Waves of child immigrants await court dates in San Francisco, facing deportation back to their violent home countries without legal representation
In the small, colorful Precita Valley Community Center, a woman clutches a black ceramic goblet, circling a teenage girl with wisps of incense, and repeats the act with the 60 or so attendees. The spiritual cleansing ritual is much needed. Afterward, the San Franciscans will set their minds to saving the lives of children.
Nearly 50,000 Central American children crossed the Mexican border since October, according to federal data, fleeing targeted violence in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. This recent surge has hit home, as hundreds of those young refugees, often unaccompanied, seek asylum through immigration courts in San Francisco.
The courts often decide between life and death: Do the children stay in the safety of our sanctuary city, or return to countries from which they fled violence and chaos?
Jose Artiga, executive director of the Salvadoran Humanitarian Aid, Research and Education Foundation, told the crowd a story of life in El Salvador.
"A boy of only 11 years old waited for his grandfather one day," he said, in Spanish. "A gang captured him, and the community organized to search for the boy. They found the child, but in six parts. The grandfather said, 'How can I bring my grandchild back to his mother in six parts?' This was a child. The gang showed up at the funeral, and would not let the community bury him."
Some say the rising power of gangs sparked this surge in immigration. As President Barack Obama struggles with a bitterly partisan and gridlocked Congress to find a solution, US cities are dealing with the impacts of the overburdened immigration court system.
Now politicians of all partisan stripes, activists, and families are coming together to help the child refugees. Just last week, Sup. David Campos' resolution to find additional aid for overburdened immigration services unanimously passed the Board of Supervisors. The next step, he told the Guardian, is to determine how best to use funds to help these children.
At the Precita Valley Community Center and beyond, activists call for that funding to reach attorneys, without which these kids will almost certainly be sent home into harm's way.
The refugees travel far. Children fleeing violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala trek through Mexico to cross the US border, and some die in the attempt. Those who live and are discovered by Border Patrol officers along the Southwest border are held temporarily in crowded, cold detention centers in McAllen, Texas, or Nogales, Ariz.
Images of these detention centers show groups of children lying on hard floors in thin blankets, and some advocates for the refugees reported feces and urine soaking the floors. The young refugees tell officials where they have family connections, and are flown to immigration courts across the country.
One such court is in San Francisco.
In 2005, San Francisco had 227 new active deportation proceedings for unaccompanied children, according to federal data obtained by Syracuse University's TRAC Immigration project. That number was stable until 2012 when it jumped to 450 new cases. In 2013, the number jumped again, to 820.
San Francisco now has over 1,900 pending juvenile immigration cases, according to TRAC. Most of those children are Salvadoran, Honduran, and Guatemalan. The surge is pushing organizations that help these children to the breaking point.
Lariza Dugan-Cuadra, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, knows one thing for sure: "Things have been crazy."