.

After only a few months, Exel decided to run away. One morning, before anyone was awake, he packed his backpack, climbed on his old bicycle, with its faded white paint, and left. He planned to find his aunt in another village. For about three hours, he rode on a hilly, rocky path. At one point, it got so steep that he had to get off and push the bike.

"I felt so good, because when I left my grandma's home, that was like a new life," he recalled.

Exel's grandmother understood why he wanted to leave. She said recently that her husband had told Exel that he wasn't welcome in their home — and had insisted on an exhausting routine in the fields.

One day, when Exel dared to eat oranges under a tree at a nearby farm, his grandfather got angry and used a horsewhip on his back. Exel remembers that the wounds took a month to heal. His grandmother, who is in Baltimore to help care for a relative, did not recall that incident, but acknowledged that her husband, now deceased, was a "difficult" man.

I could see the suffering in his eyes.

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In the new village, Exel was lost until a kind woman took him in for the night. It was a serendipitous meeting, because the woman's son-in-law, Mynor Enrique Cappa Rosales, helped Exel find his aunt and later befriended the boy. "I could see the suffering in his eyes," said Rosales. Exel got a job as a carpenter's assistant, making $18 a week, just enough to pay for his food and rent for a tiny room in a house.

Over those five years, Mynor Enrique Cappa Rosales became a father figure for Exel. They played soccer and sang songs while Rosales played the guitar. But most important, Rosales, now a congressman in Guatemala, gave Exel advice.

In a recent phone interview, Rosales described Exel as serious and smart. When he discovered Exel wasn't attending school, he persuaded him to go.

But in high school, Exel faced a more serious obstacle: gangs that threatened to kill people who were out after 10 p.m. His school let out at 11:30 p.m., because many children had to work during the day.

"I know some students," Exel recalled. "Two were killed."

At the time Exel lived there, the village was one of the most dangerous in the country, according to Rosales, the congressman. "Thankfully, God protected Ariel," he said. "What he went through made him more mature."

Exel also didn't have the money to pay for high school and realized there was no future for him in Guatemala. So at age 15, he again took his future in his own hands. He found a store owner who would lend him some money for the first part of his journey, to get to the U.S. border. Exel knew it was wrong but saw no other way out. "I don't know how I find the courage," he said.

When he arrived, the hard years of his childhood showed. He weighed just 96 pounds.

Legal struggles

One afternoon, when Exel got home from school, he grabbed a letter from a cabinet and sat in a living room chair, anxious to see what it was about. He had been in the United States for more than a year and was waiting for word about a new court date. He ripped open the envelope. With his limited English, he had trouble reading the letter, but knew enough to grasp the message: He had failed to show up for a court hearing. His case was closed. He would be deported to Guatemala.

He panicked. For days, he couldn't think of anything else. When someone knocked on the door, he would jump, scared that authorities were coming to deport him. He couldn't sleep.

"It was so hard to be in school and concentrate," he said.

Exel Estrada gives teacher Kelly O'Brien an impromptu hug in her office last May. Franklin Aquilar, a senior at Patterson High School from El Salvador, is at left.
Exel Estrada gives teacher Kelly O'Brien an impromptu hug in her office last May. Franklin Aquilar, a senior at Patterson High School from El Salvador, is at left. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Kelly O'Brien, a Spanish teacher who was like a mother hen to many of the Latino students, offered to help. She got Jared Jaskot, an attorney in Fells Point, to take Exel's case for free.

Obtaining legal representation has been a major stumbling block for immigrant teens who want to stay in the United States, said Liz Alex, lead organizer for CASA de Maryland, the Latino advocacy agency. Some youths or their families seek out notarios, like the one Exel's mother hired for $500. In Central America, a notario handles limited legal work, but here some operate illegally.

Jaskot also uncovered why Exel received a deportation notice. The notario had hired an attorney to meet the teen at the courthouse, but Exel's case did not appear on the docket for that day. They did not realize the case was rescheduled, so they missed it.

It was a big mistake. Had they made the court date, Jaskot said, the judge would likely have allowed Exel to start the long process to stay legally in the United States. Now, Jaskot said, he would have to convince the federal immigration court to reopen Exel's case, something that was far from certain. Even then, Exel faced months — maybe years — of trips through two courts to obtain a green card that would serve as a path to citizenship.

There was another complication: Because he and his mother had been apart for so long, no one had legal custody of Exel. His mother needed to agree and sign a form.

When Exel asked her, she repeatedly delayed. Promises were made, appointments missed. Finally, Jaskot set up an appointment to get the document signed.


This is going to change everything. My dreams are going to come true

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"This is going to change everything. My dreams are going to come true," Exel burst out one day in the hall at Patterson. He already had aspirations of graduating from high school and making it to the Johns Hopkins University.

Later, he found out his mother didn't show up. She said she was busy and had tried to call the lawyer to cancel the appointment. Besides, there was some confusion about Exel's age, and she didn't think he was a minor who needed a guardian. She still contends she is willing to be his guardian, but has yet to sign the documents.

