Stories of Immigration: Xenia

Migrant Services

Xenia Rivas Leon knows what it’s like to be an unaccompanied minor crossing the border for a better chance at life.

A Young Girl Navigating Life In A New World

Today, Xenia Rivas Leon is a permanent resident of the United States. But when she was fourteen years old, she crossed the Rio Grande on an inner tube, hoping for a better life on the other side. 

In her home country of El Salvador, her family had scrimped together as much as they could to send her to her mother in Virginia. “The gangs got really bad in El Salvador,” Xenia remembers now. “You couldn’t go out at night. If you owned a business, you had to pay the gangs money to keep your business running. It got really bad. So I came to the U.S. and left my family behind.”

For weeks, young Xenia traveled and slept alongside strangers, risked being robbed, kidnapped, or killed, and went to sleep every night not knowing how far she’d make it, or which new stranger she’d have no choice but to trust.

Life after arriving in the U.S.  didn’t come with an automatic Happily Ever After ending. In Virginia, Xenia struggled with integration. At school, she not only worked double time to learn English, but was diagnosed with dyslexia, and often felt like an outsider, even amongst the other migrant children. She didn’t have what she considered a “trauma story,” so she thought she didn’t deserve to talk about her experiences. She wasn’t hurt or kidnapped or sexually abused. She didn’t get lost in the desert or attacked by an animal. 

“But you had emotional trauma,” a fellow student told her one day. “You are transitioning to missing your family and everything. Just look at how the gangs are in El Salvador now. They’re so bad. You’d probably be a gang member’s wife. They would have taken you.”

“You’re right,” Xenia said. 

At home, Xenia and her mother had trouble connecting, and at 15 years old, Xenia requested to be put into the foster care system. Her social worker found her a foster mother from Honduras who had crossed the border and grown up in the foster care system herself. Despite hesitancy to attend college, Xenia eventually decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree and ultimately found a job she loves in a field she never expected to work in—immigration. 

As a Case Manager for the Home Study and Post-Release Services (HRSPS) program at Endeavors, Xenia helps unaccompanied migrant children just like her younger self connect with family and sponsors in the U.S. 

Although she was once reluctant to share her story of migration, Xenia realized that her experiences as an unaccompanied minor crossing the border made her uniquely qualified to extend a hand to the children coming after her. “They have given me the strength to know exactly what I need to say when I’m talking to the minors.”

Helping Vulnerable Children In Crisis

Most of Xenia’s clients come from Latin America, where she says the number one threat to their well-being is poor economy. After that, she says: Gangs. “Up until three or four years ago in El Salvador, we were pretty much taken over by gangs. A child’s future was either join a gang or end up dead. If you’re a girl, you became the wife of a gang member, or many gang members.” 

For her female clients, Xenia says the top two reasons young girls are sent across the border by their families are poverty and independence. She sees many girls fleeing gender oppression that limits women to the house and requires a man’s permission to travel, work, or be financially independent. 

There are many reasons children might cross the border, accompanied or unaccompanied. A 2013 study by the National Library of Medicine reported that: “29% of youth had had a traumatic experience either in the year prior to immigrating or during their migration to the US.” These traumas include natural disasters, the arrest or murder of a family member, and fleeing war or persecution. “In addition,” the report continues, “23% had been robbed, physically attacked, or accidentally injured; or had become ill during their migration journey.”

According to Xenia, many of the children crossing the border are seeking one of two things: safety, or a chance. That chance starts with the educational opportunities that we as Americans take for granted. 

“Where they are coming from, education is not a right,” she says. “My first hope for them is that they make the trip safely. My second hope is that when they get here, they change their mind about getting an education.” 

To show her young clients how education could multiply their opportunities, Xenia shares her personal experience with them. “I could have started working a job that doesn’t require me to have a degree,” she tells them,” but I probably wouldn’t be able to help my family as much as I can now. I also probably wouldn’t be able to have the opportunities that I have now to work from home and be available to my kids.” 

Xenia has built a life she feels safe in, and is proud of. She has a beautiful family, obtained a green card, takes her American friends to El Salvador for vacations, and eventually reconnected with her biological mother through family counseling. “It was a long process and our relationship has gotten a lot better.”

Her experience with counseling is another story she shares with her clients. “In our Latino community, it’s so hard to admit that we need help, so one of the big things I do is show these kids that it’s okay to seek counseling. And if they want it, I’ll connect them to a counselor.” 

Xenia encourages migrants from all backgrounds to share their story. “I finally realized my story wasn’t to make people feel sorry for me,” she says. “I went through what I went through so that I could share it with [these children] and be able to help them.”

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