On the night Esteban’s mother went to the hospital, five ambulances crowded the street in front of their red-brick walk-up in the DC suburbs. It was late May 2020, and COVID-19 had swept through their densely packed apartment complex, where many of the one- and two-bedroom units housed multiple immigrant families from Central America. More than half of the people in their zip code who were tested that April had the virus—a rate roughly 20 percent higher than in the rest of Virginia—and 17-year-old Esteban, his parents, and the family with whom they shared their apartment were among them. For weeks his mother had a splitting headache, and her throat hurt so much she had trouble swallowing. By that May evening, she had deteriorated to the point where she could barely breathe on her own.
Out on the sidewalk, amid the ambulances’ flashing lights, Esteban held his infant sister, Amalia, while his father climbed into a waiting Uber with his mother. (They hadn’t called 911 because one of Esteban’s uncles had been ferried in an ambulance after he had contracted COVID and incurred a bill he had no way of paying.) As the only English-speaking member of the family, Esteban argued he should go to the hospital. His father disagreed. “You need to take care of the baby,” he said.
It was a terrifying prospect. When his parents brought Amalia home seven months earlier, Esteban had gazed in wonder at her delicate, tiny form and refused to hold her. “He was scared he might hurt her,” his father recalled. Now, with his parents heading to the emergency room, Esteban was in charge of looking after his sister for the very first time. It would be the longest three weeks of his life.
The baby cried incessantly. She had been breastfed and initially refused the bottles of formula Esteban tried to give her. He was still fighting off the virus and was terrified of infecting her, so he wore a mask. But one of the few ways to soothe her was close physical contact, so he took to wrapping her in a light blue blanket and cradling her to his stout, muscular frame. “I was so scared I’d get her sick,” he told me.
In the family’s sparsely furnished living room, a scroll inscribed with Jeremiah 29:11 hung on the wall: “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Next to it were framed certificates of attendance commemorating Esteban’s perfect school record at Justice High, a nearby public school where he was a junior.
He tried to stay in the good graces of his teachers, installing himself on a threadbare crimson couch and logging on to classes on his school-issued laptop. But his baby sister, who had recently started to crawl, always seemed in danger of toppling chairs and putting stray pens in her mouth. When he cordoned her off where she couldn’t hurt herself, she cried for her mother. Esteban took to turning his microphone off during class. He became a spectral presence, volunteering answers only when Amalia took one of her sporadic naps.
His teachers emailed, trying to find out what was going on. That’s when he told them about his predicament. Before the pandemic, his parents had steady employment on a construction site, but now his father was in and out, scrounging for day jobs. (Work was scarce enough that his dad had lined up for basic staples when the Honduran Consulate created a distribution center in their neighborhood.) The teachers alerted Jessica Milliken, chair of the English-for-speakers-of-other-languages (ESOL) department at Justice, who describes her job as “part teacher, part social worker, part mom.” When she phoned, the situation was worse than she’d imagined. Esteban was severely depressed, he told her. The family had no food. If his dad didn’t find work soon, they wouldn’t make rent.
The coronavirus pandemic upended the lives of kids like Esteban across the country. For starters, the shuttering of in-person school has been particularly hard on teenagers; in one national poll, nearly half of parents reported that their teens’ mental health had suffered since face-to-face classes were suspended in March 2020. The academic consequences were real, too: The consulting firm McKinsey estimated that at the end of the school year, students at highly diverse schools like Justice were, academically, an average of six months behind where they would have been had the outbreak never happened. The Fairfax County public school district found that the number of F’s received in middle and high school since the start of the pandemic had nearly doubled, to 11 percent. According to another national study, as many as 3 million kids—many of them children of color—disengaged completely from their first pandemic school year.
COVID’s impact was especially dire for undocumented students. Justice doesn’t inquire whether enrollees are citizens or legal residents, but roughly 400 kids—or one-fifth of the student body—are recently arrived immigrants, and school leaders know that many lack documentation. (This was the case for Esteban and several others in this story, whose names were changed to protect their identities.) Families who remained healthy still had to contend with unemployment and potential eviction, while benefits that helped other poor households navigate the pandemic—like stimulus checks and enhanced food stamps—weren’t generally available to the undocumented. English-language learners, in particular, already dropped out at higher rates and were more susceptible to depression and suicidal ideation than their peers; a report from the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which serves newcomer immigrant kids, noted that enrollment and attendance were down, the number of students working significant hours was up, and “stress, anxiety, distractions, and family responsibilities were among the greatest obstacles to virtual learning.”
