Community Groups Help Immigrants Settle Amid Political, Legal Turmoil

During the Central American civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. aid groups were established to assist the large number of migrants. Now those same groups, like El Rescate in Los Angeles, are helping to assist the large number of unaccompanied Central American children illegally entering the U.S.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEver's.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The following message will be repeated in Spanish and English.

MCEVERS: Let's say you're from Central America. You live here in the U.S. Your child, your niece, your cousin who's just cross the border, alone - one of the tens of thousands of children who cross into the U.S. this year. How do you find them? You call government hotline.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you're a calling to locate a minor child and the unaccompanied child is in our care, we will forward your information to the facility where your child is placed, and they will contact you directly.

MCEVERS: But what if you yourself entered the U.S. illegally, and you're afraid to call the government. You might call this guy instead.

SALVADOR SANABRIA: We started getting calls from parents of Virginia, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco -calling us, you know, I have my kid detained - what do I do?

MCEVERS: That's Salvador Sanabria he heads an organization called El Rescate. It means the rescue and it's in a part of LA that has on of the highest population of Central Americans in the U.S.

SANABRIA: The neighborhood where you are right now is the Ellis Island of Central America.

MCEVERS: In other words, while protests are breaking out around the country against housing migrant children in shelters and politicians in Washington are arguing about whether to authorize emergency funds this is how the migrant crisis is playing out on the ground. Churches, volunteers, nonprofit groups that were already in place are reuniting families and helping them get settled while they wait for a court date to determine whether they can say in the U.S. A wait time that could take years. Sanabria says people find familiar faces here in LA.

SANABRIA: So they don't feel the shock of landing in an unknown nation that doesn't speak your language and where you look different to the majority of the people.

MCEVERS: That's how it was for Rosy and her two young kids. They didn't want us to broadcast their last names they're worried about calling attention to themselves and their situation. The family used to live in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. Rosy ran a beauty salon but then members of MS13 the infamous gang that controls the area started demanding money.

So how much did they want they want?

ROSY: (Spanish spoken).

MCEVERS: $200 a month. But Rosie only made about $50 a week. She couldn't pay the gang and she heard the gang was trying to recruit her 15 old son.

ROSY: (Spanish spoken).

MCEVERS: So I took my two kids and I left, she says, just got on a bus and headed north. By the time she got to Mexico, she paid a smuggler a thousand dollars to help her, her son and her 10-year-old daughter Natali across the Rio Grande in a raft.

NATALI: (Spanish spoken).

VELEZ: She says she was scared.

MCEVERS: The family was picked up by the border patrol, detained, and then released pending an immigration hearing. That's how a 2008 law says children from all countries that do not border the U.S. should be processed. If they're with their mothers, officials often let the family together. Rosy eventually came here and got a job at a beauty salon. Her son is in summer school where class are in both Spanish and English. Rosy and the kids eventually will have to appear in court. She's come to El Rescate to get a lawyer.

What does she think would happen if she did get deported and have to go back?

ROSY: (Spanish spoken).

VELEZ: She says that the three of them, her and her children run a great danger if they get deported.

MCEVERS: Rosy says she will owe the gang money for all the time she's been gone. $200 a month for every month since April. Salvadore Sanabria says whether Rosy and the kids are deported back to El Salvador is up to one immigration judge to decide. Some judges are lenient, some are harsh.

SANABRIA: That's why I keep telling the mothers and fathers and the kids, you know, do well in school that might, that might count in your favor when facing an immigration judge.

MCEVERS: Sanabria has been in this neighborhood for decades. El Rescate was first set up to help people fleeing the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. Now, he says it's like history is repeating itself. People are fleeing violence, he says, and they want to start a new life.

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