Joaquin* arrived with his father to the U.S.-Mexico border at the height of the 2018 family separation crisis. His father had previously lived in the U.S., but Joaquin had never left Guatemala before. In Border Patrol custody, they were separated, and Joaquin was sent to a children’s shelter in Tucson. There were surveillance cameras inside the building and a lockdown was enforced; the children were not allowed to leave the property except for court or other scheduled appointments. Joaquin was 15 years old.

He didn’t eat much at first. He was scared and homesick. He had to adapt. In time, he came to enjoy pizza. He was placed in long-term foster care and started to attend a local high school and learn English. He started to make friends. He had always been good at soccer, so he tried out for the school’s team and made varsity.

The Florence Project Children’s Program connected with Joaquin to offer robust legal advocacy. Meanwhile, his father was deported. Many separated children want to be reunified, even if that means returning to dangerous communities. However, some prefer to continue seeking asylum in the U.S. The Florence Project is committed to building trust with each child, discussing these dynamics, and advocating for the child’s wishes.

Joaquin deeply preferred to stay in the U.S. He shared that his father was a volatile presence in his life. The man was absent for about half of Joaquin’s childhood, and when he was around, he often drank, acted hostile, and harmed the family. The town that Joaquin fled was also plagued with violence. Murder, abduction and ransom, including of children, had devastated the community.

These are difficult subjects for a child to discuss. While building his case, the Florence Project team would also chat with Joaquin about activities that made him happy and proud, like playing guitar and soccer. It was his first time playing organized sports, and Joaquin had to learn the assigned roles and rigors of being a defender. He couldn’t simply run the length of the field and try to score every time he got the ball. It took trust in his teammates and discipline within the game plan beyond what he was used to from playing pick-up games with friends.

That team-based approach served Joaquin in his immigration proceedings as well. While he was already self-sufficient and capable of learning and achieving great things on his own, the immigration system is slow, complex, and unforgiving if you make a mistake. To achieve his goal—residency in the U.S. Joaquin had to collaborate with and trust his Florence Project legal team.

Together, they went to juvenile court, where Joaquin shared that he was unable to reunify with his parents due to abuse. During sensitive, trauma-informed interviews, Joaquin expressed his vulnerability to his legal team, who then prepared to share his narrative with an asylum officer. Unfortunately, despite the many dangers Joaquin would face if deported, asylum was not granted.

Joaquin’s case moved to a more hostile environment: immigration court. There, he was again denied asylum, and the judge ordered Joaquin’s deportation. The Florence Project immediately filed an appeal. The Board of Immigration Appeals denied the case too, unfortunately. Soon, ICE contacted Joaquin’s attorney to arrange to remove him to Guatemala. His attorney filed an emergency appeal to the 9th Circuit Court, refusing to give up on Joaquin’s case.

While the appeal was pending, good news finally came. The team had applied for a Special Immigrant Juvenile Status visa, a legal protection for children who’ve fled neglect or abuse, and it was approved. This meant Joaquin would be permanently safe from deportation. He is now on a pathway to citizenship!

Joaquin smiles in a park, and his braces shine as he shares updates on his life since he aged out of long- term foster care. He enjoys true independence today, sharing an apartment with a friend and working full- time at a restaurant. He is learning to cut hair and aspires to become a barber. He owns a car and has learned to do car maintenance from friends who work as mechanics. Joaquin grew up fast, and that trajectory only continued after he arrived in the U.S.

Although he no longer plays soccer, Joaquin has a different passion that brings a huge smile to his face. He performs Mexican corrido songs on guitar, on TikTok, with a friend. They strum through chord progressions and sing until Joaquin breaks into guitar solos. Plucking strings with one hand and sliding between frets to pinch them with the other, he creates beautiful music inspired by classic songs about life’s trials and tribulations.

When asked if he might play a concert sometime, Joaquin smiles humbly and says, “Well, everything is possible. If you’re focused on something you can achieve it.”

We are thrilled to celebrate Joaquin’s safety and freedom and proud to have been a part of his journey!

* Pseudonym used to protect privacy