A boy rises from his tough childhood to become a young man with a future, with the help of New England Justice for Our Neighbors
Henry remembers nothing of Guatemala; he was just a baby when they left for the United States. Nor does he remember his biological father, who forced Henry’s teenaged mother to make the trip north and then abandoned them both in a strange country.
What Henry does remember, however, is his mother working—at farms, nurseries, factories—any place that would hire a Mayan-speaking young mother with minimal Spanish and no English. Henry’s earliest memories are of being left behind—at a neighbor’s house or a friend’s apartment—while his mother worked yet another extra night shift.
“I had to grow up with other people instead of her,” Henry says. “I don’t blame her because she did what she had to do. And any money she had, she would spend on me. She just wanted to give me everything.”
Chief among the things she wanted to give him was an education. “Look at me, look at how I am,” she would tell him. “You don’t want to be like me. You need to be better.”
Henry was in elementary school in Florida when his mother met another man. They moved in together and had a son—Henry’s half-brother. Eventually, they left Florida and settled in western Massachusetts.
“It never really occurred to me that I wasn’t born here,” says Henry. “Honestly, I thought I was just like anyone else.”
Slowly, and inexorably, Henry would realize that wasn’t quite true.
It started out with an out-of-state field trip to an historic site. “I was always a geek for history,” says Henry. “It broke my heart when my mom told me I couldn’t go.”
When Henry reached high school, all his friends started talking about getting their driver’s permit. From a very early age, Henry has loved cars and trucks and anything with an engine. He grew up to be one of those boys who is always tinkering with cars—replacing a transmission, repairing brakes, or tuning an engine.
But he had no papers to get a license. Once again, he feared he would be left behind.
Finding out about DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was a moment of pure joy for Henry. He was 16 years old when he dragged his mother to a New England JFON DACA clinic and met Hilary Thrasher, the JFON attorney who helped him apply for the program.
“Hilary was amazing,” Henry says happily. “I immediately told my friends that I would be able to work, get a license, and drive a car without worrying about being pulled over by a cop.”
But there was more. Reviewing his situation, Hilary realized that Henry was not only eligible for DACA but for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status, created for undocumented minors who have been victims of abuse, neglect, or have been abandoned by one or both parents. SIJ status would protect Henry from the vagaries of DACA, especially under the current administration, and would eventually give him a green card.
Hilary turned Henry’s case over to Karen Cole, an attorney working with NE JFON’s partner Central West Justice Center.
Karen, Henry says, is amazing, too.
Karen is equally impressed with Henry. “From a very young age,” she says, “he’s had to carry so much responsibility—translating for his mom, helping her maneuver through various things, and calling the police when she was threatened. He’s grown up to be super responsible.”
“It was always my responsibility,” Henry agrees. “Cleaning the house, taking care of my little brother, changing the diapers, doing the laundry…” He trails off and looks thoughtful. “Yes, I had to mature at a young age.”
Karen successfully obtained a probate court decision with the special findings needed to file a SIJ petition. Henry was granted SIJ status and hopes to become a lawful permanent resident (green card holder) soon.
Henry is now 19 years old. He graduated high school this past June. He currently works the night shift at a local factory and is looking to enroll in Springfield Technical Community College in September.
To see him today is to see a fine young man, and one who now has the promise of a future ahead of him. Yet there is a certain stillness to Henry, an underlying sadness that hangs awkwardly on his frame like an old man’s coat. Henry is still a teenager. He looks like a teenager. So why doesn’t he seem young?
“I know there are a lot of kids who go through hard times like me, and I hope they get the help they need,” Henry says. “As a kid, it eats you up, you know? As much as I don’t want to think about it, it lives with me… always.”
When the bad memories get to him, Henry goes for a long drive. He loves driving. It helps settle his mind and his spirit.
“Only time will tell what’s going to happen,” he says. “I just have to keep going like I am right now. And I definitely have to be hopeful for the future”