Alexandra Starr is an Emerson fellow at the New American Foundation.
Immigration reform is in the headlines these days, fanning optimism among many undocumented immigrants and their families. Four and a half years ago, however, a much more sober immigration story seized national attention, when a group of teenagers killed the Ecuadorian immigrant Marcelo Lucero in Patchogue, Long Island. They later admitted they attacked him because of his ethnicity.
News reports and documentaries about the murder focused on how an influx of Latin American immigrants in the 1990s and 2000s had transformed the town’s population from almost exclusively working class white to nearly one-third Latino.
The killing did prod community leaders to try to build more cohesiveness in the town. Several prayer vigils were convened. There was a Soccer for Peace tournament, where immigrants and longer-term residents played games in a festive atmosphere. What isn’t much known is that the murder also helped create an unusual family: in a roundabout way, it introduced a veteran biology teacher at Patchogue High School to a recently-arrived Salvadoran immigrant teenager. She ultimately became his guardian.
It is perhaps not entirely surprising that Gail Shaffer ended up taking in Salvadoran teenager Manuel Gonzalez. Shaffer had adopted another one of her students who had a difficult home life in the 1980s. And she had spent the last several years of her teaching career as Patchogue High School’s English as a Second Language biology teacher.
Gonzalez wasn’t one of her students. Shaffer met him because he played on one of the Soccer for Peace teams she helped organize. She hired Gonzalez and other players to do yard work at her home and--during their talks on the deck during lunch breaks--Shaffer learned that Gonzalez was homeless. His mother had left him in El Salvador when he was three months old so she could come to the United States to look for work. Gonzalez didn’t see her again until he was 16 years old. His mother had remarried and had two more children in the States, and Gonzalez says he never fit into his mother’s new life. The two began fighting, and she eventually kicked him out of her home. When Shaffer learned that Gonzalez wasn’t living with his family, she said he could live with her.
She ultimately volunteered to do more than provide him with food and shelter. Gonzalez had crossed the border into the United States illegally, and was caught and apprehended. Because he was a minor, he wasn’t automatically deported, but rather sent to family in the United States. In order to avoid being sent back to El Salvador, he had two options: apply for asylum or for a little known program called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, or SIJS. Only a few thousand SIJS visas are allocated every year. They are reserved for underage immigrants who can demonstrate they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected by a parent or guardian. Because of what had happened with his mother, Gonzalez qualified. He also needed someone to come forward as his guardian. Gail Shaffer volunteered to be that person.
Gonzalez found applying for SIJS to be emotionally grueling. The first step in filing a SIJS petition is to have a parent declared unfit in Family Court. Gonzalez’s mother fought losing her parental rights, and Gonzalez found it painful to testify against her. The fact that Shaffer really became the parental figure he had lacked in his life--not only providing for him materially, but also tutoring him in English and pushing him to find his footing in the United States--made it easier for him to go through the process. And there was a tangible benefit to going through with the SIJS case. Gonzalez now has a green card.
The circuitous path Gonzalez took to legal residency could become a lot more straightforward for other immigrants in his position, if immigration reform passes. But as Shaffer sees it, the green card is just the first step. Now she is pushing Gonzalez to enroll in English classes and obtain a high school equivalency degree. The former teacher sees enormous potential in Gonzalez. Now she’s pushing him to make good on it, and the opportunity he has been given to make a life in the United States.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Marcelo Lucero as Salvadorean. He is from Ecuador.