Jennifer Cruz and her big sister, Yesenia, are from El Salvador, and grew up in a small city east of the country’s capital.
They’re 16 years apart, but the sisters say that doesn’t matter.
They’ve had a special connection to each other since the moment Jennifer was born.
“She was tremendous,” Yesenia recalls in Spanish. “I saw her take her first steps, I took her to school and I dressed her like a pretty little princess. She was my little toy.”
Jennifer is now 17 years old. Yesenia is 33; KQED is not using her last name because of her immigration status.
These days, they live together in Yesenia’s modest two-bedroom apartment in San Mateo County.
The sisters share a complicated and painful past.
Their mother was married twice and had seven children altogether. Both husbands abandoned their children early on.
Yesenia, one of the older siblings, became caretaker to all her brothers and sisters while their mother tried to find work and make a living.
Yesenia did her best to make life happy, even though they lived in extreme poverty.
Jennifer remembers spending summer days at their neighborhood park, where Yesenia planted flowers.
“The flowers were yellow, and every summer these yellow flowers would bloom,” says Jennifer, also in Spanish. “People [in the neighborhood] would stop by and pick them.”
Gangs Move In
However, their community changed drastically when violent gangs began to infiltrate their town.
Their hometown is now one of the most violent places in El Salvador. Two of the country’s most notorious youth gangs — the Mara 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha – terrorize this community. Kidnappings and killings are a daily occurrence.
Yesenia was lucky.
She left El Salvador 10 years ago before the violence escalated.
But she never lost contact with Jennifer.
Yesenia would send her boxes of clothes and talk to her by phone at least once a week.
But Yesenia says their conversations grew ominous over the past several years as Jennifer would talk about the abductions, killings and extortion taking place in their own neighborhood.
The situation reached a breaking point when gang members began to target Jennifer — sexually tormenting her inside and outside school.
Gangs Up The Pressure
“They would say … ugly things. They wanted me by force. They wanted to have sex with me,” says Jennifer. “They weren’t going to leave me alone until I joined them or lived with them. If you live with mareros you’re not just with one. You’re with all of them.”
Human rights groups say gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are increasingly targeting young girls and forcing them into prostitution, drug smuggling or using them as their own sex slaves.
Girls who refuse their demands have been kidnapped, raped and murdered in some of the most gruesome ways.
For Jennifer, their threats finally escalated into violence when she walked home from school one day. A group of gang members began to follow her — one on a bike, the others on foot. When she tried to run away, one man pulled out a gun and began shooting.
Jennifer barely managed to escape.
When Yesenia found out by phone what had happened, she told Jennifer now was the time to get out of El Salvador.
Fearing this day would come, Yesenia had managed to save $6,000 and wired the money to a smuggler who — several years ago — brought one of their brothers to the U.S.
Less than a week later, that same coyote showed up to Jennifer’s house in a red car in the early morning. Another man was seated next to him. Jennifer had just gotten out of bed.
“[The smugglers] gave me some time to get washed up and change my clothes. I was scared because I’d never seen these men before,” Jennifer recalls. “Then, one of them told me, ‘From this point on, call me your uncle, and you’re my niece, okay?’ ”
Jennifer was whisked away. She was extremely fortunate because her smugglers treated her well. She was even able to call Yesenia at several points along the way.
However, it was on that last leg of the journey through Mexico when Yesenia lost all contact with Jennifer.
Days went by and no call. Her mind was racing. Finally, her cellphone rang.
A Swim to Freedom?
U.S. Border Patrol agents in Texas called Yesenia to tell her that Jennifer had turned herself in after she managed to swim across a section of the Rio Grande.
She spent nearly two months in government custody.
Refugee resettlement officials ran a background check on Yesenia and, despite being an undocumented immigrant, she was given clearance to be Jennifer’s legal guardian as the case worked its way through immigration court.
After spending nearly a decade apart, the two sisters finally found themselves face to face at San Jose International Airport.
“I just hugged her and said, ‘Thank God you’re here now!,’ ” says Yesenia. “She looked the same as when she was a little girl. Her eyes are the same.”
It’s been almost a year since Jennifer made the journey to the U.S., and adapting to life in the Bay Area has its challenges.
She’s among more than 900 unaccompanied minors who have been released to relatives or sponsors in Northern California since the beginning of the year.
Jennifer now faces the hurdles of daily life — from learning a new language to attending a public high school in San Mateo.
Right now her favorite class is art. A picture she drew of two hound dogs hangs in her bedroom. She shares that bedroom with her 4-year-old nephew, Walter, who has become a source of comfort for her.
“When he sees that I’m a little sad, he gives me hugs and says ‘No Jenni, don’t be sad anymore.’ He makes me smile.”
Jennifer says that of all the changes, the most significant is just feeling safe. She’s trying to stay focused on the present, but frightening memories still haunt her.
Yesenia says Jennifer often cries in her sleep.
Fears in the Night
“She’ll suddenly wake up and say, “He killed me!’ ” says Yesenia. “I tell her ‘Nothing has happened to you. You’re alive.’ She always has to keep a light at night because, if not, she gets really afraid.”
Even as she’s adjusting to life in California, the reality is Jennifer could very well be sent back to El Salvador.
Bureaucratic roadblocks delayed her first immigration court hearing, but things changed about a month ago after federal officials were told to expedite these cases.
Not too long ago, Jennifer received a large manila envelope in the mail with a notice to appear for her first immigration hearing.
Just as she was beginning to feel more comfortable in her new home, Jennifer once again faces an uncertain future.
Deportation Hearings Begin
Jennifer and Yesenia show up to juvenile immigration court in downtown San Francisco on a Tuesday afternoon.
This is the day they have been dreading — Jennifer’s first court hearing.
They tightly hold hands as they enter the elevator to rise to the eighth floor.
Yesenia still hasn’t found a lawyer to represent Jennifer in court. She doesn’t have enough money to hire one, and the limited number of pro bono immigration attorneys in San Francisco are inundated with these cases.
That’s a big problem for Jennifer and the dozen other kids in the courtroom. Legal experts say young migrants who do not have a proper attorney are deported nine times out of 10.
When Jennifer is called by the judge, she takes a huge breath and straightens her black blazer jacket.
Yesenia whispered a prayer.
Judge Amy Hoogasian asks Jennifer a series of questions, including why she still does not have an attorney. Jennifer responds through a translator.
Outside on the courtroom steps, Yesenia and Jennifer are relieved.
“She was a very understanding judge,” Yesenia responded. “Now, God willing, we’ll find a lawyer.”
The upshot: Her next hearing is in two months, giving Jennifer time to look for a lawyer before deportation proceedings begin.
With that threat clearly looming, Yesenia says she will do whatever it takes to get an attorney, even if it means taking on more hours at work and getting a second job. She says she’s now responsible for Jennifer’s future – and that future will not involve sending her baby sister back to El Salvador.