NEW YORK (AFP) – New York’s most unlikely football league meets every Saturday in the Bronx.
Its players are minors who arrived from Central America without their parents, with no documents or money. They made the dangerous journey here with one goal in mind: to escape the violence and poverty of their homelands.
Now, the 50 or so members of the “Union” league face deportation.
Football acts as sort of collective therapy for them, a place to briefly forget the tragedies of the past and the new threats they face from the administration of President Donald Trump.
“When you’re playing football, you are not thinking of your immigration case, or people who want to hurt you back home, or that a judge may deport you,” said Elvis Garcia Callejas, who is both coach and counsellor to the young players.
“You’re going after the ball, your main goal is to win, play as a team and just have fun.”
Garcia Callejas, 27, founded the league in 2014, when a record of almost 70,000 minors flooded across the Rio Grande into the United States without their parents.
Garcia Callejas is a migration counsellor for Catholic Charities. He arrived unaccompanied in the United States when he was just 15, dodging border guards in El Paso, Texas to make it.
He is also a huge football fan – his office is adorned with the banners of his favourite teams, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain.
He visits detention centres to interview recently arrived minors from Central America and determine if they qualify for any kind of protection.
When he founded the Union league, he had just three boys from Honduras on board, and used trash cans as goalposts.
Now he has more than 50 boys from across Central America and the league is backed by the South Bronx United club, which has included the league in a number of its social programs.
“The kids that we work with have to grow up very fast,” he said. “But on the football pitch, they can be kids again.”
Since 2014, more than 200,000 unaccompanied teenagers and children have arrived in the United States from Mexico and Central America, according to the US Border Patrol.
Teofilo Chavez is a promising 17-year-old player who dreams of going pro. He was 14 when he left Corozal, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast, to stay with his aunt and uncle in the Bronx.
“These are the first friends I made in this country – this friendship will last forever,” he said.
Although the US government does not provide them with an attorney, the teenagers must fight in court to stay here. Most depend upon help provided by lawyers doing pro bono work.
Thanks to his lawyer Jodi Ziesemer, who is handling around 700 cases of unaccompanied Central American minors for Catholic Charities, Teofilo is close to obtaining the green card that will allow him to stay.
But around 60 percent of unaccompanied minors have to go before a judge and prosecutor on their own, with no lawyer and often without even speaking English, a situation Ziesemer calls “ridiculous” and a symptom that “the system is broken.”
“These kids are fleeing horrific situations, abuse, they are fleeing death threats,” she said, noting that the situation has only deteriorated since Trump became president on the back of promises to deport millions of undocumented migrants.
The president has also linked these minors with the rise of the dangerous street gang MS-13, which he has vowed to eradicate.
“Things have taken a dramatic turn since the Trump administration in terms of how cooperative the government is in resolving these cases,” Ziesemer said.
“Before this government, attorneys were much more cooperative in not actively fighting to deport kids that were very young, or in therapy, or had medical issues,” she said.
Teofilo is the youngest of five brothers. After his mother died when he was two, he was raised by his grandmother. But when she died, he was left practically alone.
At 14, he and a brother travelled to the Rio Grande on the roof of a Mexican cargo train nicknamed “The Beast” for the number of migrants who die or are maimed on it.
On the banks of the river, the brothers said a quick goodbye to each other “so that we wouldn’t cry. I swam across with a bag of clothes tied to my wrist.”
Now Teofilo is finishing high school but cannot forget Honduras. He closes his eyes as he recalls what he misses most: “The sunshine, the beach, coconuts, my friends, my grandmother, my father, the plantations near my house.”
The youngest player in the league is 15-year-old Yefri, who arrived three months ago from Guatemala with his 11-year-old brother.
“I came looking for a future, because in my country there isn’t one,” Yefri said shyly after a match. He does not have a lawyer yet and was reluctant to give his surname.
He still has scars on his head from the gang members who tried to recruit him. He now lives with his mother, whom he had not seen for nine years but who now attends all his matches, clapping and cheering wildly on the sidelines.
“These boys have all had similar experiences, they understand each other and help each other out,” she said. “It really is a union, it’s a beautiful thing.”