On a single life-changing day, the promise of the United States was fulfilled for me: I was sworn into the U.S. Marine Corps and came home after the ceremony to find my green card waiting in the mail. How I arrived at that cold day in March is also very American—a community of caring people donated their time and expertise to help me through the complex immigration system to give me a fair chance to make my case for U.S. protection. Thanks to them, I am now living my American Dream. I am protecting the country that protected me from the danger I faced in El Salvador.
None of this would have happened without a volunteer attorney by my side. Sen. Mazie Hirono’s Fair Day in Court for Kids Act of 2021, introduced last month, guarantees lawyers for unaccompanied children like me so they can apply for U.S. protection. Children alone, regardless of age, are not provided attorneys in their immigration proceedings. The bill will make the U.S. immigration system fairer and help ensure immigrant and refugee children are not returned to the dangers they fled in their home country.
I was 15 years old when I came to the United States alone and was put in immigration proceedings. I found myself facing a daunting legal system with no one to turn to. I was desperate for help; there was no way I could present my case alone and win in court.
I spent a lot of time looking for assistance. When I almost lost hope, all that is great about this country showed itself to me. I found Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) which connected me to the incredible pro bono attorneys at K&L Gates who saved my life.
Without them, I likely would have been sent back to El Salvador, where every day was about survival—hiding from the gang that was threatening to kill me, just hoping to live another day. Everyone knows that no matter where you go, the gangs always find you once you have been targeted.
I looked to the United States and saw freedom—the freedom to live without fear and to dream of a future full of possibility. I knew the journey was dangerous, but I felt I had no choice. I nearly drowned and was held for a brief time by armed men near the U.S.-Mexico border. But when I finally crossed into the United States and asked for protection, I felt hope for the first time in years.
With assistance from KIND, my lawyers at K&L Gates helped prepare my asylum case. They did not know me, but that did not matter. They just saw a young person who needed help.
As my legal case proceeded, my new, safer life did, too. I was supported by many teachers in my new high school. I never had people in my life who cared about me like they did. After six months in this country, my English improved a lot. After two years, I learned English and Portuguese and became a member of the National Honor Society.
My future felt limitless. I knew I wanted to go to college, to help people, and do something no one in my family had done before.
One day, a military recruiter came to my high school and talked about his career. At that moment it all came together for me. I realized I wanted to join the Marines. I loved that they are leaders who also help people through humanitarian and disaster relief. I was going to support the values that changed my life: Freedom, justice, and service to others.
While we live in uncertain times, I know one thing for sure. I will do all I can to uphold the promise of the America that gave me a future and allowed me to fulfill my dreams. I will always be deeply grateful to KIND, my pro bono attorneys at K&L Gates, and the many others who helped me along the way. I am also grateful to Senator Hirono for working to provide lawyers for every kid in immigration proceedings to give them a chance to lead a life free from fear.
I pledge to help others as this country has helped me. I will defend the values of freedom, liberty, and justice for all – as only one who has been denied those fundamental rights can.