Becoming the guardian of an immigrant teenager is not only a political commitment; it comes with powerful emotional rewards and costs.
Undocumented Central Americans along our rural Connecticut-New York border were being arrested for minor auto infractions almost as soon as Donald Trump became president. Ineligible for a driver’s license, they could remain relatively safe if they didn’t drive a car, but getting to work or to a doctor or lawyer necessitated finding someone with a car, a license and time to spare. I met Wilfido in early spring of 2017, after an email went out that a student at Webatuck High School in New York needed a ride to the immigration clinic at the law school of the State University of New York at Albany, an hour-and-a-half away.
He was a small, solitary teenager, perhaps my height, with a vibrant, round, Indian face, intense black eyes and a thick shock of straight black hair inside a navy-blue hoodie. Bilingual in Q’eqchi and Spanish, he tended to be quiet when the conversation was in English, though when he did speak, his pronunciation was almost flawless. Of our first meeting, I recall one sentence: “My mother has disappeared,” said objectively, as if it were a puzzling fact that needed airing.
New York and Connecticut grant “special immigrant juvenile status” to young immigrants who have been abused or abandoned by their parents and have obtained a legal guardian. Before Trump, this was the first step in a fairly automatic process leading to a Green Card. While special immigrant juvenile status is open to youth under 18 in Connecticut, where I live, it extends to 21 in New York. Since Wilfido had already turned 17, he would live in the rectory of Grace Episcopal Church in Millbrook, New York, and I would apply for guardianship using New York law. With the prospect of legal guardianship, I went with Wilfido to transfer from Webatuck High School, which he had spottily attended while living alone and supporting himself as a dishwasher, to Millbrook High School, a short walk from the rectory.
Bob and I are a childless couple. We are generally self-reflective and cautious, but we wholeheartedly embraced the guardianship project as our main act against Trump’s policies. We didn’t consider what it meant psychologically to be abandoned or how his mother might reappear. In preparation for a hearing in Poughkeepsie Family Court, I passed background checks in both Connecticut and New York, and arranged for a home visit by a social worker, with Wilfido present for a confidential interview. (The priest at Grace Episcopal was doing much the same.) In February 2018, at our second court appearance, I became Wilfido’s legal guardian.
That winter, Wilfido and I took the train to New York to close his deportation order in Federal Immigration Court. Though he had never complained of feeling endangered, many hours later, as I dropped him off at the rectory, I recall him saying, “Carol, I feel happy … I feel … safe!”
I grew accustomed to driving Wilfido wherever he needed to go. Being in the car together was intimate: We could be silent, or one of us would speak. Often, Wilfido asked me about economic mysteries of life in the United States. Were teachers paid during the summer? How did the government know how much a worker earned? Or he would launch into a tirade about a Latino student whose actions offended him. Increasingly impressed by his intelligence and sensitivity, I soon regarded his quiet as moments of thought.
I became a recognized face at Millbrook High School, dropping him off and picking him up at the end of the day, talking to teachers at Parent Night and accompanying him to the counselor to discuss the courses he still needed for graduation. Discovering that he couldn’t see the green board, I paid for eye glasses, which he proudly carried with him everywhere, and wore both in class and while driving. He was also becoming comfortable enough with me to bare his teeth to me — and, in case I didn’t notice, point out exactly where they were crooked. When we finally began going to the orthodontist together, I was amazed at how proudly he wore his braces, as if they showed that someone thought him worthy of spending thousands of dollars.
Still, that first year was difficult. Bob and I are regular in our habits. But Wilfido had grown up without family meals and with parents who only became interested in his whereabouts when they needed his physical labor. He was confused by our wanting to know when he would arrive, and he was reluctant to make promises or call if he was delayed or changed his plans. I recall a weekend he was spending with us when he left with his Q’eqchi-speaking friend, promising to return in a couple of hours; as 5 o’clock turned to 6 and then 7, and we began to eat dinner without him, I alternated between anger and fear for his safety.
Once, when I was irritated at Wilfido for surprising me with a sudden departure, he sagely pointed out that the only thing he and I argued was about was his coming and going. He was saying that we never disagreed on important matters. Yet in the refugee family I had grown up with, arrivals and departures were always fraught, as if they evoked all the unreliability and lurking dangers we couldn’t hold at bay.
When a work permit and a Social Security number arrived in the mail in fall 2018, Wilfido rushed to apply to the DMV for a learner’s permit. Now, picking him up, I would slide over so that he could practice at the wheel. Although I worried that his driving might curtail our conversation, it soon became clear that he could both steer expertly and discuss whatever was on his mind.
Though there were ways I still hoped Wilfido might change, I began to see that the upset and fears he aroused in me were mine to work on. He was inevitably at school or the rectory when he agreed to meet, yet when I drove to pick him up, I would be overcome by anxiety that he wouldn’t be there. When I hadn’t seen him for several days, my heart would grow cold, as if in preparation for a terrible abandonment. Sometimes, even when we were together in the same room, I could feel panic rising because I knew Wilfido would soon take off. I watched the first hairs appear on his chin, and we noticed together how his voice was changing. Slim when we met, he grew sturdy and muscular. I could feel my grief that he was maturing. My period of parenting a fragile boy had been so short!
Wilfido was expecting to graduate from high school in January 1919. He had discovered that his mother was in Texas, and he was talking regularly to her on his cell phone. Although he wanted to spend six months in Houston helping her with her food-truck business, one of my goals had been to convince him of the importance of a college education. I kept hoping that he would go directly to a community college. One afternoon, as we spoke to the Latino counselor at Grace Church, Wilfido repeated his plan to go to Houston. The news was so painful that I could hardly draw a breath. As I raced to my car after the meeting, I could hear Wilfido running after me. Wrapping me in his arms, he said, “I say things aloud sometimes to figure out what I want.”
“I love you, Wilfido,” I blurted, for the first time.
“I know,” he said. “I can feel it.”
Wilfido’s driver’s license had given him the identification he needed to fly anywhere within the United States. Wanting to make it easier for him to see his mother and reward him for agreeing to go directly to college, I offered to pay for a Christmas visit—his first commercial flight. It was the day before Christmas, as Wilfido, Bob and I awakened at 4 a.m. for the snowy hour-and-a-half drive to Bradley International Airport. While Bob and I stood outside the ropes, waving encouragingly, he wound his way up the serpentine line to show his ticket and driver’s license to the ID checker—all OK!—and from there to the conveyer belt, where he took off his boots for the electronic screener.
He called almost every day while he was gone. Though my heart was in turmoil, I told him that I hoped he and his mother were taking the opportunity to talk to each other.
Upon his return, we agreed to see each other on New Year’s Day. An hour before I was to pick him up from the rectory, the phone rang. Wilfido sounded like he was weeping. Though the weather was gray and freezing, he said he was taking a walk. He needed to be alone. Since returning, everything seemed “upside down.” Through tears, he cried out to me, “Why did you ever think my mother and I would be able to talk?”
Sensing that I needed to keep our time together safe from my prying curiosity, I set a game of checkers on our coffee table the next time he came over. As Wilfido regained an apparent sturdiness over the next weeks, he and Bob played checkers. Wilfido had the capacity to imagine four or five moves ahead, and tended to beat Bob mercilessly, which made them both laugh with surprised delight. For the first time, Wilfido seemed to feel closer to Bob than to me.
In January 2019, though he still lacked a one-semester course in high school math, he enrolled as an unmatriculated student at Dutchess Community College. Regretting the loss of our long drives together, I lent him my car, which enabled him to study math at Millbrook High School in the morning and take sociology and U.S. history at DCC in the afternoon.
As it turned out, his courses required difficult reading and essay writing for which he was unprepared. As we spent regular hours in my cozy study, reviewing the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Great Depression, or the ways race and class expressed themselves in contemporary America, we would drop into personal reflections. One afternoon, Wilfido held his bronze arm against my paler arm for our joint inspection, as he contemplated his future in this country, which had been the source of such fantastic dreams.
Wilfido was working for an excavator as a summer job when he called me one afternoon to say his grandfather in Guatemala had died, and his mother was leaving for the funeral. He needed to say goodbye and help her close up her food-truck business. Two hours later, I was driving him to the airport.
With Wilfido back in Houston, we began texting, emailing or telephoning a couple of times a week, none of which was entirely satisfactory to me. What soon became apparent was that his mother had missed the funeral, and showed no sign of returning to her husband and two younger children. But he was making himself useful, cooking for her customers and preparing her second truck to be shipped back to Guatemala. I could hear his pride in handling the bureaucratic or legal steps she didn’t have the knowledge or legal authority to transact. I kept to myself my unease and made sure that he knew how often he was in my thoughts.
In early July, Trump threatened a raid of undocumented immigrants in ten cities, including Houston. The day before the raids were to begin, I sent Wilfido a list of his legal rights should ICE agents knock on his mother’s door. Although he had enough documentation to avoid arrest and deportation, she had an outstanding deportation order, and he could easily be swept up in a massive roundup.
This past fall, Wilfido declared his major at DCC as music. Since he plays the guitar in his Q’eqchi-Spanish church, this didn’t appear an unreasonable choice. But he had taught himself to play the guitar by imitating what he heard. For him, music theory, which included learning to read music, was an entirely new language. Moreover, the music history course he’d signed up for assumed a knowledge of European history, about which he knew nothing. Wilfido liked being a good student, and I suspected he was falling behind. One day he complained of how different his life as a student was than that of his Q’eqchi friends, and he began talking again of spending time with his mother. Finally, he admitted that he needed my help, and we spent the last weeks of the semester in marathon sessions of writing papers and cramming for exams. I was amazed at how fast he could commit random facts to memory, and how happy he clearly was when he suddenly understood the definition of a cantata or a madrigal. But he couldn’t make up for a semester of letting things slide. He was pretty sure he had failed at least one course when he admitted that he had promised his mother to spend the spring semester in Houston.
Wilfido, Bob and I vacationed together in a sixth-floor walkup in San Juan, Puerto Rico, during the week surrounding Christmas. The idea had been Wilfido’s; after three years together, he wanted to celebrate the family we’d become. And a loving family we were, though for me his decision to return to his mother in Houston gave our time together a bitter edge. On Christmas morning, I awoke early and wrote him a letter. I said that we loved him, and that our love and support would be there, beyond his 21st birthday, which ended my legal guardianship. We would love and support him no matter what choices he made. I watched Wilfido’s mouth work to steady himself as he slowly read the letter. Then, folding it carefully, he slid it back in the envelope, and we went out into the warm sunshine to enjoy our day together.
Carol Ascher is a writer and spiritual director (Bekhol Levavkha, Hebrew Union College). She is the author of seven books of fiction and nonfiction, and spent many years as an anthropologist (Ph.D., Columbia University) studying equality in public education.