Helping immigrants adjust and thrive in the Roaring Fork Valley | PostIndependent.com

Helping immigrants adjust and thrive in the Roaring Fork Valley

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Fifteen-year-old "Victor" arrived in Basalt in September after a harrowing journey from El Salvador that included walking across a hot desert, a boat ride across the snake-infested waters of the Rio Grande River and a 34-day stay in a U.S. immigrant detention center in Texas.

Despite the hardships, he said, he would do it all again. The nearly 2,800-mile trip allowed him to reunite with his mother, whom he had not seen in four years.

Now he is adjusting to differences in education and culture with the help of teachers at Basalt High School.

"I want to study English and [pursue] more opportunities," he said through translation by Leticia Ingram, a teacher who works with the newest immigrants in English language development classes.

Victor didn't want to use his real name because he soon will be required to go to immigration court in Denver for entering the country illegally. He said his dream is to graduate from Basalt High School and continue studies to be a mechanic.

Victor said he was afraid of life in El Salvador because there are so many gangs.

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"You can go to school, but the gangs get you on the way," he said. "I would skip school a lot.

"Here I feel safer," he added.

Victor lived with his grandparents but his family made the decision this summer that he should come to America to reunite with his mother, brother and sister in the Roaring Fork Valley. Victor traveled alone, first by bus, then by car, walking and by boat. He traveled by himself after paying coyotes — coordinators of the trips for people trying to get into the United States illegally.

On his first attempt, he was apprehended at the Mexican border and returned to El Salvador. On his second attempt, he made it through Mexico and across the river into the States before his entire group was apprehended by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. The group, he said, included a 6-year-old boy and 8-year-old girl.

It is his understanding that because he was a minor traveling alone, U.S. immigration officials wouldn't send him back across the border. Instead, after more than one month in detention, a law officer flew with him to Colorado to turn him over to the custody of his mother. Victor will have to go to immigration court in Denver to find out his fate, he said.

"All of my kids go to Denver for court dates," Ingram lamented.

Some of her students open up to her about the circumstances of their arrival and others keep it to themselves. She and other teachers at Basalt High School strive to create a welcoming atmosphere so the students can focus on pursuing education and put other troubles away while at school.

"It's all about developing relationships and gaining their trust," Ingram said. "If they know you believe in them, they work harder, too."

On a typical day in her classroom in September, Ingram worked with 10 students to teach them rudimentary English. She would read a paragraph in English from a fictional story about traveling from El Salvador to Basalt. After she read a paragraph, the entire class would repeat, reading it aloud.

Then Ingram recruited three volunteers to act out a skit. The focus was learning the English words for members of their extended families. The boys cracked up as they acted out an exchange between a grandfather, uncle and cousin, but it proved effective. They learned the English words for their relatives.

"These guys have only been here two months, some of them only one month," Ingram said.

She helps lay the groundwork that helps the students progress in school. Some of her students are ready to advance from English Language Development after a semester while others will stay with her throughout the year.

It's an important role throughout the schools in Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. More than 50 percent of the students in the Roaring Fork School District are Hispanic, and 33 percent are classified as English Language Learners.

It's rewarding for Ingram to help the students get grounded, adapt to their new country and make friends. She is proud to see the kids advance in school, graduate and, for some, move on to college.

Ingram was awarded the English Language Development Educator of the Year Award by the state of Colorado in 2014-15. But academics is just part of her focus.

"You want to help with the social and emotional learning, too," she said.

It's sometimes heartbreaking to see a student drop out because the family needs help making ends meet. One recent arrival, a promising student, quit to work on a construction crew, she said.

One of her current students, Gabriel, said after class that he likes his teachers and getting the help that he needs in his studies. He came to the U.S. from Mexico because of the opportunities, not only in school but also in life.

"In Mexico, you can go to school for 30 years and still not get ahead," he said through translator Mayda Torres, family liaison for the school with newcomers and their families.

Torres, a Basalt High School graduate, is often the first contact that new students have in Basalt. She helps Spanish speakers register for classes and she lines up whatever resources they need, in and out of school.

"They're scared," she said of the new arrivals. "At least they trust me a little bit more."

Roxana, a senior, came to Basalt High School as a 14-year-old freshman after making the trip from El Salvador. She is now in a leadership position, helping Ingram with lesson planning and organization of events, such as an annual Thanksgiving dinner held for recent arrivals at the high school and their families.

Roxana knows firsthand it's tough to come to a new school and attempt to fit in, especially if language is a barrier. She fled El Salvador because of the overwhelming influence of guns and gangs in her hometown, especially among kids 14 to 16 years of age.

For Victor, the boy who arrived from El Salvador in September, the United States is living up to its billing as the land of opportunity. He said he feels welcomed in the Roaring Fork Valley.

If he is sent back, he said, he intends to return — applying the lessons he learned last time he made the journey.