The Bay Area, and the Mission in particular, has long been a refuge for immigrants fleeing their country of origin. However, with a surging number of predominantly young migrants escaping intensified violence in Central America, the Mission District’s leading immigrant advocacy organizations are assisting underage migrants in need like they never have before.
Every week, unaccompanied children arrive in their lobbies seeking help for everything from imminent deportation to reuniting with loved ones in the Bay Area. Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) estimates that 200-250 unaccompanied minors are arriving in the Bay Area each month.
These organizations are struggling to keep up with the demand.
“These things happen and no one is equipped to deal with it,” said Jackie Shull-Gonzales, an immigration attorney at the San Francisco Immigrant Legal and Education Network (SFILEN). The Department of Homeland Security has stated that it expects 90,000 immigrant children to cross the U.S.-Mexico border this year.
Advocates for the immigrants want the city to take notice. Today at noon there will be a rally in front of City Hall to urge the Board of Supervisors to vote in favor of a resolution that calls for more resources dedicated to the social, medical and legal services for the unaccompanied minors that travel from Central America to the Bay Area. The resolution was proposed last week by Supervisor David Campos, who immigrated to America from his native Guatemala at age 14.
“To put more resources into a broken system could be helpful,” said Jessica Farb, the directing attorney at the Immigrant Center for Women and Children.
Like many nonprofit legal organizations that serve immigrants, SFILEN and ICWC are strapped for resources. Nearby at the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), the number of unaccompanied minors who arrive at their doors have also soared, tripling from 20 to 60 children per month.
“We could add five attorneys but we’d still be back at more demand than supply,” said Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, the executive director of CARECEN, which convened an emergency meeting last week to address the issue. “The challenge for us is: what other strategies can we use to find some solutions that stop the bleeding from the root?”
For the people who work with these immigrants, it’s not only the surging numbers that’s troubling, it’s the increasingly young age of many of their clients. This year, Shull-Gonzales has seen children as young as 6 years old at her Mission office, which provides free and low-cost legal assistance to immigrants in the Bay Area.
“The parents that we serve here of unaccompanied children are the most isolated, freaked out immigrants that I’ve ever run across,” said Susan Bowyer, deputy director at the Immigrant Center for Women and Children (ICWC), which has recently been taking in 18 new clients every week. “They’re very reluctant to come forward.”
The immigrant children, many of whom are unaccompanied but not exclusively so, have come from Central American countries including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, explained Dugan-Cuadra, lured north by hopes of safety from violence. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees reports that in the last five years, they’ve received roughly seven times more applications for asylum for residents of Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize compared to years prior to 2008.
Silvia Ramos, who manages the Family Wellness Program at CARECEN, explains that San Francisco is a “sanctuary city” and that Central American children are fleeing violent street gangs and chronic poverty that plague their hometowns.
“They have fled their countries because of fear, threats, violence, rape,” Ramos said. “I would say that 90 percent [immigrate] to overcome trauma.”
At the federal level, the flood of immigrant children to the U.S. has been dubbed a humanitarian crisis, recognized by President Obama, which isn’t the highest designation of a crisis—the one that compels countries to offer asylum—but will call in the Federal Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a response. At the local level, Shull-Gonzales describes the crowded lobbies in the Mission as a “microcosm” for what is occurring at the border.
“It’s a matter of time and incremental worry of a parent with their child in a gang-ridden country, because I see it with my own clients—’Can I come now? Can I come now?’ and I say just hold off,” said Farb, the attorney at the Immigrant Center for Women and Children. “They say it’s getting worse.”
These nonprofits are often the only means of assistance that the incoming unaccompanied minors have, explained Dugan-Cuadra.
“The situation with the children is tragic, yet it’s a great opportunity because it will hopefully let us shine light on the true causes of migration,” she said. “It will hopefully make an appeal to the American people to start really considering the urgent need for immigration reform in this country.”