Though current debate over what to do with the tens of thousands of children surging across the U.S. border from violence-torn countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras largely focuses on Washington and the cities where the youth are being housed, the issue touched down locally years ago.
Since 2011, Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto has served as a resource for Central American children fleeing intense gang violence and unstable family situations with the goal of reaching family members in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and surrounding Bay Area cities. The nonprofit legal center helps them secure legal relief, which can range from asylum to a special status for juveniles who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents.
It is a federal anti-trafficking law, passed in 2008 with support from both sides of the aisle, that ensures unaccompanied minors have a chance to stay in the United States rather than be deported immediately.
One of the final legislative acts of the George W. Bush administration, the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act guarantees an automatic legal hearing to unaccompanied children who are not from Mexico or Canada and who have crossed the border illegally. The Act also directs them to be placed under the care of the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is charged with reuniting the children with U.S.-based family members, if possible. During this process, they are housed in ORR shelters, which are located not just at the border but across the country (including one across the San Francisco Bay in Pleasant Hill, near Walnut Creek).
Community Legal Services attorney Helen Beasley, who focuses on juvenile immigration cases, said that despite the sudden nationwide interest in the issue, the trend of unaccompanied Central-American children seeking asylum is not new.
"There's definitely an increase in numbers," she said, "but it's been steadily increasing since about 2011."
Beasley said the majority of children she sees are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
"It really is these kids are fleeing for their lives," she said. "The stories that I hear, it's really over and over again: 'There were gangs in my neighborhood'; 'They threatened to kill me'; 'They killed my brother'; 'I had to flee.'"
She's currently working to place nine youth in long-term foster care, and 17 others have been reunified locally with family members. She said there are seven more youth whom the nonprofit will screen within the next week as potential clients.
Not all unaccompanied, undocumented youth are eligible for legal relief, and with limited resources the nonprofit cannot take on those who are ineligible, Beasley said. Children who are referred to the center are screened by staff before meeting with attorneys to determine their options.
One of Beasley's recent clients, a 14-year-old named Xavier Lazo, left El Salvador by himself about a year ago with the goal of reaching his grandmother in Redwood City. He had been abandoned by his parents years before and lived with his maternal aunt in El Salvador.
"(I came here) to be with my family because there was a lot of danger," Lazo told the Weekly in Spanish. He said the gang presence was so strong where he lived that he would only walk to school with a group of friends, and that gang members would stand and wait outside the schools, too. He said he didn't spend much time outside.
He had not been in contact with his parents for years, with his mother living in Guatemala, he said.
Lazo's maternal grandmother, in Redwood City, agreed to pay a coyote, the term for smugglers who bring immigrants into the United States.
And like many of the 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant youth who have crossed the border since October (double the number from the same time last year), Lazo experienced a traumatic journey here. He said he got lost one night while crossing a desert somewhere near Texas so he spent the night alone, with only a "a little food and little water." The next day, he ran into another group of coyotes who eventually got ahold of his grandmother and who made a $1,000 promise -- on top of the amount she had paid the first coyote -- to bring him safely to the United States. She obliged; he eventually made it to Texas, got on a bus and was soon caught by Border Patrol.
Lazo said he was eventually transferred to a shelter in Chicago, where he stayed for a month while his case was processed. Beasley first met him last July, after he was referred to the nonprofit by Legal Services for Children in San Francisco, which also has seen an increase in requests for its services, representatives said.
Most commonly, unaccompanied immigrant children are eligible for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status, which since 1990 has granted children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents a path to permanent U.S. residency. (SIJ reforms were also wrapped into the 2008 anti-trafficking law.) Another common route is to apply for asylum, which is granted through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to people fleeing persecution in five categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a certain social group. Beasley said that asylum applications for children like Lazo most often fall into the last category, with attorneys making the argument that an abused child falls into the social group of "nuclear family." There are also gang-based asylum claims, she said, labeling the social group as "those resisting gang recruitment."
Children who are eligible for some kind of legal relief but don't have a family member to be placed with are sent to long-term foster care, Beasley said. Community Legal Services is connected to a Catholic Charities of San Mateo refugee foster care program in San Jose.
In her three years at Community Legal Services, Beasley has yet to have a client sent back to his or her home country. She said that is partly due to the length of time it takes to resolve cases -- even if a request for status or a certain form of relief is denied, it can be appealed, or lawyers can go another route and apply for another provision.
For Beasley to secure Special Immigrant Juvenile status for Lazo, she needed to request the state juvenile court issue an order saying he had been neglected, so his grandmother could become his legal guardian. Though it was difficult to contact his parents to get consent for the guardianship, Beasley eventually got confirmation from both parents that they had abandoned or had no relationship with Lazo.
Lazo was granted SIJ status in March, which allows him to apply for a green card.
Though children placed with family members are not given any actual legal status, they are released for the duration of their immigration proceedings, Beasley said. Many say the fact that these proceedings can stretch for years has fueled the perception in Central America that it is quite possible to cross the border illegally and stay here.
"They're released; they come and live here; they go to school here; they become part of the community. But they're still having to go to immigration court," Beasley said. "They're still at risk of deportation."
Undocumented students can go to school, and almost immediately after arriving in Redwood City, Lazo enrolled at Selby Lane Elementary School. He will be entering Sequoia High School this fall. Beasley said her clients from East Palo Alto typically go to schools within the Ravenswood School District until eighth grade, and then enter the Sequoia Union High School District or East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy for high school.
Beasley -- like elected officials from President Barack Obama to Rep. Anna Eshoo -- called the flood of Central American kids a "humanitarian crisis."
"This is not an immigration issue," Eshoo told the Weekly. "This is a refugee issue, and it's a refugee crisis."
Eshoo, along with Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Mike Honda, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed, Santa Clara County Supervisors Dave Cortese and Cindy Chavez and a San Jose city councilman, issued on July 16 a statement expressing Santa Clara County's support for unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border.
"We urge communities in the Bay Area, throughout the State of California, and across the nation to join us to make good on America's promise of fairness and due process," the officials said.
Though Santa Clara and San Mateo counties have yet to take any concrete action on the issue, Santa Clara County Social Services Agency Director Bruce Wagstaff said his agency and many others countywide are in talks to prepare for the inevitable arrival of more children.
Wagstaff said he, along with county and city representatives, legal aid groups and local community groups like Catholic Charities, have been meeting in recent weeks to develop a strategy for how to welcome at least 50 children who they have been told could arrive in Santa Clara County. He said they are leaning toward the creation of a host-family program, separate from foster care, but are not yet sure what the exact model would be, how it would be funded or if the federal government might hand down recommendations in a different direction.
He said the county Board of Supervisors plans to discuss the issue at its meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 5.
Many cities across the country are already taking action. Two weeks ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to seek additional funding to aid these children. A Portland, Oregon, family services agency last week received $3.7 million in federal grant money to house 50 children. The governor of Massachusetts has proposed a plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 children on a state air base or military training facility for up to four months.
At the federal level, in early July, Obama asked Congress for $3.73 billion to bolster border security and expedite deportations. The House responded with a much more modest $659 million emergency spending measure to last through September, but in the eleventh hour Thursday, before Congress' five-week summer recess, House Republicans decided not to vote on the bill due to a lack of support.
The pressure is on for a solution, however. More than 52,000 unaccompanied minors, as well as 39,000 adults with children, were apprehended trying to illegally cross the border this fiscal year, according to Border Patrol. Last year, it was 38,833 -- a 59 percent jump from the year before -- and some projections pin next year's number as high as 74,000.