These forces weighed heavily on Justice’s ESOL students and on the teachers and administrators who poured time and resources into helping them get through the overlapping crises. As the pandemic raged on, week after week, month after month, into and out of school years, it grew clear just how heavy their load would become.
Until three years ago, Justice High bore the name of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Its mascot was a soldier on horseback, hoisting the rebel flag. This had been a way for the school board to register its discontent with the US Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which came down five years before the school opened in 1959. Predominantly white at its founding, Stuart High School drew students from the wealthy community of Lake Barcroft, where million-plus-dollar homes encircle a reservoir. Alumni include the children of prominent politicians—Robin Dole, daughter of Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), graduated in 1972—as well as Academy Award winner Julianne Moore.
In the 1950s and ’60s, a few miles from the lake houses and their pontoon boats, developers constructed more affordable apartments. Fair housing laws and an overhaul of the US immigration system in 1965 allowed for an increasingly diverse community to settle in the area. Salvadorans fleeing their country’s civil war and refugees from Southeast Asia moved into the region. A prominent mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, was built in 1983, and immigrants from Sudan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia arrived in increasing numbers. By the late 1980s, when I began attending Stuart, the school was majority-minority. Now, kids of color make up nearly 80 percent of the student body, and students hail from 60 countries and speak 56 languages.
In the early 2000s—right around the time National Geographic lauded the school in a lengthy feature highlighting the school’s multicultural identity—data gathered under No Child Left Behind made plain how poorly the nation’s English-language learners were faring. A national standardized exam administered in 2011, for example, found that their eighth-grade reading scores lagged behind those of their native-English-speaking peers by 44 percent. While subsequent changes to the law meant most schools didn’t face serious consequences for failing to close the achievement gap, in 2010 the Virginia Department of Education started requiring schools to meet annual graduation benchmarks to maintain their state accreditation.
The school didn’t fare well by that metric, in large part because many newly arrived students didn’t stay in school past the age of 18, when they were no longer legally mandated to be enrolled. A pilot program introduced in 2016—a year before the district, after considering renaming the school in honor of several civil rights leaders, changed Stuart’s name to Justice High—helped buoy the graduation rate by allowing students to earn credit for classes as they gained English proficiency. This made graduating in four years a possibility for kids who arrived as teenagers. The change also helped Justice hang on to its accreditation, though just barely: As recently as 2019 the school passed muster “with conditions.”
The prospect of overseeing Justice’s new program convinced Milliken to transfer from a nearby middle school where she’d also headed the English-language learners program. Before COVID came along, Milliken—whose long blond hair led students to call her La Rubia—would patrol the halls with ramrod posture. Her office was a welcoming pit stop: Drawers overflowed with granola bars and peanut butter crackers, a makeshift wardrobe held more than a dozen donated winter coats, and there were oversized cardboard boxes stuffed with backpacks and three-ring binders for the taking. Kids would stop by for a snack and supplies, and occasionally confide about what was happening at home.
These brief moments of connection disappeared when Justice halted live classes on March 13, 2020. Fairfax County unfurled online classes four weeks later. The rollout was marred by glitches, but that was the least of the students’ problems. Local restaurants were closed, and suburbanites and office managers had told house cleaners and janitors to stay home. Immigrant families were facing economic ruin. And while free meals could be had at local public schools, students like Esteban were too slammed with school and family tasks to go wait in line.
When they learned all this, Milliken and her fellow teachers jumped into action, raising money through a local church and GoFundMe to support their own food delivery service. One evening each week, in the parking lot of Iglesia Pentecostal, they filled rows of brown paper grocery bags with yogurt, mandarins, tampons, dried beans, packaged chicken, and bread. Whenever possible, Milliken tailored the packages to her students’ needs—for some time, Esteban’s included diapers and formula. Then she would load bags into her Honda CR-V and head out to deliver them.
The drop-offs doubled as check-ins. When a masked Milliken handed Esteban his groceries, she gently inquired whether the medical consult about his anxiety that she’d helped arrange had made a difference. He shrugged. After more than two weeks in the hospital, his mother was better now, but his family was still reeling from the lack of income. “Take deep breaths,” Milliken advised. She later connected his family with a Northern Virginia organization offering rent assistance.
