Finding home: the piecemeal journey from El Salvador to Long Island

Marvin, the toddler, out of the cold
Marvin, the toddler, out of the cold, with his cousin Luciana. Both fled violence in El Salvador to cross the border into the United States and rejoin family in Brentwood, New York.

by Camille von Kaenel

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His voice quavered with the crackle of the bad connection: “I’m in Veracruz. Some men kidnapped me. They want $1,500.”

Manuel Alexi Ortiz, then fifteen, sobbed in a stark, locked room. It was July, 2014.

He had fled worsening gang violence in his home of La Unión, in southeastern El Salvador, a few weeks before. With him, he had brought the clothes on his back and a year’s worth of savings from selling chilies and tomatoes at the market. The journey by foot and by bus into his kidnappers’ hands in Mexico had been difficult already. Now, trapped and near out of money, he told himself he might have to turn back.

Before leaving, he had memorized his sister’s phone number in Brentwood, New York. He called her for help.

Until she got that call, Teresa Ortiz hadn’t known her younger brother was on his way. Thirteen close relatives, not including Teresa herself, had made a similar 3,500-mile trek to New York, one after the other, in the last few years. She had paid coyotes to smuggle in her own five children. Manuel was one of the last of her close family still in El Salvador, and he had grown desperate and fearful.

“The only way is forward,” Teresa reassured Manuel. “You’ve suffered. But going backwards is just not right.”

She decided to sell her Honda Odyssey for $2,500 to get the emergency ransom. She wired the money to the kidnappers in Veracruz that same day. After being held for around two weeks with little food or water, Manuel was finally released. He pushed north.

Stories of kids like Manuel coming to the United States made national headlines last year. Tens of thousands of children and teens, known as unaccompanied minors, crossed the border with Mexico in an unprecedented wave that peaked last summer. The increase intensified the already heated debate over immigration reform. Many feared the children would strain governmental services like schools, immigration courts and temporary shelters.

But for Manuel and Teresa, last summer wasn’t particularly newsworthy. It was just one act in a long family odyssey. Teresa has sponsored and housed eight relatives since she crossed the border herself eight years ago. Four of them are still waiting to hear if they will be sent back or allowed to stay. Teresa herself could be deported any day.

They are far from their homelands, unable to speak English, and stretching limited resources even thinner. Little would have deterred them from going down this path. But their journey is still far from over.

Part of the family.
Part of the family.


Central Americans have been migrating to the United States for decades. What distinguishes the most recent stream is its size and its demographics: children, arriving in numbers large enough to attract the attention of media, the concern of immigrant advocates, and the government’s law enforcement efforts. In June 2014, President Barack Obama announced emergency measures to deal with the increase in children at the border, which he called a “humanitarian crisis.” These included hiring more personnel, creating new processing centers, and fast-tracking immigration court proceedings.

The migration wave occurred over several years, but rose dramatically last year. Since 2010, the number of unaccompanied minors intercepted at the U.S. border with Mexico increased fourfold, from 18,000 to 39,000 in 2013 to around 68,500 in 2014, according to Border Patrol statistics by fiscal year. That doesn’t even include family units crossing together, who numbered just as many as the unaccompanied minors last year, or those who managed to avoid the Border Patrol.

At least three quarters of those new immigrants come from the “Northern Triangle”—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—where robberies, murders, threats and extortions have spiked in recent years. In El Salvador, the murder rate is around 44 for each 10,000 people. It’s one of the highest in the world, according to the United Nations. A UNICEF report last year found that children and adolescents get murdered there more than in any other country.

Behind that violence operate increasingly bold and powerful gangs. The two main rival groups in El Salvador, where Manuel comes from, are the 18th Street gang, known as MS 18, and the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. They originated in Los Angeles and spread as Central American criminals were deported or voluntarily returned home in the 1980s. They’ve become so much stronger these last few years in part because government efforts to squelch them, like jailing them, have actually facilitated consolidation. A fragile truce between the groups broke down a couple years ago. Now, gangs extort small businesses and locals for money and fight violent turf wars.

