“The child is no longer safe here,” his grandmother told them. “He needs to come to you now.”
Eitan’s parents—despite all they knew about gang recruitment in their hometown—were rocked with dismay. These were the same thugs who had threatened the family with death, dismemberment and burning because they couldn’t comply with their demands for money. And now they wanted to take away their son and train him in the ways of criminals.
Eitan was only 7 years old.
But if his grandparents couldn’t keep him safe, Eitan would have to come to Kentucky to live with his parents and little sister. It would not be an easy thing to arrange. Who would take him there? Whom could they trust?
They found a distant cousin—an older teen—who was also anxious to leave Guatemala. Eitan said goodbye to his beloved grandparents and the two boys set out for the U.S. border. It would take them nearly two months to reach it.
Once agents from the Border Patrol had taken them in custody, Eitan was separated from his cousin. He doesn’t know where the cousin was sent. Eitan was flown to a shelter in upstate New York. It would be another six weeks before he was reunited in Kentucky with his parents and the baby sister he had never met.
Eitan doesn’t speak English, and he doesn’t speak Spanish, either. As an indigenous Guatemalan child, he can only speak Chuj. There are only an estimated 43,000 speakers of this Mayan language in the entire world, and none of them were at the shelter where Eitan was placed. He lived for those six weeks as if in a bubble—unable to comprehend what others were saying to him, confused by their gesturing and pantomime, and incapable of expressing his most basic needs, worries, and fears.
It’s been a year and a half since Eitan arrived in Kentucky. He is now 9 years old. He is content to be with his parents and likes taking care of his baby sister. But he still cannot, and will not, speak of the months he spent wandering through Mexico or the lonely weeks he lived as an unaccompanied migrant child in U.S. custody.
“I’m not going to let a 9-year-old get deported without trying.”
When Sarah Adkins, executive director of Neighbors Immigration Clinic (NIC)—our JFON site in Kentucky—first heard about Eitan, his parents had already received a notice to appear from immigration court. Because of the pandemic, his court date had been postponed indefinitely. Inexplicably, the parents had no papers which designated Eitan as an unaccompanied non-citizen child, which would have afforded him some protection.
The parents arranged to bring Eitan to NIC’s clinic in rural Somerset. Sarah knew that the parents were very worried. She knew that she would have to ask Eitan many questions, forcing him to revisit painful memories.
So Sarah brought him a treat as an ice-breaker.
“There aren’t a lot of ways to make this better,” Sarah says, shrugging. “And most kids like cupcakes.
“In the end, he insisted on taking them home to share with his sister,” she adds, smiling. It is a happy memory of an otherwise long and difficult day.
Once Sarah had helped Eitan complete his asylum application, she reached out to a friend who works with unaccompanied migrant children at the detention facility where Eitan had been placed. The friend was able to confirm that Eitan had, indeed, received a UAC designation. The parents just didn’t have the documents.
“This is huge,” explains Sarah. “This is going to give Eitan years and years more time in the U.S. even if he does eventually lose his asylum case.”
“It’s really, really great news,” she repeats, “and I was thrilled to be able to share it with him last week.”
Eitan, still traumatized by his separation from his grandparents, the long journey to the border, and his stay at the shelter, needs to receive psychological counseling. He needs time to heal, to acclimate to his new life, and to become a young person with a future.
None of this can happen back in Guatemala. Eitan needs to stay here in his new home and with his family.
About NIC’s legal clinic in Somerset
“We launched this clinic in the middle of the pandemic,” says Sarah. “It was difficult to coordinate and to get the funding. But even if Eitan were the only client, then having this clinic was worth the extra effort.”
Eitan’s parents are low-income and undocumented. They are unable to make the two-hour trip to Lexington or Louisville, even if they were lucky enough to find a nonprofit attorney in either city. There is no public transportation.
And there is the financial burden of missing work. Asylum applications take multiple hour-long meetings.
For people like Eitan’s parents, a clinic near their home is the only truly viable option.
“Somerset clinic,” says Sarah, “is very important.”