Immigrants get glimpse of American dream at GCU
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Two boys smiled to each other as a student zoomed past on a skateboard.
“They have never seen a place like this,” said Liliana Tequida of Southwest Key Programs, a nonprofit shelter for unaccompanied immigrant minors. “People riding on skateboards.”
Forty-five children, most from Guatemala or El Salvador who were detained at the border by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), toured Grand Canyon University on Wednesday to see what is possible in America.
The children, ages 12 to 17, are among approximately 1,500 immigrants who crossed the border unaccompanied and are housed in eight Southwest Key Programs in Arizona, where they are fed and educated, typically for 30 days, as authorities contact family members or foster care.
They toured GCU because another immigrant told them about this eye-popping campus of busy classrooms and laboratories, green grass and swimming pools, big arenas and soccer fields.
That immigrant was Dr. Noe Vargas, Assistant Dean of GCU’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
“I came to the U.S. at 16 from Mexico,” Vargas said. “I was encouraged by the first person I saw entering North High School, my high school advisor, Mrs. Dora Veach. She spoke Spanish, I related to her. I still keep in touch with her. So it’s important for me to contribute as I understand what is it to be an immigrant.”
Last month, Vargas agreed to give a talk to the children at Southwest Key.
“I gave them my story — that I was able to accomplish this American dream,” he said. “They need someone to identify with.”
Often, caregivers of immigrant children are more focused on them getting a job to help support the family and less on education, he said. But he tells the children it will be tough, really tough, yet they can can earn a college education in the U.S. and achieve those dreams.
On Wednesday, a few of the children remembered Vargas.
As they walked down the Promenade, their heads swiveled to students buzzing past and tilted to the big buildings.
They all wore the same tennis shoes with Velcro straps instead of shoelaces. The children have been through such trauma that anything that can be used to harm themselves is taken from them.
They have six hours of education a day and go on two outings a week. This was one of them.
Vargas’ goal was for them to see other immigrant professionals who have been successful with higher education. It also is the beginning of a relationship with the nonprofit, which includes internships and staff positions for GCU students, who already are being hired among its 2,200 case workers, educators and staff.
Teachers of the immigrants on the tour said that even if just one young person gets the message, it’s a victory.
Most of the children have contact with family members twice a week if they can be located, Tequida said.
The group walked through GCU Arena and some of the boys asked to see the basketball court, but a team was practicing so they couldn’t. They had been enraptured with American basketball since they played a game at the shelter.
They saw a group of students wearing nursing scrubs and asked in Spanish what they studied.
“Are you nursing students?” Tequida yelled to a group of a half-dozen students.
“Yes,” the students called back with a thumbs up.
The children smiled.
Vargas had conducted therapy sessions for immigrant children during previous employment. Although being an immigrant is a touchy subject in America now, he had heard their stories and follows Jesus’ message to love and to care for people in need. “These are human beings,” he said.
The children looked across the soccer field to a group of cheerleaders walking across the way and stopped, in awe. Tequida told them that if they could arrange to come to a basketball game, they could see the cheerleaders perform.
One of the tour leaders was Frankie Ramirez, a sophomore, who conducted a rare all-Spanish-language tour.
“I came from a family of immigrants. It’s giving back,” Ramirez said. “I think it’s good to get their minds off troubles.
“They were sweet.”
When asked what their most persistent question of the day was, it was encouraging.
“How do I get here?”
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.