They grew by moving into impoverished, rural areas with a weak governmental structure. For those poor communities, the U.S. has always seemed a beacon of hope, attracting generations of families.

“It would be naïve to say that word did not get out that there was a more humanitarian system for children somewhere else,” admitted Elizabeth Kennedy. The Fulbright Scholar at the State University of San Diego conducted hundreds of interviews with Central American youth last fall, both in the U.S. and in a deportation center in El Salvador. “For families, all they know is that if Jose can finally go, Joselina is going to see that this is going to be a good time for Jorge too. They just felt unsafe, and it seemed that this summer has been a good as time as any to go.”

The last months of 2014 saw the wave of unaccompanied minors slow. Their numbers dropped 40 percent compared to the same period the previous year. That may or may not mean less are leaving their homes in Central America, said Kennedy. Mexico has significantly stepped up deportations to stop Central American migrants from reaching the U.S. border. Part of this crackdown has been attributed to pressure from the U.S. It has offered training and funding help to Mexican and Central American law enforcement as part of the “New Southern Border” plan launched last year.

Teresa Ortiz outside of her home
Teresa Ortiz outside of her home

 Back in July, after Teresa’s money sprung him free from his Mexican kidnappers, Manuel rode buses and walked to the mountains near the border. He swam across the cold and muddy Rio Grande and took his first steps in the United States on a well-trodden path through the bushes. Border Patrol agents discovered him there within minutes. They brought him to a holding cell with dozens of other immigrants to decide what to do with him.

By law, unaccompanied minors must spend less than 72 hours in holding cells at the border. However, many unaccompanied minors, including some of the Ortiz children, have said they stayed in the holding cells for longer, sometimes up to a week, without proper food and care. They also complain about the use of air conditioning in the cells, nicknaming them the “hielaras,” the freezers.

Manuel hated the cold, but he passed through the holding cell quickly, in less than a day. He went from the hands of the Border Patrol to those of the Office of Refugee and Resettlement. This agency places the children with sponsors, or guardians, in the U.S. while they wait to see whether or not they will be allowed to stay legally.

After spending almost a month in a Phoenix safe house, Manuel finally flew to Teresa’s home in New York in September.

Long Island, where the Ortiz family lives, has one of the largest Central American communities in the U.S. More than 150,000 Central Americans, most of them Salvadorans, live in the area, largely in and around Hempstead, Brentwood and Central Islip, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.

“They migrate to areas where they know other people and where there are job opportunities,” said Maryann Sinclair Slutsky, the director of Long Island Wins, a non-profit communications organization advocating for immigrants. “There was a lot of landscaping opportunities here, a lot of tourists on the East End, a lot of restaurant opportunities to work as busboys and dishwashers. Once a community puts downs roots, their families and friends keep coming.”

When children began running away from their home countries, many of them unsurprisingly came here. The two counties in Long Island—Suffolk and Nassau—took in over 3,000 new unaccompanied minors in 2014, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. That put the two counties among the top five destinations in the country for unaccompanied minors, along with Houston, Los Angeles, and Miami. Teresa’s household is one of thousands of similar ones on Long Island.

Thirty-four-year-old Teresa is clearly the matriarch of the eleven relatives living together in Brentwood. She is a round woman, with a broad smile and perfectly arced eyebrows. A messy bun gathers her frizzy curls at the nape of her neck. She calls everyone “corazón,” or heart. She jokingly refers to her family as “el proyecto Ortiz.”

