Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Counseling Young Immigrant “Gang” Members

Guest blogger: Celyn Coker, first-year law student, University of San Francisco:

I am sitting in a classroom full of youth. The students are predominantly mandated to be there by their P.O.’s. For those unaware, a P.O. is a probation officer. Many of the students in the classroom are Hispanic. Many of these students are not yet eighteen years old. Many of these students are the children of undocumented immigrants. My job is to assist teachers from the Unified School District in classroom settings. It is both sad and amazing how gifted these youngsters are. Many of them have street smarts I will probably never have. Many of them can speak more than one language. Many of them understand what it is they are being taught, but putting it down on paper for someone else to understand is a tough challenge. However, the biggest problem most of these children face is gang involvement.

“I don't really have a home. My foster mother sometimes swings by to like, make sure I got food and stuff. But for the most part, I’m with my boyfriend at his home. Sure his gang will chill wit’ us every now and again, but I ain’t a member. I just hold onto things every now and again. It was fine till I got pulled over.” – Yasmina, 16.

            It took about six weeks for the children to warm up to me. Despite the fact that I am visibly a woman of color, I still was seen as an outsider. Part of it was the fact that I attended (and still attend) a “white rich people school.” Part of it was that I “talk good.” However, a strong part of it, was that I obviously looked lost when they would regale stories to each other about how “messed up” they had gotten the night before or how some “new cannons” came in that they could not wait to try out. These students were barely eighteen-years-old and despite the fact that they were trying to turn their lives around, many of them were (and probably still are) surrounded by violence and gang related activity.

“I told that ------ that if I ever see his punk ---- again, I’d call up the boys and mess him the ------ up.” – Murphy, 17.

            It was a form of boasting. Every morning before classes would begin or during the lunch hour, various students would share their stories of what they had done the night before or what they had gotten into over the weekend. Every single one of those stories shared, with the exception of female students, typically ended in the same way; I won. Bruises and wounds were seen as badges of survival. I never thought someone would sound so pleased when talking about how despite the fact that they were stabbed with a knife, they had managed to take down their oppressor. When I felt brave, I would sometimes ask the students follow up questions such as, “do you live near a hostile area?” or “why would someone attack you?” The typical (male anyway) response was either that it was where their parents could afford to live or because it was a community where others “like them” also lived. They would tell me that someone attacked you because you “stepped on their toes” or because they did not wear the same colors.

            The sad part about immigrant youths and gang involvement is that the media tends to blow up immigrant involvement in gangs. Media tends to portray that only immigrants/people of color are involved in gangs, and tends to emphasize that if we deport immigrants, then the streets will be safer. Media tends to ignore the fact that not every member of a gang actually commits a gang related crime. The stories I have to share are from the mouths of adolescents who have been taken into custody by officials and then mandated by other authority figures to attend the “school.” But these youths are not the only voices out there. A lot of times youths may be involved with a “gang” which is basically comprised of a group of friends who get together and do nothing criminal. They merely call themselves a gang.  Other times, these youth join gangs, but have no intention of remaining long-term. They turn to gangs for a semblance of stability in an unstable portion of their lives. The motto may be “gang life” but the chance of their staying in the gang is very low unless they are not in a position to leave the gang. (Undocumented Immigrant Youth: Guide for Advocates and Service Providers 11-13).

“Like, I dunno. I want to be like… something, but I gotta clean this up. And my boyfriend’s almost out so I guess, we’ll do something together. I don’t wanna smuggle drugs for him anymore though. I don't like peeing in a cup. And the drinks I gotta drink to make sure I’m clean, they taste like… nasty” – Akaara, 17.

            At the end of the day, almost every single student I encountered in my time as a volunteer in that classroom had goals to become something not over the top, but rather shockingly normal. Many students wanted to become lawyers, dentists, and even veterinarians. But a sad theme I encountered was that as soon as a child would tell me what they wanted to do, they would then express such pessimistic viewpoints about what they would become in the future. One student in particular, Murphy, told me that he was probably going to end up in prison full time. When I asked him why he thought that, he responded: “I had a tough time growing up, you know? My dad was deported, my mom don’t speak no English. The boys I roll with like the hard ----. One day, Imma get caught and they gonna attach so much ---- to my record that I’mma go away for good. So why try?” Racial discrimination is a big factor in communities that are predominantly persons of color.

When a person lives in a community of fear and hostility, then it is likely that person will utilize aggressive techniques to survive. When media continuously portrays you and people like you as aggressors and or the problem, then it becomes even tougher to escape the labels forced upon you. When people in your life are always on the wrong end of the law, just for trying to live, then a negative attitude is developed amongst yourself, your community, and those you see at the oppressor. You turn to the only people you believe you can trust. You turn to your gang. The dialogue needs to change. The hostility needs to dissipate. It is very important to have open discussions about sensitive topics and work on prevention methods such as the Undocumented Immigrant Youth: Guide for Advocates and Service Providers suggests.

Undocumented Immigrant Youth: Guide for Advocates and Service Providers

Acculturative Stress and Gang Involvement among Latinos: U.S.-born versus Immigrant Youth




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