Jose Luis Zelaya’s smile masks the horrors he lived through as a child migrant fleeing gang violence in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. During those tribulations, he witnessed his five-year-old brother die in his mother’s arms. When he was nine years old, Zelaya was stabbed in the head during a gang robbery. A couple of years later, he was shot in both arms while playing soccer.
“At home, we would grab the mattress and just put it, like, facing the door and the next day we would take the bullets out of the mattress, because drive by shootings were so constant,” he recalled of his experience growing up in the murder capital of the world.
He is acutely aware of the psychological effects his upbringing has wrought on his life.
“You don’t really understand that you’re a human. You don’t understand dignity, you don’t understand equality,” he said as tears rolled down his cheeks. “You just feel like you did something wrong and you deserve it.”
At age 13, fed up with the violence, Zelaya embarked on the treacherous journey to the United States to find his mother, who left two years earlier.
After riding La Bestia, the Mexican freight train used by migrants to traverse that country, and swimming across the Rio Grande River, he was stopped by the Border Patrol.
“A man with a green uniform woke me up and he said ‘levántese’, get up, and he put me inside a Patrol Car. And that was the first time I met air conditioning,” Zelaya said.
That was 14 years ago. At the time, Zelaya was placed in a detention center in Harlingen, Texas and reunited with his mother two months later.
Presently, the flow of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended at the U.S. border is exploding by more than 100 percent each year. The surge does not surprise Jose, considering where these children come from.
“I don’t know what’s worse than hell, I guess it would be San Pedro Sula, where these children are running from,” he explains. “A few hundred miles away from here, and people are going through these experiences. And I understand it. I understand why these children are running away.”
He recently went back to the detention center to meet new arrivals and recount his own story.
Jose Luis was the first in his family to graduate college. He’s now a Ph.D candidate at Texas A&M University. He’s studying to be a teacher because he says he wants to give back to the U.S.
“I’m not a criminal, I’m a Ph.D student,” he says. “I’m just a sample of what these children can be if we educate them, if we give them food, water and reunite them with their families.”
But unlike Zelaya, the latest wave of children will encounter more border security. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is sending 1,000 National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border.
The kids will face political obstacles as well. Many in Washington, including President Obama, are looking to deport them faster.
Like Zelaya, Central American kids are fleeing violence and poverty, coming to the U.S. in search of their families. Ninety percent of the recent wave of unaccompanied minors have relatives in the U.S.; 50 percent have one or both parents there. In this way, the story of former child migrants like Zelaya is less a story about violence or politics and more about family.