Milliken was concerned for Esteban’s wellbeing but confident that he would stay in school. In contrast, Xavier—a 17-year-old from Guatemala who lived a few blocks away—was at high risk of disappearing. Short, with a mop of black curls, he had come to the States alone the previous year. His schooling in Guatemala had ended in the fourth grade, and he’d attended classes at Justice for only a few months before it shut down. In spring 2020, Fairfax County offered live virtual classes only two days a week, and teachers had to help their students get familiar with online schooling. Comprehending the instructions required more than basic English, and not all of Xavier’s teachers spoke Spanish. “No entiendo nada,” he lamented—“I don’t understand anything.” He was working at a pizzeria until midnight most days, and got home exhausted. It was hard not to fall asleep during virtual class, and often he did.
As the summer break came and went, Milliken once again had to contend with something college admissions officers call “summer melt,” when disadvantaged students enroll and then fail to show up on campus, often because they stay at what were meant to be temporary jobs. The financial stresses of the pandemic threatened to exacerbate the problem. The Urban Institute reported in spring 2020 that two-thirds of Latino families with at least one undocumented member had experienced either a job loss or a significant decline in income. Milliken believes the carnage was worse at Justice, where Latinos account for more than half of the student population. While kids like Xavier had always supported themselves, even some students who lived with both parents were suddenly thrust into the role of breadwinner.
A mass dropout wasn’t out of the question, and that would have consequences not just for those teenagers but also for Justice’s precarious accreditation status. So Milliken and other staffers began calling students throughout the summer, informing them of the school’s plans for the fall and encouraging them to talk about their home situations. When online school resumed after Labor Day, some students were AWOL, but there wasn’t a full-fledged exodus.
That was partly because kids were working and attending online school simultaneously—“present but not present” is how ESOL teacher Patty Shawish described it. Fairfax County didn’t require students to turn their cameras on during class, and most kept their microphones off, too. But when kids did volunteer an answer, teachers became adept at identifying various workplace sounds. Drilling was common on construction sites; cash registers were giveaways of a retail job. Children’s screeches and laughter emanated from siblings, but some of the teens were themselves parents. The sound of persistent slapping in one student’s home alarmed Shawish, until she learned that the student was sharing the kitchen with his mother, who was making pupusas to sell. Shawish placed an order.
In Esteban’s upper-level ESOL English class, teacher Milka Willis was not one to brook long silences, and she found herself frustrated by the limitations of teaching via video. One day, she threatened a pop quiz when no student volunteered to define the idiom “hold your horses.” The class would soon embark on a simplified version of Shakespeare’s Othello, she told them, and this lesson provided important scaffolding for the more challenging assignment ahead: “This cannot just be me talking to myself.”
Willis didn’t even know what some of her students looked like; their thumbnail photographs were often a year or two old. Her only glimpse into their personalities were the comments they posted in chat. When their written work trickled in, she gained more intel. In one essay, a student who’d occasionally asked to be excused early to feed her 11-month-old revealed she was pregnant again.
She wasn’t the only expectant mother at Justice. In October, when Milliken and teacher Becky Corallo made a home visit to Maria, a 17-year-old ninth grader, she greeted them with a swollen belly. She had arrived in Northern Virginia just days before Justice ended live classes and took refuge at a two-bedroom apartment her grandmother shared with seven others. Soon after, Maria—who stands less than 5 feet tall and has a black smudge of long hair and a shy smile—met a construction worker in the same complex. Not long after, she moved in with him.
Milliken was struck by the fact that there were no spare mattresses in Maria’s new living room; many of her other students shared apartments with several other families. Maria and her boyfriend split the place with just one other couple. “I was never lonely there,” she told me. The teachers’ two-hour visit allowed her to start logging in to classes more regularly.
But Maria needed instruction in the fundamentals. English was her third language, after Mam and Spanish—she’d left school in the third grade in Guatemala and had trouble counting. In October, the Fairfax County schools decided to let English-language learners, kids with disabilities, and some other students attend informal Monday sessions in person. For Maria, it offered an ideal opportunity to hone her conversation skills, but she stayed home, fearful of contracting COVID while pregnant.
