One Friday after school last June, I went to play soccer with friends in the park in Brentwood, New York, where I live. I love the soccer fields there. There are lights and grass, and it feels so much nicer and safer than the fields where I used to play. In El Salvador, where I’m originally from, a gun might go off or gang members might grab a player off the field and beat him up.
Walking home with my friend, Juan* around 8 p.m., I felt good. We ran into a kid we knew from school, Andres,* and he joined us. I knew Andres’ face, and I would say, “Hey, what’s up?” when we ran into each other at school, but I didn’t know him well.
As we were walking, Juan and I started to joke around and shove each other, laughing. All of a sudden, we saw a police car pull up. For months, the police had been stopping me frequently and accusing me of being in a gang. Their “evidence” was based on nothing — a doodle they found in my notebook and people I said hello to at school. I had even asked to meet with the police to explain to them that I’m not in a gang.
But this encounter went further. Officers got out of the car and arrested Andres right away. Then they told me and Juan to sit down on the curb. We waited a while, then they called me over to their car.
The cops asked if I was friends with Andres. I said no.
They asked if I knew he was in a gang. I said no.
I asked what was happening. One of them told me I was being arrested for “acting stupid.”
They took Juan and me to the precinct, where we spent the night. For a few hours, I was handcuffed and shackled to the wall, unable to walk around in the cell. The next day, officials took us to court for disturbing the peace. The judge said she would release me because the alleged offense was only an infraction, but the police had called the immigration authorities. We were so scared. They said they were going to deport us.
If Andres was a gang member, I had no idea, and I was never part of any gang. I was terrified. I thought I would lose everything, including my mom, who is the most important person in my life.
The next day, the police brought me to an adult prison. It was a horrible, ugly place, and the guards locked me up with real gang members. When we went outside for recreation, the adult prisoners cursed at us because they thought we were members of a gang. I was so scared. You could be asleep or awake, and it wouldn’t make a difference — it was a nightmare either way.
Days later, my family was able to pay bail and I went home. One of the five police officers who arrested me days earlier came to my house to arrest me again. “You aren’t legal,” he said. “I need to give you to immigration. You’ll probably be deported.
That wasn’t true. I was going through the slow process of hearings to try to get legal status in the United States. I still have no idea why the police officers picked me up that second time. All I know is a few days later, I was driven to the airport and put on a plane. I ended up in a juvenile detention center in Virginia.
I had come to the United States because I’d refused to join a gang, and gang members were threatening my life back in El Salvador. First they started coming up to me in the street when I was on my way to church or to the store. They told me to join them or they’d hurt me. One day when I was home on our farm with my sister, men with guns opened the door and just walked into our house. They said they would kill us if I didn’t join them.
The next day my sister and I ran away to another town. That was the beginning of a trip that would eventually take us to the United States, where our mom had been living.
It was a hard adjustment to school in Brentwood. I struggled with English. I had never taken courses like algebra and biology and history. Sometimes the teachers made negative comments about immigrants. Kids born in the United States picked on immigrant kids all the time.
At first, I didn’t feel afraid of gangs in Brentwood, because in this country, people respect the law. I didn’t associate with gang members, so I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. Then one day in the fall, I saw on the news that two girls from my school had been killed by gang members.
I felt afraid to go to school. I wanted to change schools or move to a different town. My mom was scared too and said she’d look into moving.
In February, I was coming into school late one day and security guards stopped me in the hallway, searched my bag, and went through all of my notebooks. On one page of a notebook, I had written the numbers 503, the country code for El Salvador. For me the digits were a symbol of home, something I doodled when I was bored in class. But the security guards called the police officer stationed in our school, and he said the digits showed I was part of a Salvadoran gang.
Even though I said I had never been part of any gang, I was suspended, and soon Suffolk County police officers started stopping me in the street all the time. To keep myself safe from gangs, I tried to keep a low profile at school and be friendly to everyone — but officers said I was friends with gang members.
I was moved to juvenile detention facilities in Virginia and California, and now I’m in upstate New York. I hate being locked up, without being able to see my family, without being able touch them. I have the best mother in the world — she’s always believed in me and she wants me to be someone important — and I hate that I’m not with her. I just want to spend my summer with my mom barbequing in the park with sodas and carne asada and joking and talking about our lives.
I don’t belong locked up. I can’t understand why I’ve been in jail for more than two months. I never belonged to a gang. I never hurt anyone. I never threatened anyone. I fled from the gangs in my country. And I thought I was coming to a country where I would be safe.
* F.E. is initials only, and Juan and Andres are both pseudonyms to protect the identities of minors.