How a beatdown over a cellphone led to a life-saving visa and a second chance at the American Dream

HOMESTEAD, Florida— Milton orders a coke and fries at Wendy’s. His spiky, gelled hair and soft-spoken manner make him seem younger than 21; he doesn’t seem to have aged as fast as you’d expect for someone who has been through hell.

After a harrowing trip through Guatemala and Mexico five years ago, Milton got picked up by U.S. immigration while crossing the Texas desert. He was only 16. His asylum request, based on allegations that he was escaping domestic abuse in El Salvador, wasn’t enough to convince U.S. authorities to give him a visa.

As he was considering his options to avoid deportation, he got jumped by a group of thugs who ganked his cellphone. At the time, it seemed like life dealing him another hard knock. But strangely enough, getting beat up turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

That’s because it allowed his pro-bono immigration lawyer, Javier Montano, to file for a “U visa,” a special immigration benefit reserved for victims of violence. According to Homeland Security the U visa “can be sought by victims of certain crimes who are currently assisting or have previously assisted law enforcement in the investigation or prosecution of a crime, or who are likely to be helpful in the investigation or prosecution of criminal activity.”

The visa was created in 2000 with the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act. The government finally regulated the visa and started issuing them in 2008. For 2015, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services approved a maximum of 10,000 petitions for the U visa. Victims of abusive sexual contact, incest, kidnapping, murder, slave trade and witness tampering—among several other forms of violence—qualify to apply for the visa, which the U.S. government promotes under such slogans as “Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

The U.S. instituted the visa—in part—as an attempt to prevent the silent abuse suffered by many undocumented migrants. “People were and still are afraid of reporting crimes because they believe the cops will look into their immigration status,” said Montano, Milton’s lawyer.

He says his client’s beating “wasn’t as ruthless as other U visa cases” he witnessed. “But it appears to have provided Milton an avenue to stay in this country.” Milton may have lost his cellphone, but now he has the paperwork he needs to work here legally, apply for U.S. citizenship and aspire to a higher education.

“I want to go to college but can’t afford it right now,” he says. “But I’m conscious of how important it is in this country to have a degree.”

The journey to El Norte

This bureaucratic ordeal of applying for a visa can be long and difficult. In February the L.A. Times reported that U visa petitions are on the rise and exceed the government cap every year. Congress failed to pass a Senate proposal to increase the cap to 15,000 last year. “There’s even a wait to get on the waiting list,” according to the report. Critics of the U visa claim the program is “ripe for fraud.”

But for Milton, the U visa was a light at the end of the tunnel.

His journey started five years ago when his family paid a coyote some $7,000 to sneak him across Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border. “I was a kid seeking prosperity,” he says.

The coyote was expensive, but necessary. Without a human smuggler as your guide, Milton says, you’re likely to end up kidnapped by The Zetas, one of Mexico’s most brutal drug cartels. The coyotes have all the conectes, an established network of corrupt cops and gangs to bribe along the way. But there are never any guarantees of safe passage.

By the time Milton made it to Mexico, he had lost all contact with his family in El Salvador. But he later learned the coyote was in constant contact with his parents, asking for more money to “guarantee” their son’s continued safety on the journey north. “My mother later told me they threatened to leave me stranded or hand me over to the authorities,” Milton said. The additional security fees cost his family $3,000.

They eventually made it across the border into the Texas desert, where the coyote suddenly abandoned Milton’s group in the middle of the night. “We started hearing motorcycles and a helicopter in the morning,” Milton says. The group scattered and Milton tried to hide behind a bush but was discovered by an immigration officer on horseback who ordered him to come out.

“When I stood up I remember seeing the entire desert, its flatness and dryness surrounded by mountains. Like being inside a frying pan”

- Milton

Milton and the others were taken to a detention center in Laredo, where he was put in separate room and given a meal once the authorities determined he was a minor.

“They allowed me to call home, but I was afraid of telling my mom. I didn’t want to cry over the phone,” he says.

Like other Central American minors crossing alone, Milton was sent to a human services center in Laredo. He describes Texas and Mexico as “heaven and hell.” Here he was allowed to shower, remove the thorns from his body, and wait for an immigration judge to rule on his status. Milton was eventually allowed to stay after his aunt, who resided in Florida, vouched for him.

“Your purpose in this country,” Milton recalls the judge telling him, “will be to study.” But that was easier said than done. Milton’s uncle wanted him to abandon school to help earn money for the household. Milton demurred and was pushed out of the house. He survived thanks to the kindness of strangers.

He allegedly stayed in school, got a part-time gig at a plant nursery, and lived in a trailer park with another Salvadoran man. His boss eventually put him in touch with his immigration lawyer.

Today, Milton works at the bakery of a local Publix supermarket and is thankful for the opportunity. And yes, he has a new cellphone.