For Shawish, the ESOL teacher, being in an actual room with students was “pure gold,” even with masking and social distancing. When the kids struggled to define the meaning of “hide,” she crouched next to a metal file cabinet, eliciting guffaws. She grasped a handful of her brown bob to show it was in fact her own hair, not a wig or peluca. When the students’ attention flagged, Shawish asked them to demonstrate how they felt by giving a thumbs-up, -down, or -sideways. And when Xavier, who’d accepted the offer of a dose of live schooling, squinted at words on the whiteboard, she realized he needed glasses and referred him to an optometrist.
At the end of class one day in November, students had to practice for a possibility that had receded during the pandemic. “This is an active shooter drill,” a voice intoned over the loudspeaker. Shawish drew the blinds and the students crouched along the wall. “Se pueden cerrar los ojos,” she said as an alarm blared. Xavier took this opportunity to fling himself to the floor rather than simply close his eyes. Whether he intended to mimic death or fake sleep was unclear. But he got the response he was after: Two girls giggled behind their masks.
In his antics, Shawish detected a desire not just for attention, but for connection. Most of Xavier’s waking hours were spent in a kitchen working with older adults. He didn’t interact much with his two construction-worker roommates. Earlier in the lesson, he had reminded Shawish of the late night he’d put in at the pizzeria the previous evening. “Aquí tú eres un estudiante.” Here you are a student, she told him.
The next day, though, Xavier logged in to class 20 minutes late. He failed to show up at all the following Monday. Shawish stopped Milliken in the hallway to voice her concerns. She couldn’t nudge Xavier to show up in person on Monday or to log in to virtual class because, as he’d recently informed her, his cellphone had broken. Shawish tipped her hand back and forth, indicating how close he might be to leaving school: “He could go either way.”
Esteban quickly tired of deciphering Iago’s motivations in Othello, but he found himself unexpectedly inspired by the poetry Willis introduced. Maya Angelou’s “Alone” was a favorite, and writing his own verses proved therapeutic. In “Believe,” Esteban wrote, “Haters can tell me I can’t / Discouragers can tell me that I won’t / No matter what anybody says, I will walk a million miles to get there / I believe in myself.”
In an essay, Esteban revealed that this was an exhortation rather than an expression of his optimism: “The tone in the poem shows that the poet is worried about his future but [is] trying to convince himself to be brave and go through the challenges.”
Those challenges were piling up. In mid-autumn, frightening news arrived from Honduras: Esteban’s maternal grandmother was hospitalized, leaving no one to care for his younger siblings, Elena and Carlos. Their living situation wasn’t safe even with adult protection: Four years earlier, Esteban had sought to join his parents in the United States because gangs were encroaching on their village, and ever since he’d arrived he’d been trying to win legal status. (His petition to stay in the United States hinged on the fact that he’d feared for his safety back home.) It was even more difficult to travel to the US during the pandemic, with the Trump administration’s adoption of Title 42, a policy that barred adults, families, and even unaccompanied minors from entering the United States and claiming asylum. If the children were lucky enough to reach the border, they would in all likelihood be turned back. Esteban’s parents decided to take the risk. They negotiated a $11,000 loan from a relative and paid a coyote to bring the children over.
The outcome was, Esteban’s father told me, an example of God’s grace. There were days during the two-week journey when he and his wife didn’t hear from the kids, which left their mother terrified and sleepless. But they arrived safely to Texas in mid-November 2020. Their timing was exquisitely fortuitous: A federal district court judge had just ruled that the Trump administration could no longer summarily expel migrant children. Elena and Carlos were among the roughly 2,400 underage migrants taken into shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services that month.
At the end of November, three days after Elena and Carlos arrived in Northern Virginia, Esteban strapped Amalia onto his chest and brought his siblings to Justice to register Elena for classes. Shawish greeted the round-faced, smiley 15-year-old with arms extended and a “Welcome!” that echoed down the hallway. She promptly dug out a shirt proclaiming Elena a member of the 2023 graduating class.
That may have been more aspirational than realistic: Elena had never touched a computer, for instance. She did, however, have Esteban. For the next few weeks, he hovered over his brother and sister, teaching them how to log in and translating for them as he tried to pay attention to his own classes. When Carlos complained that he understood nothing the teacher said, Esteban stopped him short. “You have a chance,” he told Carlos. Entering the system in elementary school gave him ample time to learn English and blend in with his American peers.
