Wednesday, November 25, 2015
AMHERST — Bryan Torres was 12 when he made a three-week journey from El Salvador to Northampton. He cried nearly every day. He didn’t know if he would see his grandmother again — the woman who had raised him for 10 years — but he knew he had to push forward to reunite with his mother. She had left 10 years earlier seeking a life free of gang violence for her family. Now she lived in Northampton, a city in the far reaches of the United States, a place he could barely imagine.
Torres traveled by car and foot with a group of strangers led by a guy he didn’t know. Among them was one other child, who at times trembled in fear with Torres as they made their way through Guatemala and Mexico.
It was only when men in uniforms stopped the group, now on foot, near the American border that Torres realized the trip was illegal. Suddenly it made sense why the journey had seemed so dangerous. “I didn’t ask questions,” he said.
After a grueling interrogation, during which it became clear he had no information that interested the immigration police, Torres was released into the United States as an undocumented immigrant. He was assigned a court docket number for eventual deportation.
That was 2006. After repeated delays of his deportation trial, Torres at age 21 is happily enrolled as a full-time student at Amherst College, where his professors see a bright future for him. But he is still in a legally precarious situation.
Ultimately, he hopes Congress will pass a version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, known as the DREAM Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001. This act offered a pathway to citizenship for people who came to the country as children. The people it aimed to help began to be known as DREAMers. While the act never became law, the name stuck.
Torres is a DREAMer. He also dreams of going to law school to specialize in immigration law, work that will help people like himself.
For him, that is possible because he is among the hundreds of thousands of young people approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program established by President Obama in 2012, which temporarily implemented some of the policies in the ill-fated DREAM act.
The DACA program allowed Torres to get a driver’s license, a work permit and most importantly qualify for in-state tuition at Holyoke Community College, where he graduated last year, before transferring to Amherst.
Without that program, he could not have afforded to continue his education, and would not have been able to apply to Amherst.
The DACA program was stalled and its expansion blocked earlier this month by a federal court ruling in Texas. This development may put obstacles back in Torres’ path.
Leah Schmalzbauer, his sociology and American studies professor at Amherst, believes that is a tragedy. “So few people who have his story would make it to Amherst,” Schmalzbauer said. “He’s an inspiration in so many ways.”
As harrowing as Torres’ journey was, getting to Northampton safely turned out to be the easy part. Torres spoke no English and found himself in a completely alien culture on top of the legal limitations that would later interfere with his education.
Only one other student at JFK Middle School spoke Spanish. Other students communicated with him using hand signals for the first six months it took him to learn to speak and understand English. Homework was nearly impossible. He could barely understand the words in his textbooks, let alone their topics.
“It was a shock,” he said. “I didn’t have any friends, and for a 13-year-old, that’s a very hard thing. That age is difficult already.”
It was a far cry from what school had been like for him in El Salvador.
“In my country I was always in the top of my class and always getting really good grades,” he said. “When I got here I went from the top to the bottom.”
It was around that time he met fellow El Salvadoran Angelica Monge, another DREAMer.
A year younger than Torres, Monge had her own ordeal to get across the U.S. border when she was 10. Her mother had packed up her and her older brother, leaving their youngest sibling behind with other family members.
Just like Torres, Monge rode in cars with strange adults and was apprehended by U.S. immigration agents at the border. Most of what she remembers about the day she was caught is a man in uniform calling her mother stupid for risking her children’s lives on such a trip.
But Monge understood her mother’s motivation: She was trying to save her children from a dangerous life in El Salvador.
“People were killed in the streets; you saw bodies just laying there,” Monge said. “My mom didn’t want that for us anymore. She wanted us to come here and have a better life.”
After living in California for a couple of years, the family moved to Amherst, where they settled down.
Torres and Monge met through mutual friends hanging out at the mall. For Torres, meeting another person from his home country gave him someone to talk to about his struggles learning English and difficulties in school.
For Monge, meeting Torres was nothing less than inspirational. She admired his hard work and lofty aspirations.
Torres not only wanted to go to college, something extremely difficult for a person just learning English, but he had his mind set on one of the most prestigious in the country — Amherst.
Former El Salvador President Francisco Flores was an Amherst graduate, and Torres wanted to follow in his footsteps.
“Amherst College was always on my mind,” he said.
His grades, however, were not good enough. When he graduated from Northampton High School in 2012, he did not even bother to apply to any competitive colleges. Instead he enrolled at Holyoke Community College.
Monge, who graduated from Amherst-Pelham Regional High School the same year, joined him there.
During that first semester at HCC, they had to pay out-of-state tuition because they were undocumented. Each paid about $5,000 to take three classes per semester — less than a full course load.
To pay the bills, they washed dishes and waited tables. Torres worked two jobs — at the now closed Side Street Cafe in Florence and at Ibiza Tapas in Northampton, where Monge also worked. Torres continued to live rent-free with his mother in a Florence rental. After her mother moved to Maryland, two years ago, Monge, at age 18, moved to her own apartment at The Boulders apartment complex on Brittany Manor Drive in Amherst with her siblings.
Still unable to get driver’s licenses, Torres and Monge took public buses to their jobs and to classes at HCC.