Project Ortiz began with Teresa’s brother-in-law Rael, who moved alone to the U.S. around 2002 to find a job. He smuggled his wife Xiomara over soon after. Xiomara paid coyotes to bring over her five-year-old daughter, and then a sister, Wendy, and then Teresa with yet another sister, Reina, in July of 2007. They slipped over the border undetected. Teresa moved to get away from an abusive husband for a while. But that also meant she was away from her kids. When she thinks back to her first couple months in the United States, her eyes well up with tears. “I couldn’t sleep,” she said in Spanish, her only language. “I never went out. I couldn’t be happy. I was always thinking of my children back at home.”

Like many immigrants, she planned to make some money working at her three jobs, send every penny back to her children and return home after a couple of years.

Then life intervened.

Back home, the violence had begun to escalate. Every Ortiz family member has a story about encounters with the “maras,” or gangs. For example, Manuel remembered going to see a game of soccer in a nearby field. Suddenly, eight armed men started shooting randomly with pistols—Manuel said they were part of the 18th Street gang. Dropping his sandals and his tacos, Manuel ran to a nearby mountain, where he hid for three hours before creeping back towards his home, scratched and empty-handed. “In El Salvador, you just can’t walk around outside,” concluded Manuel matter-of-factly.

The most striking encounter, however, came around six years ago, soon after Teresa had left the country. All five of her children, aged 1 to 11 at the time, witnessed a ride-by murder “en sangre frio,” in cold blood, right in front of their house in La Unión. Hit with around 25 bullets, the man died while Teresa’s mother brought him to a hospital. Gang members started calling and threatening the grandmother. Fearful for their lives, the family had to move.

Single immigrant mothers have worried about their children left behind for decades. But now, the violence at home had become so bad that Teresa’s worry prompted action.

“I decided it was better to stay here, and fight to bring them over,” Teresa said. “If there’s work and I can support them while they study, it’s better for them to be here. They can be free.”

By then, she had also met Luis Quito, a permanent resident of the United States originally from Ecuador, and fallen in love. He works as a welder. He has two daughters from his marriage, but doesn’t have much contact with them anymore. He agreed to help finance the journeys of the rest of Teresa’s family.

She found smugglers willing to bring her children to her—for around $6,000 each. First came her eldest daughter, Elivenia Martinez, now 17, in 2011, along with Teresa’s brother Raul. The coyotes Teresa had hired abducted the two in Houston, starving and threatening them with guns, until she paid a ransom.

Elivenia, Teresa’s oldest daughter, became a mother at the same age as Teresa, 17. Teresa’s granddaughter, Johanny, was born in New York around six months ago. She’s the only U.S. citizen in the household.

Teresa’s three other daughters, Anyeli Rojas, 13, Meylin Rojas, 11, and Luciana Quito, 7, were smuggled in by trusted coyotes a year later. The three were found by the Border Patrol and sent to a safe house in Galveston, Texas. Teresa flew there to pick them up. “I was so scared they wouldn’t recognize me,” she remembered. “But they all came out running into my arms, even the little one.” Teresa hadn’t seen Luciana since she was five months old. In a video of that moment, she is crying and kissing her daughters’ heads as she gathers all three in a big hug.

Now, Luciana is a sprightly first-grader who likes improvising songs thanking God and her mother for getting her to her new home. She’s the family’s only fluent English speaker. The others use her as an interpreter sometimes, but she’s also losing some of her Spanish.

Teresa’s only son, Saul Martinez, 15, made his journey in the spring of 2014. He spent five days in a holding cell at the border, more than the 72 hours required by law. On Mother’s Day, Saul landed in New York. “It was the best Mother’s Day gift I could ever receive,” said a smiling Teresa.

Teresa planned and paid for the passage of her five children. She didn’t have the time to plan the arrivals of the last three relatives, though, which illustrates exactly how unbearable the violence had become in El Salvador.

Her 20-year-old sister, Maria Velasquez Ortiz, and her own 21-month-old son, Marvin, left El Salvador by themselves last summer. They passed through the holding cells, where the toddler became sick and very thin. The two belonged to a wave of their own: increasingly more single mothers with very young children are also making the trip north, according to Border Patrol statistics.