Coming in as an older kid was tougher, as Xavier had discovered. He didn’t know the derogatory term—chent—that some teenagers used to refer to recently arrived Latinos, but he spent enough time in the lunchroom pre-COVID to realize he was at the bottom of the social hierarchy. “I’d like to have one friend from here,” he told me. He wanted to look more like his US-acculturated classmates. When the aviator glasses Shawish obtained for him prompted his pickup soccer friends to teasingly call him viejo—old guy—he stopped correcting his nearsightedness. He resolved that when he’d saved enough money he would buy some cool tortoiseshell frames.
Xavier’s second Christmas alone was a little easier than the first. His six brothers and sisters congregated at his mother’s house in Guatemala, but this time he didn’t cry when he spoke with his family by phone. “No siento nada.” He felt nothing, but he didn’t think this was out of the ordinary in the United States. “People don’t celebrate here,” he decided. He was given a few days off work without pay. There was no room for a tree in his cramped apartment, so Xavier bought some $5 colored Christmas lights for the bushes outside of his building. He couldn’t see them from his window, but he figured they’d make the neighborhood more cheerful.
Three months later, in March 2021, Fairfax County Public Schools announced that students like Xavier, Maria, and Elena could attend in-person classes four days a week. This time, Maria showed up, following a series of convulsions in her life. She’d given birth to a boy the month before, commemorating his arrival with a text to Milliken. Shortly afterward, she asked Becky Corallo—the teacher who’d helped with the at-home tutorial—to speak with her in a video chat. She confided that her boyfriend had choked her after their apartment-mate had falsely accused her of being unfaithful. Child Protective Services was alerted, and Maria and the baby were placed in a foster home in a nearby suburb. But her teachers and social worker arranged for her to remain at Justice, which they agreed was the best environment for her.
Foster care paid for day care, and Maria found that working one-on-one with a teacher allowed her to grasp concepts that had previously eluded her. “She’s learning vowel sounds!” Shawish exulted, as Maria pronounced the words “map” and “cap.” Becoming a ward of the state also made Maria eligible for residency under Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, which covers underage immigrants who can show they have been abused, abandoned, or neglected—potentially giving her a path to citizenship.
But Maria wasn’t convinced she should cut her ex-partner out of her life. The foster family was kind enough, but “it’s not the same as a real family,” she told me. The father of her child was taking anger management classes and successfully petitioned for weekly visits with the baby at Maria’s attorney’s office. “I think he is trying,” Maria said, nervously fingering her hair. She wanted to give her son the intact family she had never experienced. “I don’t know if men can change,” she added, very quietly.
Maria’s teachers were quite opposed to a reunion, but at least she was safe and attending school. Milliken didn’t take such things for granted. She worked with other staff to keep track of at-risk and truant students in hopes of bringing them back to class. Every week or so, she set out in preparation for an afternoon of door-knocking. Xavier was among the students who had stopped coming. Milliken had given him her old cellphone after he went silent the previous fall, and she called him before leaving her office to see what was up. Academically, Xavier was slipping: He’d been transferred from Algebra I to Numeracy, an introductory math course. Sometimes the assignments reminded him of his first job, collecting fares and making change for customers on buses in Guatemala when he was 14.
He explained to his teachers that his new taqueria job, which paid $2 more an hour than his old one, was a 50-minute bus ride away. He had been warned he would be fired if he was late, and he was occasionally skipping school because he couldn’t stay through the last bell. “I can get permission for you to leave early, Xavier,” Milliken said. “But you need to let me know.”
Milliken’s afternoons of checking in on students were soon interspersed with enrolling dozens of teenagers from Guatemala and Honduras, who had started crossing the border in greater numbers that spring. There was a holdup, however. Most needed basic immunizations for diseases like measles, and the injection clinics were all busy with COVID. Waitlists stretched into late summer. The past year had demonstrated how much in-person interaction helped students learn English, yet these new arrivals were forced to miss out on valuable classroom time.
Still, Justice’s graduating ESOL seniors gave Milliken hope. The way Justice staffers had strung a safety net under the school’s most vulnerable students, combined with intensive study sessions that teachers conducted at the end of the school year, had helped most of them pass the state Standard of Learning exam. That meant they would take home a diploma.