“Having the same struggles brought us closer together than we had been before,” Monge said. “We both saw how much we struggled to pay for school and to just be able to accomplish everything.”
While at HCC, Torres saw a flyer promoting something called the Pathways Program. This was a program that would allow him to transfer to another institution by pairing him up with an adviser who worked intensively with him. That was how he met the first person who believed he could get into Amherst — Irma Medina. Medina, senior coordinator for the Pathways Program, not only believed he could go Amherst, she would help him do it.
She already had worked with about a dozen students who had successfully transferred to Amherst.
Medina was inspired by Torres’ story and his desire to attend Amherst. She also knew about the obstacles standing in his way, the biggest being ineligibility for certain types of financial aid. As his “nosy adviser,” she said, she stayed on him “like white on rice.”
She has empathy for undocumented students, especially because many of them do not know they are undocumented until it comes time to apply for college.
“When you meet students like Bryan, that forces you to step back,” Medina said. “This is a different type of challenge. How we can help students like Bryan is limited.”
Medina knew that taking high level academic classes would be important in getting him into Amherst. She pushed him to take the classes and aggressively made sure he was completing his work.
For Torres, this was a chance to make the most of his education and find meaning in the difficulties he had encountered.
“To make it worth it, I had to do something — take advantage of all opportunities available,” he said.
Life got easier the next semester when Torres and Monge were accepted into President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. That granted them the ability to work legally and get driver’s licenses. They also became eligible for in-state tuition at HCC.
The program temporarily provides those benefits to undocumented immigrants who came to the United States when they were younger than 16 and were still under 31 on June 15, 2012, when it went into effect. Those who apply for the program must be enrolled in college, have graduated high school, earned their GED or have been honorably discharged from the armed forces or the Coast Guard.
Torres’s tuition prices dropped to $2,000 for a full course load, he said. As soon as he qualified for the reduced tuition, he took five classes, as many as he could, he said.
Monge benefitted from the reduced tuition, too, but she decided to remain a half-time student so she could keep working to pay her rent and other expenses, she said.
Under Medina’s watchful eye, Torres aced his courses and filled out his application for Amherst College. He was accepted in December for the spring semester.
Wearing his white and purple Amherst sweater at the Frost Library earlier this month, Torres said Amherst has been good to him. Faculty are supportive and have helped him through the rigorous academics.
“If I did middle school without knowing any English, this shouldn’t be as hard as that,” Torres said. “Whenever it gets tough, I think of that.”
Medina said the institution made a good choice admitting him.
“I think Amherst is lucky to have someone like Bryan,” Medina said. “The students there can learn from him, as well.”
Schmalzbauer, who teaches Torres in her “Gender, Power and Migration: Latinos in the Americas” class, said he already has emerged as a leader among her students.
She met Torres when he toured the school last fall, visiting her class. She was excited when she learned he’d been accepted. She said he impressed her time and again in class.
“He has opened it up as a space to talk about personal lives and how they intersect with history and policy and what we’re studying,” she said.
Torres volunteered to lead her class when she was stuck in South Carolina earlier this month.
Torres is not alone as an undocumented student at Amherst. The school has admitted 22 such students in the past five years.
Amherst Dean of Admissions Katharine Fretwell said Amherst is one of 16 U.S. colleges that are need blind for non-U.S. citizens, offering the same promise to meet financial need to those students as they do for citizens.
“An Amherst education seeks to foster robust exchange and development of diverse ideas at the highest level,” Fretwell wrote in an email to the Gazette. “We recognize that there are talented undocumented students with the potential to make unique and significant contributions to the intellectual and social vitality of our campus.”
Providing such students financial aid is important because they are not eligible for most forms of federal and state financial aid, she noted.
Monge watched Torres, and learned from him. Still a student at HCC, she also joined the Pathways Program with Medina. Monge said she sees Medina as her “other mother.”
“She cares about the things we’re struggling with,” Monge said. “She recommends classes to challenge us to be better.”
Next year, Monge intends to apply to a handful of schools — including Amherst. She is taking classes in immigration and political studies and hopes to work in immigration law or as an advocate for immigrant rights, she said.
Both Monge and Torres said they were distressed this month to hear of Judge Andrew Hanen’s ruling in a federal court in Brownsville, Texas, delaying Obama’s executive action on immigration. Announced in November, the president’s action would expand the DACA program to those older than 31, extend the time period for work permits and create a new deferred action plan for the undocumented immigrant parents of children born in the United States.
In his 123-page ruling addressing a lawsuit brought by 26 states against the federal government, Hanen wrote that states lose millions of dollars each year in law enforcement, education and health care expenses for undocumented immigrants.
Torres thinks about that, and comments that if a judge had delayed the original DACA program in 2012, he would not have been able to make it into Amherst.
Monge says without the protection of DACA, she would be constantly afraid of deportation to a country she no longer knows.
Meanwhile, Monge has moved to Northampton. She hopes to have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those who were in situations similar to hers.
“I don’t want to work as a waitress my whole life, so having an education is extremely important,” Monge said. “If my mom risked her life and my life to an extent to come here, I should have an education and I should be someone who can help other people.”
Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at email@example.com.