The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He picked up a paint brush — and discovered a world of opportunity

Rafael Rodriguez puts the finishing touches on a painting at one of his aunts’ homes in Prince George’s County. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The still life of rotting fruit captured the attention of Jon Rudnicki, an admissions counselor for the Maine College of Art who came to Washington last fall to review the portfolios of prospective students. So did the dark self-portrait titled “Slave With Agreement,” which shows artist Rafael Rodriguez, his hands tied with rope.

Before Rudnicki realized it, he had spent more than 20 minutes listening to the skinny young man from Prince George’s County talk about isolation, frustration and optimism — far longer than the five minutes he typically allows for student meetings.

“The intentionality behind the work was profound. He has a story to tell,” Rudnicki said of Rodriguez, a senior at Northwestern High School who is set to graduate next month. “I literally see thousands of kids and thousands of pieces of art, and it says something when a student’s face and artwork sticks out. I wanted to help him find his voice.”

Rudnicki lobbied for his college to admit Rodriguez, 21, who fled violence in his native El Salvador four years ago and entered the United States illegally, eventually coming to live with an aunt in Maryland.

The school offered him a scholarship that would pay nearly half of the annual $35,000 cost for four years.

And unlike thousands of other undocumented immigrants of college age, Rodriguez has a chance of being able to seek federal student loans to cover the rest, thanks to a little-known but increasingly in-demand program that will give him legal residency — and is easier for young people to access in Maryland than in most of the rest of the country.

“When I make art, I feel free,” said Rodriguez, who never painted before coming to the United States. “I want to get my education to be an art teacher, have my own art studio and teach people from my country the importance of getting an education. That’s the only way things will change there.”

Rodriguez said goodbye to his parents in El Salvador in 2013, when the violence between rival gangs reached his doorstep. He was 17. A cousin had been murdered, people were looking for him and it was unsafe to go to school.

“I needed to leave,” he said.

After weeks of moving between safe houses in northern Mexico, enduring hunger and threats from smugglers, the teen was caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents near a crossing close to Hidalgo, Tex.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement released him after several days to his aunt Sandra Molina, who lives in Hyattsville. Rodriguez was required to appear in court when requested, while living with Molina and attending high school.

At Northwestern in Hyattsville, he joined scores of other newly arrived, undocumented students. The school was poorly prepared for the influx, with no Spanish-speaking counselors and few other resources to address the newcomers' needs.

Before taking an introductory art class his sophomore year, Rodriguez said his only plan for the future was to find an hourly wage job.

Picking up a paint brush for the first time changed that.

He dabbled in pencil, charcoal, watercolor and graphics. And his art teacher, Michelle Amaya, took notice. She encouraged Rodriguez to audition for the school’s competitive visual and performing arts program, which is named after puppeteer Jim Henson, a Northwestern graduate.

“Some people are born with it,” said Jamea Richmond-Edwards, another teacher in the art program. “Given the opportunity and a little direction, the sky was literally the limit for him.”

Rodriguez crafted colorful landscapes and portraits of animals vivid with color and light. His interest in environmental issues drove him to depict disasters both natural and man-made. In one, imagining how an animal suffers in an oil spill, he painted himself with black oil oozing over his head and bare shoulders.

There was the ominous drawing of a moonlit night in the Mexican desert near the border fence. And a pastel of himself caught “between walls.” That, and the self-portrait with his hands wrapped in a hangman’s knot, illustrate the frustration and uncertainty that Rodriguez said define his life as he waits for his immigration status to be resolved.

“I feel tied down,” he explained. “I know I have the ability and capacity to do what I want and continue my education. But I can’t move forward because my papers come first.”

In 2015, Rodriguez missed a court date — the relatives he was staying with had gone on vacation, he said, and he had no one to take him to court.

Weeks later, a deportation order arrived at his aunt’s house.

“That’s when they came to see me,” said Diane McHugh-Martinez, an immigration attorney who helped Rodriguez apply for a federal relief program called “Special Immigrant Juveniles Status.”

The program offers unmarried individuals younger than 21 a chance to obtain a visa and legal status if they are victims of abuse or neglect or were abandoned and cannot be returned to their parents.

Applicants need an order from the family or juvenile division of a state court that says it would not be in their best interest to return home. They also need a legal guardian in the United States, either court-appointed or privately arranged.

In 2013, fewer than 4,000 petitions for special immigrant juvenile status were filed, and the majority were approved. Then the number of young people fleeing El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala exploded. In 2016, nearly 20,000 individuals applied for the special status. More than 8,600 petitions are pending, and a growing number have been denied, in some cases because of country-specific quotas.

In many states, immigrants age out of family court at 18 and cannot apply for special immigrant juvenile status once they reach that threshold. But Maryland passed a law in 2014 allowing immigrants to apply until they are 21.

That is what helped Rodriguez, who petitioned for special status when he was 18. He was approved this fall but has not received the visa he needs to apply for permanent residency, a delay that McHugh-
Martinez said stems from the backlog of similar cases and could last another year or more.

Once Rodriguez gets his green card, he can apply for student loans to cover the rest of his art school tuition. He said he will probably defer admission for a year. Maine College of Art has indicated that it will hold his scholarship until he is ready to come.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez has completed a workforce training program at Joe’s Movement Emporium in Mount Rainier, where he studied art while practicing life skills, such as interviewing and public speaking.

He unveiled his senior exhibition at Northwestern on Thursday, and he will participate in an art show at the Emporium next month. He is also looking to apprentice for a working artist in the area.

“I think with God’s help everything will work out,” Rodriguez said. “It’s no small matter for an undocumented student to finish high school. I am optimistic my papers will come in soon.”