Manuel came next, his journey fraught with multiple kidnappings. He is the youngest of Teresa’s nine brothers and sisters. He wears his curly hair long and voluminous on top and cut short on the sides, a new hairstyle since he arrived in the United States. His face is plump and round, and when he laughs, which is often, dimples crease his cheeks. When he does the chores mandated by Teresa, he likes to listen and dance to bachata, a lively type of music from the Dominican Republic.

There’s one more person Teresa sometimes thinks about bringing over: her mother, who took care of her children for years when Teresa was working in the U.S. But the Salvadoran matriarch fell in love with someone new after moving away from the gangs threatening her. She doesn’t want to move. “That’s life,” Teresa shrugs. “Thank God, I have the rest all here. It was this huge cloud over my head that just left.”

Luciana Quito with her cousin, Marvin
Luciana Quito with her cousin, Marvin


She welcomed her relatives in a small three-bedroom basement apartment in Brentwood, near the middle of Long Island. The house above their apartment, a three-story, wood-paneled home with a garage, big windows and a roomy front yard, looks like a postcard from classic American suburbia. In the basement, the two small windows let in so little light the family rarely pushes back the dusty brown curtains. Decorations cover almost every inch of the walls, painted a bold orange: there’s a huge stuffed, smiling sun, a painting of Jesus on the cross, a white porcelain doll in a pink tulle tutu, and countless photos of family members.

It’s safe from gang violence. But the newcomers rarely venture outside because the New York cold makes their hands chafe and their cheeks redden. They’re not used to their new home yet. They all say they would never go back to Central America, not even for a vacation, but still, they miss the good parts of El Salvador: painted trucks, milk and banana smoothies, fireworks and bonfires and dance parties on Christmas. Here, for the holiday, the family made traditional Salvadoran food: chicken sandwiches, shrimp ceviche, salad, roast turkey. For a little while, after they had eaten, they danced in the living room. But Manuel and Maria, Teresa’s siblings and the most recent newcomers, started to cry, completely homesick. “I wasn’t sad,” remembered Teresa. “I was happy to have them all here, thank God. So I tried to comfort them.”

There were no Christmas gifts, apart from some handmade cards the children made for Teresa, because there was no money. Before everyone got to New York, when it was just Teresa and Luis, the couple would go out—sometimes—when enough had been put away towards the children’s trips.

“Now, we don’t go out, and if we do, I tell everyone, we’re going out, but we’re bringing food from home and we’re walking around,” Teresa said. She and Luis are the only two bringing in an income. Maria, her twenty-year-old sister, is still searching for a job.

“It’s hard sometimes not to have help, but I really want them to study and learn English,” Teresa added.

The six school-aged members of the Ortiz family go to schools in Brentwood, where most of their classes are in Spanish. Hispanics make up around 65 percent of Brentwood’s population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Many of them have roots similar to those of the Ortiz family.

“As soon as there’s a new classmate, the first question we always ask him is ‘so, how much did you suffer during the journey?’,” said Manuel.

Manuel only started tenth grade in November because Brentwood High School kept asking for one document after another—school records, birth certificates, and immigration papers—before allowing him to register

Those requirements, common across the state, have attracted the ire of immigrant advocates and even the state’s Department of Education. New York’s attorney general launched a months-long investigation and required the most egregious districts change their procedures and submit to periodic oversight. Now, though, schools face a new task: helping new students, many of whom are behind academically, catch up.

Teresa is pleased with the report cards Manuel brings home. “I’m always paying attention in class, not like a lot of my classmates who talk a lot,” he said. He wants to become a doctor. His seventeen-year-old aunt Elivenia wants to become a medical assistant. Her brother Saul, 15, likes electrical engineering.

Teresa has high hopes for everyone in her household. “I want them to get their papers and have a career,” she said.

