When an American teenage boy turns 17, it’s a pretty big day in his life. He is almost, but not quite, a man. The choices he faces reflect that near-adulthood status. Some of these choices are big. Will he go to college? Should he get a job? Join the military? Some of these choices are not-so-big. Should he study for the SATs? Skip it to go to a party with his friends? Rocky Road or Cherry Garcia?
When Nelson turned 17, he faced one choice, and it was a huge one: Join the notorious “18 gang” of Honduras, or die.
Up until that moment, all of Nelson’s choices had been made for him. Needed on his family’s hardscrabble farm, he was forced to drop out of school. When he wasn’t doing farm chores, Nelson worked a job in construction, bringing home his meager earnings to help support his younger siblings.
Nelson isn’t overly large or tall, but he has the wiry strength so often associated with years of physical labor. He also has an easygoing and gentle nature that belies his core of inner strength.
Nelson wanted nothing to do with the gangs. “I didn’t want to be part of their evildoings,” he says firmly. “I didn’t want any part of drugs.”
Yet he had seen enough to know these gang members weren’t making idle threats. They had killed before; they would kill again, with no more compunction than if they saw a bug in the street and squashed it.
“I knew they would kill me the next time they saw me,” Nelson says. “I knew I had to go.”
Nelson fled Honduras with just enough money to get him away—all that his father could spare. He ran out of money in Central Mexico. He lived on the streets and found itinerant work selling juices. Often he would not have enough money to buy food. He was hungry and tired and scared. After eight months, he finally made contact with a distant relative in the United States. This honorary “uncle” offered to pay for the rest of his trip to the United States.
In November 2013, after a harrowing trip through Mexico, Nelson was caught by U.S. Immigration officials at the border. For three days he was held at the “hielera,” or “icebox””—a glacially-cold, unfurnished warehouse where hundreds of migrants are packed together until they can be processed.
But Nelson was lucky in one major aspect: his age. He was still only 17 years old. Legally a child, he could not be sent to the adult detention center and summarily deported. Instead, he was taken into custody by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).
At the ORR shelter, Nelson was housed with other children. He received humane treatment, but it was still like being in jail. Although Nelson tried to be brave in front of the younger kids, he was worried. Most American teens look forward to their 18th birthday, but Nelson watched the calendar with dread. The days being marked off were like the blinking seconds of a doomsday clock. Nelson knew that if he couldn’t find someone to help him before his birthday, he would be deported back to Honduras, where the gangs were waiting for him.
Julie Flanders, legal director of Austin Justice for Our Neighbors, took over Nelson’s case in November of 2013. Here, Nelson was lucky again. Getting him out of the shelter and to his relatives in Texas was going to take a super-human effort. Like an episode of the old television series, MacGyver, Julie worked at break-neck speed, racing against the clock, managing it at the very last possible moment. Nelson was released to his relatives in the late afternoon on December 7, 2013.
It was his 18th birthday.
Suffice to say, it was the best birthday present ever.
Today, Nelson lives with his relatives on a small farm near Austin and is part of their close and loving family.
Thanks to the continuing efforts of Julie and Austin JFON, Nelson is now a Legal Permanent Resident with permission to work, get a driver’s license, and travel. He is learning English so he can get a better job—one that would allow him to send money home to his siblings so they can go to school.
Meanwhile, he dreams of traveling to other countries and seeing the world.
Suddenly, Nelson’s life is full of choices.