Milliken knew those results weren’t necessarily predictive of how students in lower grades would fare in the future. The seniors, after all, had benefited from years of in-person education before the virus struck. That wouldn’t be the case for the new enrollees, whose performance could well determine whether Justice retained its accreditation. Still, considering what had seemed preordained just nine months earlier, Milliken and the other ESOL teachers were looking to the June graduation ceremony as a moment of particular triumph.
Plus, Justice’s varsity soccer team, whose roster drew from five continents, won the district championship. Esteban’s prowess as a defender earned him a nickname: The King. A photo of the team’s celebration shows him with an index finger raised in the air, and a rare, wide grin on his face.
On graduation day, the thermometer read 90 degrees. Esteban took refuge by the AC unit in the living room of his family’s walk-up. He looked down on the yard, where his mother had set up two long tables covered in plastic tablecloths decorated with a “Congrats Grad!” message. Platters of rice, ground beef, shredded chicken, and tortillas covered in aluminum foil sat on a side table. A chilled case of Coke beaded sweat in the heat. His younger sister and brother posed for photographs near streamers, multicolored balloons, and a banner proclaiming “We’re So Proud.”
Esteban shook his head. “My mom is doing too much.” He understood why: He would depart the next day to apprentice as a roofer in Florida. Before the pandemic, Esteban had considered applying to college. Some recently arrived immigrants had managed that feat—a few years before, an undocumented Honduran star on the soccer team had earned an athletic scholarship, and Esteban’s coach had floated the same possibility to him. But Esteban felt his family was facing too much hardship for him to focus on his own future. If he earned enough money roofing, he could move his parents and siblings to a nicer neighborhood, or at least pay rent for their own apartment. He wasn’t alone in his sacrifice: The Internationals Network reports that 20 percent fewer of its immigrant students enrolled in college from the Class of 2020 than from the Class of 2019.
“Esteban!” Amalia, now about 20 months old and blissfully unaware of her brother’s impending absence, appeared in the hallway, trailed by her blanket. Her black hair was pulled back, and she wore a pink dress with a tulle skirt her mother had purchased for the celebration. Esteban carried her down the four flights. He worried about how she would fare without him. During their harrowing days together, she had grown extremely attached. She became so distraught when he grabbed his backpack each morning before school that he’d adopted a ritual of carrying her around the perimeter of the apartment building to calm her down.
Esteban’s mother came upstairs to fetch another platter of sliced watermelon, and as she paused in the hallway she burst into tears. This would be the last day her son lived with her. “He is my bird, and I have to let him leave the nest,” she told me. “I did that when I left my mother.”
It wasn’t just his departure that left her despondent. It was how his trajectory mirrored her own in ways she had hoped to avoid. She had left Honduras and worked in physically demanding construction jobs precisely so her children would be able to pursue an education and realize their potential. The family’s precarious finances, however, had compelled their son to enter a profession that is routinely ranked as one of the most dangerous in the United States. “I want more for him,” she said.
It wouldn’t take long, though, to see just how much they needed Esteban’s support. In July, Esteban’s little brother, Carlos, enrolled in summer school, and though he wore a mask, he caught the Delta variant from a classmate. He became so sick that his parents worried he would have to be hospitalized. To protect the rest of the family, Carlos stopped sleeping in the bedroom they shared and spent his nights on the same threadbare couch where Esteban had once taken his online classes.
No one else tested positive, but his parents were asked to stay home from work. Once again, they fed their children with donated groceries. Within a few weeks of arriving in Florida, Esteban began sending money home. Some weeks he earned $250 a day, but there was a reason the job paid well. “You’re high up and you have to be careful not to fall,” he told me.
He hadn’t missed a day of work yet, and the only break he was planning was to visit his family in October for his sister’s second birthday. When we spoke in August, Amalia was the family’s sole US citizen. “She’s the future,” Esteban said, only half-joking.
But when we talked again in mid-September, Esteban had some news: That long-pending residency claim had finally made its way through the courts—and he’d been granted a green card. He’d been on a roof when he heard the news, and the suburban landscape around him suddenly looked different. An unfamiliar sensation overcame him: shock, but in a good way. “Sentí esperanza,” he told me. He felt hope.
This story was supported by Columbia’s Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship.