Esperanza plays crucial role in connecting unaccompanied minors to family

July 23, 2014

By Maria Wiering

mwiering@CatholicReview.org

ROSEDALE – Williams Guevara-Martinez was almost 17 when he left his home near San Salvador, El Salvador, and headed north with three other youth.

Guevara traveled 2,000 miles over 12 days by foot and car, finally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in the back of a truck.

Fifteen minutes later, immigration officials discovered his illegal entry and sent him to a Texas shelter. He was there 24 days before flying from Houston to Baltimore, where he was reunited with two brothers, a sister and nephew on Sept. 27, 2012. Like Guevara, these siblings left El Salvador to escape an abusive father and lack of opportunity, Guevara said. Since their exodus, violence in their country has spiked, compelling more youth to head north.

Guevara is among tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have entered the U.S. illegally in recent years, and whose numbers are on the rise.

More than 57,500 youth and children from Central America and Mexico are estimated to have crossed the border without guardians since Oct. 1, 2013, a significant increase from the 38,700 who crossed the year before. They undertake the dangerous journey to escape violence and poverty, some seeking to be reunited with family already in the United States.

The Esperanza Center in Fells Point has witnessed the rise of unaccompanied minors first-hand, working with more and more adults trying to connect with sons, daughters, siblings or cousins who have crossed the border, but are now detained in facilities for immigrants who have entered the U.S. illegally. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“Over the course of the last year, and particularly in the last several months, we have had a huge increase in demand of a variety of services,” said Valerie Twanmoh, Esperanza’s director. She links the demand directly to the influx of unaccompanied minors.

The Catholic Charities of Baltimore organization is one of two Maryland sites where minor immigrants’ sponsors can be fingerprinted as part of the reunification process. The other facility is a federal building in Rockville.

When Esperanza began offering the fingerprinting service in August 2013, the first months drew 30 to 45 sponsors. Then the numbers spiked in May to 93 and 105 in June. The center is on track to exceed those figures in July.

Esperanza works with the federal government and other human service organizations at shelters near the southern U.S. border currently housing the youths and children, and is able to reunite children with their sponsoring family members quickly. The immigration facilities aim to place children with sponsors within 30 days, Twanmoh said. The youngest unaccompanied child with whom Esperanza has worked was 7, who crossed the border with older siblings.

Once the minors are in Maryland, many families work with Esperanza to get medical attention, legal services and enroll the youths in school as they await court hearings on their cases. Many are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) for minors who have experienced abuse, neglect or abandonment, said Adonia Simpson, Esperanza’s managing attorney.

Guevara was. His left wrist bears a scar from one of his father’s frequent alcohol-fueled beatings, a two-inch long welt left from a machete sheath. He has another scar on his head, he said, hidden by thick black hair. In February, he testified before Maryland’s General Assembly in support of expanding the state’s SIJS program.

Catholic Charities has helped Guevara resolve his legal status, guiding him through court hearings. His eyes light up when he speaks of his hope of U.S. citizenship.

“I want to live here,” he said with a smile. “I want to stay here because it is very good for me. El Salvador has gotten worse.”

He may get a green card at his next court date in September, he said. He’s now 19 and entering his junior year of high school. He plans to go to college and would like to study engineering or computers, if he can get a scholarship.

The rise in unaccompanied minors seeking legal help and other assistance has put a strain on Esperanza’s resources, Twanmoh said. About 35 youths sit on a waiting list for legal services, and the organization is trying to recruit more pro-bono lawyers, paralegals and interpreters.

Esperanza’s leaders also hope to expand “very much needed” mental health resources for children. Their current therapist is limited by contract to seeing adults, but Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute has offered some services for uninsured children, Twanmoh said.

“A lot of the children are very much traumatized because of the journey, not to mention the trauma they suffered in their home,” she said.

Many children faced violence in their home or society before their trek toward the border. They may suffer Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome. One immigrant parent told an Esperanza staff member that her son had been shot in church after he refused to hand over clothing item to gang members. Other children risked kidnapping or violence if they left their house to go to the store.

“There is almost no limit to the atrocities that the kids face” in their home countries, Twanmoh said.

Parents know sending their children on a journey to the United States entails terrible risks including trafficking, abuse, rape and death, but are compelled to do so anyway because the situation is dire and they can not expect help from their governments, she added.

Guevara knew the journey was dangerous, and that coyotes sometimes abuse or sell the children with whom they were entrusted. Youths who take the trains take greater risks than he did, he said. At one point along the journey, he said, people in the room next to him were robbed at gunpoint.

At times, he feared for his own life, but said coming to the U.S. was worth the risk. He knows other Baltimore youths who made similar journeys to cross the border, but they don’t talk about them.

The stories of violence, abuse and poverty are prevalent, Simpson said, to the point that those who work closely with the immigrant youth risk of becoming desensitized by their traumas. She prefers to focus on the successes. Many of the unaccompanied youths she’s known have quickly learned English, are doing well in school, adjusting to a new home and adapting to American life.

The influx of unaccompanied youths has overwhelmed U.S. border-area shelters and the federal government is seeking new solutions. Catholic Charities is pursuing a federal grant that would allow them to house up to 50 youths at St. Vincent’s Villa Residential Treatment Center in Timonium, where they would draw on Esperanza’s experience and resources.

The decision has received significant push-back from some Baltimore County officials and other citizens, but William J. McCarthy, Catholic Charities’ executive director, said he has heard more support than criticism for the proposal, due Aug. 5 to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Maryland’s Catholic bishops added their voice July 23 in a statement calling for compassion in addressing the children’s needs.

“We cannot turn our back on these children,” they said. “They are fleeing to us because they know there are warm hearts and helping hands in America – and for so many immigrants, a home in the Catholic Church, no matter where their journey takes them. We must not prove them wrong.”

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