There are at least 1,900 child refugees in the Bay Area from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, according to federal immigration data. These teens and young children are fleeing gang violence, kidnapping, and countries that have the highest murder rates in the world.
“We need to keep in mind the reason why these children left,” Clarisa Sanchez, a legal representative at Catholic Charities CYO told us. “They didn’t want to leave their pueblos and small cities, they’re coming here by force.”
But this is not about the problem (which we covered in last week’s paper), this is about solutions. Though President Obama recently said he may create a refugee center in Central American countries, the kids who are here now still need help. When ICE holds refugees in Bay Area detention centers, nonprofit organizations offer legal support for these children and teenagers. Unfortunately, now the nonprofits are stretched to capacity.
Only 71 of the 800 new child refugees in San Francisco immigration court had an attorney, according to data from Syracuse University’s TRAC Immigration project.
The nonprofits needs are threefold, Sanchez and other nonprofit representatives told us: They need competent volunteer attorneys, funding to hire new attorneys, and counseling services for the children. Supervisor David Campos recently passed legislation to raise the funding for these needs, but still, volunteers and donations are needed.
Counseling is a luxury some of these nonprofits have been unable to provide, as they focus on legal support to keep the kids in the US.
“[The kids] have been subjected to gang violence and drug cartels,” Sanchez said. “They’ve been hunted down by gangs threatening to kill their family. They’ve been beaten bloody in the streets.”
“They need social workers, counselors,” she said, “who can treat them emotionally.”
Some of these kids and teens will find homes with relatives here in the Bay Area, but wait a year or longer for the legal process that may keep them here or send them back to violent home countries. Sometimes these kids flee specific threats, and going home means death.
Maria Viarta with the Central American Resource Center told us one of those stories.
“So there’s a young man, he came in about three or four weeks ago. He’s 17 years old,” she said. This teenager was from El Salvador. “He was kidnapped while he was trying to sell a snow cone, off the side of a freeway, by a bridge. They beat him pretty badly. He was able to escape, but they showed up at his house and threatened his grandmother because he was living with her. If she didn’t pay them the money they would kill him.”
He then crossed the border and was caught.
“He’s a kid, a scared kid,” she said. “Being in a country riddled with violence, your innocence gets taken away.”
Seeing children and teens fleeing violence every day, hearing their stories, and facing an ever-increasing caseload, many of the legal representatives helping these children are burning out.
“When you’re confronted by someone with compassion who holds your hand with a scary process most kids end up breaking down and asking for help,” Viarta said. When she asked the 17-year-old if he could go back home safely, she said, “He was very cold… all the kids say, ‘I don’t want to go back, if I go back I am sure I am going to die.’”
Sanchez said legal representatives and children needed counseling. “I’m not a therapist, I’m not a psychologist, I’m a legal representative,” she said. “I can help him on the legal side, and we’ll do everything we can, but I don’t have the tools to treat his trauma.”
Sometimes of these crucial providers don’t come back.
“I think often times in the legal immigration community we don’t talk about the burnout rate,” Sanchez told us. “It’s high.”
Pro bono attorneys (preferably with grounding in immigration law)
Who you can contact to offer help:
Central American Resource Center
3101 Mission Street
Asian Law Caucus
55 Columbus Avenue
La Raza Centro Legal
424 Valencia St. Suite 295
Catholic Charities CYO
180 Howard St., San Francisco
Legal Services for Children
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
1663 Mission St.