Meanwhile, Jaskot set up a backup plan. If Exel's mother wouldn't take legal custody, O'Brien, the Spanish teacher — without a moment's hesitation — had agreed to do it.

For now, he would still live with his mother. But for Exel, the wound was deep. "I feel sad," he said. "It is just custody. Is that so big?"

Balancing school and work

After a night of cleaning, Exel climbed on his bed and crawled under his Batman bedspread. It was nearing midnight, and he had an English paper due the next day. He pulled out the book "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand as well as his phone, which he used for translation. He didn't understand many of the words, so he had to keep looking up one after the other.

He fought sleep, but quickly fell into a hard slumber. At 7 a.m., he awoke with a start. He hadn't even started to write the paper.

Exel Estrada, who travelled from Guatemala to the U.S., struggles to balance work and school. At the same time, he has a mother who lavishes more attention on her new family in America than her children from her home country. (Baltimore Sun video)

"It was awful," Exel recalled. He was always tired in school, so he often splashed cold water on his face between classes. In English, he had a 99 average, but he didn't have time to do the assigned papers, so his grade was dropping. Knowing his long work hours, his teacher allowed him to do the papers over the weekends.

Algebra was also a problem, so he went to Nicholas Sanchez, a 23-year-old Hispanic teacher who had taught him environmental science and was also good at math. During his lunch and homeroom periods, Sanchez began tutoring Exel in Spanish, so Exel didn't have to overcome both his confusion over concepts and the math vocabulary. Even though his worst grades were Bs, Exel was always worrying about his marks, because he had begun to realize that just getting by wasn't enough. If he wanted to go to a good college, he would have to get straight A's.

In April, when he was fired from the cleaning job because of his illegal status, it was only a temporary break. Exel immediately began searching for other work so he could pay $250 monthly rent to his mother. Though she said she didn't charge him, he felt an obligation to pay her.

"Quite a lot of students realize that education is important. And they want to learn what we have to teach them," said teacher Melissa Harris. In fact, those who are caught at the border are told a condition of staying in the country is going to school.

But, Harris noted, many like Exel are under pressure to contribute to family expenses. "Some kids make good money. I have students who make $100 a day in construction or as a chef. That money competes with sitting in a hot classroom, where you might not understand what is going on," she said.

Advocates say the problem is clear: Academic English usually takes about five to eight years to learn, but the new students have just a year or less.

Margot Harris, who heads Patterson's English as a Second Language program, said immigrant students should be given more time to learn and graduate. But the current system works against them. If students in the program take five years or longer to graduate, as they are allowed, the school and principal get penalized under a federal accountability system.

Across the state, the four-year graduation rate for immigrant students is 54 percent, or 33 percentage points lower than that of the general population. Even after five years in school, immigrants are far less likely to have graduated.

Patterson teachers sometimes feel students who are unlikely to graduate should be counseled to drop out and go to a community college for career training and English classes, but it goes against school culture to encourage dropping out.

It's not always the low academic achievement that makes teachers anguish.

For O'Brien, the tipping point came this spring. Two days in a row, Latino students had come to her with overwhelming problems she couldn't fix. First, it was the girl who was homeless and needed a job and an apartment. Then it was the boy who said he had fled his country because his father had tried to kill him — twice — and now the boy was under threat of deportation.

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"I am not a job placement counselor. I am not a lawyer. I am not a social worker," O'Brien said, exasperated.

She decided to tap her informal network of advocates, teachers, lawyers, mental health professionals and education officials. The effort quickly spawned a task force that began wrestling with ways to deal with crises that cut across disciplines: housing, legal problems and other issues.

"It is crazy," O'Brien said. "As a community, we need to come together and do something."

Immigrants’ contributions

Education is the largest single expense for governments in providing services to immigrants, experts say. That has led to a debate over whether education should be seen as a short-term drain on resources or a long-term investment. Immigrants who drop out will cost governments about $89,000 more in services than they pay in taxes, according to a 1997 report by the National Research Council, while immigrants who earn a college degree will contribute $105,000 more than they get in services.

When looking at the long-term fiscal impact of all immigrants, said Giovanni Peri, a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis, "On average, they are a wash. They pay as much as they receive."

The Baltimore Sun spent eight months following three students at Patterson High School who recently immigrated.

But over the long term, advocates argue, the immigrants' work ethic and high rates of entrepreneurship can boost the economy of places like Baltimore.

"For several centuries, Baltimore was a magnet for immigrants," said Robert Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, which supported a 2014 report on the role of immigrants in Baltimore. Each wave of immigrants moved into the city's poorest neighborhoods, he said, ensuring that there were rarely vacant houses or abandoned communities. But when the influx slowed in the 1970s and 1980s, the cycle was broken.

Today, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is encouraging immigrants to move to Baltimore. She sees it as a good way to increase the city's population. "These concentrations of immigrants have strengthened and reinvigorated neighborhoods that were vulnerable," she said.