Meylin Riojas
Meylin Riojas

Easier said than done. Five people in the Ortiz household are facing possible deportation. Manuel, fifteen-year-old Saul, twenty-year-old Maria and her toddler Marvin are currently going through family and immigration court to determine their legal status. Teresa is still flying under the radar, undocumented.

“I know I’m not adjusting to life here very well,” Maria admitted, her eyes wet. She has no job, few friends and doesn’t go out much because she doesn’t know how to get around Long Island. “But if they sent me back, I would simply die.”

Teresa’s four daughters applied for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, a visa available to children who were abandoned, abused or neglected by one or two of their parents. They qualified because their fathers weren’t involved in their lives and their home neighborhood had become dangerous. All four of them now hold permanent residency.

Bryan Johnson, the family’s lawyer based in Bay Shore, said that many of the new unaccompanied minors in the United States qualify for the Special Immigrant Juvenile visa. When he learned about the visa, he decided to take on as many cases of the recent immigrants as he could. He also takes on asylum cases for adult refugees, like twenty-year-old Maria, though he said those cases are harder. In the last year and a half, his total number of cases grew from around 40 to over 200. Teresa calls Johnson a saint.

“All the power in the world is against these kids, and there’s very few people out there rooting for them with any power,” Johnson said. “I’m just an attorney, we do what we can, but we are limited in how many people we represent, and we don’t have the authority to change the law.”

A cornerstone of President Obama’s emergency measures last May was pushing the children to the front of the line in immigration court, a strategy known as “priority dockets” or “surge dockets.” This fast-tracked processing meant deportation could come in months, rather than years, for the newcomers.

Manuel’s first court date is in May.

Teresa, at the very center of the family, has no legal status. “If they deported me…” she trailed off, her face frozen. She doesn’t want to think about it.

But she’ll have to. She’s back in the headlines. Her family members’ journeys were at the center of one immigration debate, around how to stop or slow the flow of immigrants crossing the border into the U.S. Now her legal status is at the center of another debate, around how to deal with undocumented immigrants already in the country.

President Obama addressed the latter through executive action last November. He created the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, nicknamed DAPA. The initiative offers three-year deportation relief and work authorization for undocumented parents of legal residents. Applicants must prove they’ve lived in the U.S. since before 2010 and have a clean record. Teresa matches the criteria.

She could have begun applying for the program this spring. However, 26 states sued the government over the program. In mid-February, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen in Texas issued an injunction to stop the policies from moving forward. Now, the Justice Department is scrambling to appeal the injunction, or at least lift the part of it that blocks direct implementation.

Teresa, along with thousands of similar undocumented parents, is waiting. Meanwhile, there’s another way she could avoid deportation. She could simply marry Luis, a permanent resident on a path to citizenship. But Luis must finalize his divorce first.

Her two endangered ties to the U.S.—her daughters and her partner—illustrate well the degree to which immigrants like her have settled down in a country that hasn’t decided yet if it wants them.

Luis Quito
Luis Quito

 All these people stuffed into a small basement apartment is starting to be a little bit too much for Luis. He is bald, mustached, short and quiet next to extroverted Teresa, but he laughs loudly when he plays with the kids. He wants to buy a house: a real, permanent home. He’s building up his credit now, and if it keeps increasing, he’ll have found something for everyone within a few months. In time for the warm summer. Maybe, he tells himself, the newcomers will have finished going through immigration court by then and everyone will want to enjoy the yard outside together.

One time, when Luis was out walking with Teresa to shop at the neighborhood grocery store, they came across a white two-story home, with a large and grassy front yard and a fence and a nice American suburban street name—Sycamore Street. A “For-Sale” sign swung on a pole outside the front door. “That’s the type of house I want,” Luis told Teresa. He could see the kids playing outside with the beloved Rottweilers he had to give up to live in the basement, and his cars parked in the spacious garage rather than on the street.

Two weeks later, the house was sold, to someone else.

Luis will keep up the search.

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