By ANDREW MCGINN
In retrospect, had Junior Gutierres known the 2020 high school soccer season was going to be sacrificed to COVID-19, he admittedly would have played even harder his junior year.
That last season — Gutierres graduated this year — he kicked circles around most every team Greene County High School faced and finished the season as the state of Iowa’s top scorer.
There were 55 goals in all that 2019 season, the third-most by any player in a single season in state history and the stuff of legend for a nascent soccer program still finding its footing in a town where fútbol, not all that long ago, was the province of the foreign exchange students who were conscripted to kick for the real football team.
In a match against Panorama on May 13, 2019, Gutierres set a single-game state record when he scored nine goals for the Rams.
Ironically, Gutierres is now nine numbers short of being able to get on with the rest of his life.
A native of Honduras, he lacks the nine-digit Social Security number required to work — at least officially — in the U.S.
Gutierres, who recently turned 19, has a scholarship for full tuition and a spot on the men’s soccer team waiting for him at Southeastern Community College in Burlington. But he’s still awaiting his fate in this country, a process that began three years ago when he showed up at the Southern border and announced, “I’m an immigrant.”
“I don’t know how I feel,” said Gutierres, who frequently falls back on his native Spanish to express himself. “I don’t know how to say it in Spanish, either.”
Amy Van Der Meer, a Spanish teacher at Greene County High School who has become a de facto advocate for the Latino families finding their way to Jefferson, knows exactly what to say.
“You were one of the lucky ones,” she said, turning to Gutierres.
Immigration is often near the tip of the wedge dividing political beliefs these days — a debate fueled by the notion that the United States is a nation of immigrants. Except that in 2018, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officially scrubbed the phrase “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from its mission statement.
The USCIS is the same federal agency that issued a statement on June 19 deriding the U.S. Supreme Court decision temporarily upholding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) as having “no basis in law.”
DACA is the policy enacted in 2012 by President Barack Obama to protect immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, a group known as Dreamers.
But Junior Gutierres wasn’t brought to the U.S. as a child. He walked and rode here himself, over the course of 18 days, as a child.
He applied for asylum, hoping to find protection from a land of lawlessness in a nation of laws.
But even that has changed — virtually everyone who has shown up at the U.S.-Mexico border after July 16, 2019, is ineligible for asylum, according to the American Immigration Council, if they traveled through a third country without having applied for asylum there, as now required by the Department of Homeland Security.
Gutierres arrived three years ago, at age 15. After proving himself to be from Honduras — a vetting process in which he was inexplicably made to sing the Honduran national anthem — he began the yearslong process of seeking asylum in the U.S.
According to the American Immigration Council, asylum seekers have a right to remain in the U.S. while their claim is pending.
Once granted, they may then work in the U.S. and apply for the all-important Social Security card.
But until then, life for Gutierres has come to a standstill, a helpless turn of events knowing that his future teammates at Southeastern Community College are already practicing, and are set to begin the season Aug. 15. Another local advocate — Greene County High School boys’ soccer coach Carl Behne — was instrumental in getting Gutierres on the college’s radar.
The only thing his scholarship won’t cover is living expenses. Hence the need to be able to work. The college will even find him a job when he finally arrives.
“I really want to play soccer at that college,” Gutierres explained.
Van Der Meer, who helped him get registered for classes he may not attend, muses she should start a GoFundMe page to send Gutierres off to college.
“That’s a travesty you have to put your life on hold,” she said.
According to the American Immigration Council, the asylum process “can take years to conclude.”
But wait — last fall, the Department of Homeland Security began sending people seeking asylum in the U.S. to places it deems a “safe third country,” like Guatemala, and they’re required to seek asylum there. The legality of such agreements is being challenged, according to the American Immigration Council.
This past May, the U.S. began sending asylum seekers to Honduras — a “safe third country” that happens to have one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Gutierres’ mother had hired the services of a so-called coyote — a human smuggler — precisely so that her son wouldn’t become a statistic in Honduras.
A man with a machete
“I thought he was going to kill me,” Gutierres said of the morning his life changed forever.
Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America.
“There are no jobs in Honduras,” he said.
Gutierres, on the other hand, had been gainfully employed since the age of 7 or 8. Unfortunately, his job milking cows was a 40-minute bike ride away.
Every morning before school, Gutierres pedaled to work and back.
One morning, he explains, he was on his way home — airbuds in and the bumping sound of reggaeton making the trek go a little faster — when a masked man appeared in the street ahead of him gripping a machete.
Like any teenager, Gutierres feared the worst.
“I thought he was going to take my phone,” he said.
Only when the man took his bike and threw it where no one could see it did Gutierres grasp the severity of the situation.
But as he was being blindfolded, Gutierres saw the man appear to lose his grip on his machete. Gutierres said he grabbed it — and refused to let go until he wrestled it away.
The man then made a motion like he might be going for a gun.
“In my mind,” Gutierres recalled, “I’m going to die.”
Instead, the man ran off.
Honduras also has a corrupt, ineffective judiciary and police, according to the organization Human Rights Watch. As such, when about 100 people in the community with guns went looking for the assailant, local police said the community could do what they wanted with the man if they caught him.
They never did, Gutierres said, a fact that made his mom increasingly scared for her son’s life.
Gutierres vividly remembers the night his mom asked, almost nonchalantly, if he wanted to go live in the United States. But when he answered yes, her reply was not at all expected.
“She said, ‘OK, in the morning, you’re leaving,’” Gutierres recalled.
Initially, he was to travel with an aunt, who also was going north, but they soon became separated.
Up to then, the idea of a long trip for Gutierres had been to Guatemala and back to play soccer.
The journey north to the U.S. was by foot and on anything with wheels. Windowless trailers were at times devoid of air, he said.
Meals were eaten once a day. Gangs and traffickers were a risk.
Gutierres was eventually sent to Jefferson by The Children’s Village, a New York agency founded in 1851 to provide care for orphans roaming the streets of Manhattan. In another age — and under its original name, the New York Juvenile Asylum — it sent kids bound for the Midwest on “orphan trains.”
Gutierres at the time had an uncle who was living in Jefferson, but his mom and brother have since settled in Jefferson as well.
With his arrival at Greene County High School as a sophomore, Gutierres was the first locally in what has been a rapid influx of kids from Latin America, according to Van Der Meer, who once served as the maid of honor in his aunt’s wedding.
Now there are so many smaller kids, “I don’t even know who they all are,” Van Der Meer said.
Greene County certainly isn’t alone in that regard. There was a 277.6 percent increase in the number of Latinos enrolled in the state’s public schools between 1999 and 2018, according to the State Data Center of Iowa.
When Gutierres arrived, the only people he could converse with were Spanish teachers like Van Der Meer. But a lot can change in just a few years — his girlfriend is from Puerto Rico.
While Latinos currently comprise 6.3 percent of Iowa’s population, they’re expected to make up 12.2 percent by July 1, 2050.
Gutierres’ dream is to play in the MLS (Major League Soccer).
He’s planning to try out for the MLS in Chicago later this fall — Social Security number or not.