Marcos Morales has been in the United States six months, and he already is a musical leader of Mensajeros de Paz, the band that plays on Tuesday night for Latino worshipers at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Roseville.
Members of the band, whose name means Messengers of Peace, surround Morales, 20, as he plays the electric organ. Several hundred congregants pray, sway, clap and sing to the music. Morales’ younger brother, Alex, 18, stands nearby playing a guiro, a metal percussion instrument that looks like a steel thermos.
Marcos Morales came to Sacramento after fleeing gang violence in Guatemala – part of a wave of unaccompanied minors, young people and families from Central America that has inundated the U.S. border in Texas and California over the past year. Alex arrived in 2012, traveling alone when he was 16.
Both young men followed their parents.
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From Oct. 1 through June 30, more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors have been apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol, along with many thousands of others who came with their parents or, like Marcos Morales, were over 18 when they arrived. Most of them have since been connected with relatives and placed in expedited deportation proceedings. About 70 kids have come to the Sacramento region, according to Susan Bowyer of the Immigration Center for Women and Children in San Francisco, which links the families of border kids to legal and social services.
“Most of the border kids here are from Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Salvador,” said Rosalba Heredia, a volunteer at St. Rose of Lima.
The number of Guatemalans living in the United States illegally roughly doubled between 2000 and 2012, rising from 290,000 to 560,000, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Guatemalans represent the third-largest population of unauthorized immigrants in America, trailing only Mexicans and Salvadorans.
The story of what drove the Morales family north – a combination of poverty and gang violence – echoes the experience of others who recently have arrived from Central America.
First to leave Guatamala was the boys’ father, Trinidad Morales, a farmer who said he was forced to quit school after third grade to help support his family. Morales said he earned just $300 a year and couldn’t afford to buy his four children shoes or toys. He had a friend in Sacramento, so he came here looking for work.
“I came because I wanted my children to study and have a better life,” Morales said. “I did not want them to be criminals.”
His wife, Sondra Socop, said she begged him not to leave for Sacramento. “I was afraid the marriage wouldn’t last,” said Socop.She followed him in 2007, leaving the boys in the care of their grandparents. The parents said they didn’t expect their kids to join them in the U.S., but instead hoped to send enough money back so they could complete their educations.
Now husband and wife each work two full-time restaurant jobs and rent a two-bedroom apartment in Citrus Heights.
After their parents left, the brothers sold the family cows and bought a taxicab, according to documents filed in Immigration Court. It was then, they said, that the gang members came around, demanding money.
In his petition for asylum, Alex Morales said he fled his hometown of Santa Domingo, about 100 miles south of Guatemala City, on May 25, 2012, after being beaten up 10 times by Mara Salvatrucha (MS) gang members who threatened to kill him and his brother for refusing to pay a “quota” commonly demanded of taxi drivers.
Alex Morales said MS gang leader Omar Hosea Lancost demanded money, saying he knew that the boy’s parents had gone to the United States. “He threw me up against the wall and hit me, then took my brother’s cellphone and called my parents and told them if he did not receive ($120) he was going to kill both of us,” Morales said in his declaration to the court.
Afraid to go to school, Alex Morales said in his petition, he took his savings and headed north to Chiapas, Mexico, to meet a woman his father knew. She gave him a bus ticket and a phone number to call once he arrived in Reynosa, Mexico, on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, across the border from Hidalgo, Texas.
“The lady asked for $4,000, but my parents said they wouldn’t pay her until she delivered me,” Morales recounted in his petition.
He said he stayed in a safe house for 15 days with other immigrants, then was taken across the border in a raft, entering Texas on June 20, 2012. The group walked the through the night until they got to another safe house near the border, where he shared a room with 11 others. After seven days, they were taken outside to cross the desert. He said they were chased by the Border Patrol and fled deeper into the desert for three more days.
A rancher offered to help arrange transport to Sacramento if his father sent money, Alex Morales said in his immigration petition. But after the money arrived, the rancher stopped helping, the Border Patrol raided the ranch, and he was detained near Palmview, Texas, before his parents bought him a plane ticket.
“I stayed in a detention center with about 300 other kids for about five days, eating beans and rice,” he said in his petition. “They came from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, and some were as young as 14.”
Many endured much tougher trips. Immigration lawyers say they have clients who were raped, abused and chased by Mexican cartels.
Earlier this year, Marcos Morales fled as well. He was picked up in Hidalgo and sent to a detention center in Batavia, N.Y., where he told an asylum officer in an interview that Lancost, the gang leader, had threatened to kill him and had threatened his uncle with a machete. He told the officer that the police were ineffectual because officials at the agency that oversees them are in collusion with gang leaders.
The asylum officer concluded that Marcos Morales had a credible fear of torture. His family posted $7,500 bond, and Marcos took a bus to Sacramento.
“I’m happy; I couldn’t feel any safer,” he said on a recent Saturday afternoon after eating lunch with his family.
Marcos aspires to be a DJ. Alex, now a senior at San Juan High School, plans to become an auto mechanic. They miss their two sisters in Guatemala, Sandra, 14, and Daisy Mariza, 17, but say it’s too dangerous for teenage girls to travel alone to the border.
The brothers’ immigration attorney, Douglas Lehrman, said the brothers may be treated differently because Alex came as an unaccompanied minor, while Marcos was 19 when he arrived. Marcos is likely to face a higher burden of proof that he was persecuted and qualifies for asylum.
“The challenge will be to prove that the alleged death threats and beatings by the MS gang fall under the legal definition of persecution,” Lehrman said. “Special consideration is given to how a child may react after experiencing or witnessing violent acts, and how it affects them psychologically.”
Alex Morales’ asylum hearing won’t be held until 2016, because his case started before the Obama administration called for expedited hearings for border kids.
Lehrman has filed a change of venue to try to get Marcos’ immigration case moved to San Francisco from New York. The brothers’ parents remain undocumented, but the government has not attempted to deport them.
For now, the brothers and their parents are relieved to be together. On Saturday afternoons, when their parents are off work, they spend time in their apartment, where the brothers share a room and a TV. Alex and Marcos look forward to these afternoons because the family often dines out, either at El Pollo Loco or a neighborhood Chinese buffet.
One recent Saturday, as they sat on their sofa after lunch, Socop looked at her daughters’ picture and said, “We are praying so much that God will touch the heart of U.S. authorities to please help us, help the people coming, the kids.”