LI Gang Conference Addresses Harsh Reality of Family Reunification

Alex Sánchez, executive director of Homies Unidos in Los Angeles, California, is a former gang member who participated in the “Building a Strong Long Island: Gang Interventions at Work” conference. (Photo via Noticia Long Island)

When Alex Sánchez was 3 years old and his brother one and a half, their parents left them to the care of friends in their native El Salvador and migrated to the U.S. It took five years for the parents to be able to bring their kids along with them. During that time, Alex only saw his mother in one black-and-white photo of herself when she was 16, that she left behind when she migrated.

But the long-sought reunification in the U.S., which they thought would make them one family again, did not happen as planned. On the contrary, for Alex it was the beginning of his gang life.

Sánchez chronicled this reality step by step in front of teachers, social workers and members of nonprofit organizations that gathered on April 12 and 13 in the first conference on “Building a Strong Long Island: Gang Interventions at Work,” organized by S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth Inc. in association with Hofstra University, Nassau BOCES and St. Martha Roman Catholic Church, to find the roots of this problem and seek real solutions.

Alex Sánchez is today the head of Homies Unidos in Los Angeles, California, a group that helps ex-gang members reintegrate into society through workshops. Through an emotional account, the keynote speaker explained how gangs have not been eradicated after so many years because policies are not designed to solve the problem but to export it.

“On Long Island they are implementing the same rules that were applied in Los Angeles in 1996, which allow the deportation of people who, even being legal residents, have committed crimes or have a gang affiliation. This way, the problem is not being fixed, it’s being exported to another place. Many of them come back, and they still are a problem,” said Sánchez.

Sánchez, a former gang member who was deported in 1994, reentered the U.S. in 1998 and started devoting his time and dedication to working with youths. In 2002 he was granted political asylum and is currently one of the foremost experts on gangs in Los Angeles, the place where MS-13 started. (…)

“When I arrived in this country I remember that my parents picked us up in a van and during that trip we looked at each other as if we were total strangers. I did not recognize my parents, they were foreign to me,” said Sánchez, who at 7 left a home in El Salvador where he went out to play and could see the mountains and the river from his front door, to live in a place where he could not go out because it was dangerous.

“We became a burden for my parents. We found that there was another brother and my mom was pregnant, and we all needed to adjust to living in a one-bedroom apartment,” remembered Sánchez. That’s when he realized the cruelty of family reunification: “My relationship with my parents had been forever fractured, and sometimes those breaks never mend, and you are left with trauma for life.”

He explained that many youths and children get to reunite with their families but in the process they find a harsh reality: parents that seem like strangers because that have not seen them for years; others go to live with stepparents or new brothers who don’t even speak Spanish, etc. Those are the kinds of family situations that lead kids aged 10, 11 or 12 to take refuge in a gang.

How to replace gangs

“Those kids, as I myself experienced it, do not seek help, and in school they start being chased by gang members who see them as vulnerable, and find what in that moment they think is a sort of support in the midst of that solitude. They start feeling the power that the gang gives them, and here is where we need to think how are we going to replace this power with prevention and intervention programs,” said Sánchez.

He suggests that schools should go to the root of the problem by being more aggressive in offering psychological support to the kids, creating monitoring programs for minors who have arrived recently in the country, and also helping them forgive their parents and be able to seek help.

“Now I understand what my mother’s situation was when she left me when I was 3. She didn’t leave because she wanted to be rich or give me a better life, she left me because she didn’t have any other option to survive, and we paid a big price,” said Sánchez.


“We invite organizations that can help us in this journey,” said Sergio Argueta, founder of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth Inc., a nonprofit devoted to prevention and intervention of Long Island gangs and promoter of this conference. “This is not a training, it’s a mutual cooperation. It’s the educators who every day are on the front lines of this problem.”

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