Besides, Embry noted, people who are willing to risk leaving their countries are generally people of unusual initiative. "They are law-abiding, hard-working and disproportionately entrepreneurial."


But as more Latin Americans have moved into East Baltimore, it has also, at times, caused tensions at Patterson and in the community. Even though Exel and many of his peers were from Guatemala and El Salvador, they were taunted at times, called Mexicans, as if that were a dirty word. Some students made fun of him as he tried to speak English. "Because you don't pronounce word, and they laugh," Exel said, "and I know my face turn red."

In Maryland and around the country, experts say bullying and discrimination against immigrant students is a problem. A recent report from the Migration Policy Institute recommended steps such as incorporating the cultural and linguistic heritage of other countries into curricula and making schools more welcoming.

Patterson High School Principal Vance Benton speaks with a student in the hallway.
Patterson High School Principal Vance Benton speaks with a student in the hallway. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

At Patterson, principal Vance Benton said the number of racially motivated fights has dropped in recent years. Yet he knows that doesn't mean that students don't feel bullied or harassed.

To what degree students are being targeted because of their nationality is unclear; the Baltimore Police Department has only recently started tracking the race of victims and assailants. Still, some Latino and Nepali students believe they are targets.

Jose Madrid, a 16-year-old from Honduras, said he was harassed on an MTA bus as he headed home from Patterson in April. He was listening to music on his headphones when another student jabbed him in the back. A fight broke out and Jose was surrounded by three or four teens who started to beat him up. It was the third time he had been assaulted, so this time he put his hand in his right pocket and this time, pulled out a knife.

After he stabbed one of his assailants, a girl, in the arm, they fled. When he got off the bus several stops later, they caught up to him and tried to fight, but he managed to escape. He ran into a store and called police.

The next morning, Latino students told their teachers that a group of students was waiting to fight Jose at the door of the school.

In a statement, the Baltimore state's attorney's office said it had reviewed the incident and "declined to charge because the evidence demonstrates that Jose Madrid was acting in self-defense. Mr. Madrid has also declined to file charges against the female."

Jose dropped out of Patterson and worked for months, most recently in a hotel laundry. About two weeks ago, he decided to try again at another school.

Renewed resolve

Standing at the lectern, nervous, Exel looked younger than his age. It was early June, at Patterson's end-of-year awards assembly. He was one of the three students in the 10th grade asked to make a speech because he was a high achiever.

Exel Estrada talks with Jeffrey Jair, right, between classes on the third floor of Patterson High School.
Exel Estrada talks with Jeffrey Jair, right, between classes on the third floor of Patterson High School. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In his speech, he said that year had been one of the hardest of his life. "I had to make many important decisions that made me proud of myself, but I wouldn't have been able to make those decisions without the help of some important adults," he said. Reading off his yellow legal pad, he mentioned O'Brien, his "mother-in-spirit," as well as another teacher, Sanchez, who had become a mentor.

They had discovered they both wanted to be doctors someday. And Sanchez, who had graduated from Johns Hopkins in the spring of 2014, realized he should show Exel the university.

So on a late July day, Sanchez picked Exel up after his summer school classes and drove to the campus with its green lawns and classic brick buildings. They stopped by some lecture halls where Sanchez had taken classes before walking into the modern glass-and-stone Milton S. Eisenhower Library.

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Exel was stunned by its size — and by the quiet. Students shushed him for talking in a normal tone of voice. It felt like a sacred space.

"I just get shocked when I was there," Exel said. "It is so peaceful."

Sanchez led him to one of the underground floors, where they found a study room in the stacks. They sat together for four hours, in the silence, Exel studying his math and Sanchez doing his own work. Exel looked around, imagining Einstein at work, and thinking: This must be how the great thinkers and writers learn and create.

He knew in his heart that was where he wanted to be.

This fall, as he started his junior year at Patterson, he came with a clearer view of what he was facing. He now realized that he would have to study on his own and push himself beyond the Patterson program, that he would have to somehow not let his heartache over his mother distract him. He stubbornly held onto the mantra that had gotten him this far, telling himself that if he did good things, if he was good to others, good things would come.

Exel Estrada, left, works with a teammate during soccer team practice before the start of the 2015-2016 school year.
Exel Estrada, left, works with a teammate during soccer team practice before the start of the 2015-2016 school year. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

In some ways, they have. For the past few months, Exel has been able to get by without working. And his soccer team, made up mostly of foreign students, recently won the city championship, putting him in the long line of immigrants who have made Patterson's team a powerhouse for generations.

It was a sweet moment of triumph for Exel.

Still, as he pulled on his soccer cleats one recent afternoon, he acknowledged the dark reality he usually tried to push out of his mind: Some things — maybe the most important things — were out of his control. The uncertainty of his future, of what a judge would decide in his case, gnawed at Exel. He could still be deported. When he talked to his sisters back in Guatemala, the images of his country came rushing back.

It scared him. He knew that, in the end, all that really mattered was what happened in court. The decision could come any day.

Contact reporter Liz Bowie at liz.bowie@baltsun.com