Redefining ‘refugee’

Henry Justiniano, a mechanical engineering sophomore, came to the United States in 1989 as a refugee from El Salvador. Since then, he has served in the military and become a naturalized citizen. Photo by Ambarina Hasta | Mercury Staff.


When Henry Justiniano raised his right hand and recited the oath of allegiance at his U.S. naturalization ceremony in November, he felt like nothing had changed.

“I saw all the people around me,” he said. “They were from different countries and they were so excited. But for me, I always saw myself as American.”

Justiniano, a mechanical engineering sophomore, came to the United States in 1989 at the age of 4, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. To clear U.S. immigration at the Mexican-American border in Brownsville, Texas, Justiniano used a friend’s passport.

“I remember them training me to say his name,” he said. “At 4 years old, I had no choice. I just did what the grown-ups told me to do.”

After reuniting with his mother and sister in Dallas, he was given refugee status under the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act, a 1997 law that provided immigration benefits and relief from deportation for refugees from former Soviet bloc nations in Central America.

Justiniano and his family were eventually able to obtain permanent residency. Since then, he assumed an American identity and didn’t look back — until now, as he begins to piece together the parts of his life before his arrival in the United States.

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Justiniano said his mother didn’t speak Spanish at home or didn’t talk about her time in El Salvador, perhaps in an attempt to move on from her previous life and focus on her new one. As a child, he wasn’t aware of his refugee status.

“I would tell my (younger) self to be more aware that I wasn’t from here,” he said. “I didn’t think about it much until now. I would tell myself to embrace the culture. I’m doing that now, and it’s a little harder.”

Justiniano said he didn’t face discrimination during his childhood on account of being a refugee, but that he was reminded of it at one point during a college visit to Southern Methodist University in 2004. While on a tour for incoming freshmen, Justiniano said an SMU student hosting a bake sale to protest affirmative action told him he was only admitted to the school on account of his citizenship status and race.

“They didn’t see me the same,” Justiniano said. “I went home that day and thought about what I could do for people to see me the same. What do people respect here, with no questions asked? The military.”

He enlisted in the Navy and served for four years at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story, an amphibious base in Virginia.

The Department of Defense permits non-U.S. citizens holding permanent residency to join the armed forces, but prevents them from occupying positions requiring a security clearance. In addition, permanent residents who serve in the military are eligible for an expedited and fee-free naturalization process.

Justiniano said he wasn’t treated differently as a non-U.S. citizen serving in the Navy.

“Everyone saw me as a brother and as an American because I was serving for the U.S.,” he said.

Justiniano submitted his naturalization paperwork last year on July 4 — a date he chose deliberately — and completed the process in November. He said his first act as a U.S. citizen would be to use his vote in Texas’ March 6 elections to stand in solidarity with DACA recipients and refugees across the country facing uncertain futures.

“I’ve always felt like I was American,” he said. “The only thing that was different was that it wasn’t on paper. DACA recipients and refugees see themselves as Americans. I know it feels.”

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Now, as a citizen, Justiniano said he has found himself increasingly at odds with fellow members of the Republican party who oppose immigration amnesty of any kind.

“I was raised conservative, but I can’t get rid of feeling empathy for … (DACA recipients) because I’ve kind of been in the same shoes,” he said.

For Justiniano, the conversations he has had with fellow conservatives have been difficult.

“It rubs me the wrong way when conservatives say, ‘Go away, you’re illegal. Do it the right way,’” he said. “We’re here for a reason. Some of us didn’t want to leave. Some of us didn’t have a choice.”

A Feb. 14 CNBC report revealed that the Trump administration is planning to scale down refugee resettlement programs in more than 60 offices across the nation. A State Department spokeswoman said in an email to Reuters on Feb. 14 that the drop in the number of refugees entering the country in 2018 no longer necessitated the operation of all 324 resettlement offices in the country. In Texas, seven of the 25 offices were affected.

Justiniano said the news motivated him to get involved in community activism.

“It’s not surprising,” he said. “I’m going to try to do my best to get people to vote. Our age group is a big part of the population, but everyone says, ‘I’m not going to vote because my vote isn’t going to count.’”

Justiniano crossed party lines and began campaigning for Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic contender against incumbent Ted Cruz.

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Through his experiences with naturalization and political activism, Justiniano said he began to piece together memories of his childhood in San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, in an effort to reclaim part of his identity.

“I told (my uncle) about a couple of dreams I had about bombs going off, and he said, ‘No, that really happened,’” Justiniano said. “The fighting was just outside of our house. You could hear it all.”

His interest in his heritage prompted him to search for members of his family who remained in El Salvador. In 2013, he was able to get in contact with his biological father. Justiniano said he plans to return to El Salvador after graduating in 2019 to meet his biological father for the first time.

For the time being, however, Justiniano said he’s working to ensure DACA recipients and refugees feel like they belong.

“We’re voting for them,” he said. “There’s a lot more people who are willing to help than there’s people not willing to help. We’re just in a place right now where the minority is in power.”


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