Finding the American Dream in an American Prison

With over 25 thousand homicides alone in 1998, I was born into one of the murder capitals of the world: Colombia.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, over 40 thousand Colombians immigrated to the United States between 1990 to 1999. These figures include only immigrants who obtained legal permanent status; the numbers are estimated to be substantially larger for all Colombian immigrants.

Amongst those 40 thousand immigrants, were four with the last name, ‘Perez’.  

Now, I read articles, op-eds, and hear stories of families like mine. However, there’s one crucial difference between us… I was lucky, and they weren’t.

“Lucky”, synonymous with “fortunate”, “favored”, and “prosperous” is the word that I never imagined would divide my family between other immigrant families. How do we define the line that decides who is fortunate enough to lay their feet on American soil?

In January 2018, while I was celebrating my 20th birthday, Nolbiz Orellana was making his journey from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico Border to request asylum. With the murder rate “20 times that of London,” Associated Press journalist Alberto Arce told The Spectator  “on the streets of Honduras, you smell blood.”

Orellana, the then-17-year-old was amongst the possible victims when his abusive mother’s gang-related friends held a gun to his chest; threatening his life.

With a case for asylum, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent him to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children; approximately 30 miles from the University of Miami.

With hopes of being released to his family in Nebraska, Orellana stayed in the South Miami-Dade shelter until April 8th– his 18th birthday.

According to the Miami New Times, ICE arrived to the shelter, handcuffed Orellana, shackled his legs together, and drove him to the “infamous” immigration jail in Pompano Beach, the Broward Transitional Center. There, within 24 hours of legally being considered an adult, Orellana was placed amongst men “twice his age.”

Orellana’s harrowing transition is not only appalling but, illegal. According to the Miami immigration attorneys who have managed to release several other 18-year-olds facing the same dilemma, arresting Honduran refugees “seems to have become ICE’s national policy.”

Orellana’s attorney, Lisa Lehner from Americans for Immigrant justice, told the Miami New Times that “when they turn 18, it’s basically, ‘Happy birthday,’ and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers.”

Only miles away, the Homestead center has witnessed at least 14 children being arrested on their 18th birthday since April. At least one of those children are victims that have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, says Lehner.

Orellana, only two years my junior, is enduring devastating psychological impact. With hopeful innocence directing him to his Nebraskan relatives, he’s only discovered more pain in the United States than he experienced in Honduras.

ICE’s illegal policy in the Homestead shelter has affected not only Orellana, but, several more children in our own backyard.

As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Hispanics and Latinos of any race makeup for 23.2 percent of the American population with 8 percent (4.3 million) residing in Florida.

This begs the question: when do [we] start caring for our Hispanic children?


Photo credit: “Dream Act” by Raoul Deal, woodcut print

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