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Cape senior gives voice to others

Cape Gazette of Lewes, Delaware

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Billy Deleon translates in U.S. Immigration Court; Saltwater Portrait

Billy Deleon's part-time job isn't typical of an 18-year-old high school senior. But then again, Deleon's not your typical teenager.

For the past year, he has worked as a translator in the offices of Murphy Law Firm in Georgetown, which specializes in immigration and nationality.

There Deleon translates for Hispanic men and women seeking asylum or help with the immigration process. He hears and translates stories no one should hear: Rapes. Beheadings. Children killed in front of their parents.

Translating during court proceedings, he has struggled for composure as he says aloud the most brutal acts imaginable.

"Sometimes I can't believe what I'm hearing, but I have to translate it for the record," he said.

Deleon has worked as a translator for about a year. The experience has given him a clear understanding of government corruption and gang violence in Central America. Mexico's drug wars and their grisly violence have spread to neighboring Guatemala and south to Honduras and El Salvador. He learns as much about the area as he can. And he worries about the safety of his family living in Guatemala.

Deleon said he wants to visit his grandmother and relatives, even though he knows kidnappers often prey on foreign visitors for ransom money. "If I go, I'll have to totally blend in. No watches or American clothes," he said. Meeting in Guatemala City, the country's capital, is preferable to his grandmother's small, rural village, which only recently got electricity and where there is no police presence. "If you just say someone is coming, everyone knows," he said.

That village is a far cry from his home in Lincoln that he shares with his parents, two younger brothers and younger sister; a world away from the pristine hallways of Cape Henlopen High School where everything revolves around academic accolades, sports competitions and a distinct social order.

Deleon said he remembers his first day of school at H.O. Brittingham Elementary.

"I cried," he said. "Everyone was talking English, and I didn't know what they were saying."

His Spanish-speaking parents couldn't help him learn English. It was something he had to do on his own.

"The thing that really helped me was watching cartoons," he said. "I started watching 'Spongebob' and 'Rug Rats'."

Between Squidward's snarky jabs and Mr. Krabs' endless complaints, Deleon was determined to understand what they were saying. He learned words and inflection that have brought him real-world success. His English is now flawless with only the slightest accent.

"It was a struggle, but I got past it," he said.

By sixth grade, Deleon's English skills surpassed his parents' and most of his extended family's.

He started interpreting medical bills, financial documents and important correspondance. That soon expanded to doctor's appointments, where he helped translate for his parents and doctor, and trips to Justice of the Peace Court to translate traffic tickets or other minor violations.

"A relative got into an accident, but he couldn't explain what happened. So I went with him," Deleon said.

It was hard at first; Deleon said he wrote everything down. But he approached it with the same tenacity that made him want to understand every word in the cartoons he used to watch.

He first learned about the instability in Central America as a ninth-grader when his father's friend fled Guatemala because of mass killings in her town, and she was detained at the border. Soon after, another family friend was picked up by immigration officials in Milford. His wife and young children were devastated while the man was detained in a York, Pa. prison. "They didn't know what to do. I helped the family find an immigration attorney," Deleon said.

Deleon was there, when after months of separation, the father walked into his home and back into his family's life.

"It was the best feeling ever to see a family reunited," he said. "From then on, I was interested in this." His commitment to helping others has manifested itself in a sense of poise uncommon among high schoolers. With his clear, direct voice, he moves seamlessly between high school classrooms, where he helps translate math or other subjects for English language learners, and U.S. Immigration Court in Philadelphia, where he provides official translations in front of a judge and attorneys.

Now, he said, he knows what the judge looks for when someone seeks asylum.

"If there is fear, they keep you here, but if they are here for wealth, they send them back," he said.

Seasoned translator

Deleon's first experience with an immigration attorney ultimately earned him a job. "They asked me what I knew, and I told them I know how to pay bonds and talk to immigration officials," he said. He was hired a few weeks later.

Someday, he said, he would like to be an attorney specializing in immigration law.

Deleon will take classes at Delaware Technical Community College in the fall as part of the SEED program, a partnership with University of Delaware that provides free tuition for two years at Del Tech and finishing the final two years with a degree from University Delaware. The free education is a plus, he said, but staying close to home was just as important. His younger brothers are starting to help more, but Deleon is committed to his family. "My parents said they didn't know what they would do if I moved away," he said.

His desire to help others ultimately defines Deleon, both at home and at work.

"I love helping people," he said. "At work, you get to help people who are running away from their country because there's a problem in their country. We hear their story, and we help."



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Original Publication Date: May 10, 2016

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