Dr. Selma Yznaga distinctly remembers meeting Marco* at the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Brownsville, Texas in 2019. Marco was a teenager. He has just fled for his life from a violent cartel in his home country in Central America.
Dr. Yznaga provides mental health care to asylum seekers, advocates on behalf of unaccompanied minors, and is an associate professor for the Department of Counseling at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Like the hundreds of moving stories she has heard before, Dr. Yznaga carries Marco’s story with her every day.
U.S. law requires that Customs and Border Protection officers who encounter Central American unaccompanied minors transfer them to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they must be held in the “least restrictive setting” and meet with counselors. While her background is in mental health, at the Young Center Dr. Yznaga acts as an advocate. She gets to know the children and their stories through weekly meetings. Equipped with colored pencils and board games, she learns of their desires and goals so that she can help the Young Center’s attorneys fight for the kids’ best interests.
Dr. Yznaga makes one thing clear: “These kids are strong.” It takes monumental will, emotional resources, and resilience to flee and survive the journey to the U.S. border.
At first, Marco was reserved and uninterested in the Young Center’s services. But Dr. Yznaga explained to him that meeting on a weekly basis would help her and the lawyers figure out how to best represent him. Marco decided to give it a chance.
But he didn’t want to draw or play games. He wanted to read. This surprised Dr. Yznaga because he had never received formal schooling. She asked him if he liked Harry Potter. Marco smiled and said “I have already read all of those books. But have you ever heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez?” They read One Hundred Years of Solitudetogether, and Marco started to share his own story in between its chapters.
Marco described growing up on the streets. His single mother died of cancer when he was five years old and he had no other family to care for him. Marco got by selling candy with other orphaned children. After a few years, he moved on to washing windows and stealing gasoline to re-sell. When he was about 13 years old, a cartel approached him and asked him to be a foot soldier. The money was much better than before. But the violence and intimidation he witnessed made him regret his decision.
Marco tried to run away so as not to participate in the cartel’s brutality. But the cartel found him, beat him, and brought him back into the fold. Marco ran away again. They found him again and tortured him for days.
Marco faced unrelenting cruelty. “The third time he ran away, they found…the only friend he’d ever had—and tortured that friend,” Dr. Yznaga recalled. Once his friend suffered torture, Marco felt he had no choice but to stay with the cartel, and they soon forced him into prostitution. The final time he ran away, he made it to the U.S. border and asked for asylum.
Dr. Yznaga reflected on her two-person book club with Marco, and how he slowly came to trust her. “He taught me so much.” Dr. Yznaga smiled as she recalled Marco. “He was so noble,” a word that, in Spanish, conveys a spirit of kindness and integrity. Dr. Yznaga considers the children she meets at the Young Center, who are resourceful and wise-beyond-their years, to be among her life’s greatest teachers.
Dr. Yznaga’s experiences volunteering at shelters and group homes contradict the narrative the U.S. media tells of border communities. “On the news, Americans see masses of poor, desperate migrants,” said Dr. Yznaga. “But what people don’t understand [is that] each one of these people has something to offer.”
When pandemic hit and the Trump administration sealed the border to children and asylum seekers, Dr. Yznaga met with asylum seekers in the Remain in Mexico program who were stranded in Matamoros over Zoom or phone. She also trains paraprofessionals to provide trauma-informed counseling for people who recently crossed the border.
Dr. Yznaga sees immense need for counselors working with migrant communities. “As a mental health professional, I am good at telling when someone is genuinely scared and when somebody is acting,” she said. “Nobody can act their way through the disclosures I hear every day.” She said she fears that people who presume asylum seekers lie about their experiences will only further traumatized them.
When asked what Brownsville needs, Dr. Yznaga replied, “We need training for volunteers and more mental health professionals ready to hear this pain”. Like Marco, we need to be noble.
* Marco is a pseudonym to protect the asylum seeker’s identity.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.