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Thu August 7, 2014

Trauma Plagues Many Immigrant Kids In U.S. Illegally

Originally published on Fri August 8, 2014 6:15 am

Many of the Central American children who have entered the U.S illegally in recent months have come with a heavy burden — a history of hardship and violence. And many of the children now face difficult and uncertain futures.

This has social service agencies around the country scrambling to figure out how to help the more than 30,000 unaccompanied minors who have been placed with family and friends since January, as they await their immigration hearings.

One of those nonprofits is Mary's Center, which has been helping immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area for years. Until recently, workers at the agency saw about five to seven newly arrived children each month. Now they're seeing that many every day, according to Maria Gomez, the group's president and CEO.

She says many of the children have had horrific experiences, which will require serious counseling.

Jose, 16, arrived in the U.S. in June. He says he feared throughout his two-month trip from Central America that he would be killed or kidnapped by gangs. His Aunt Marta, who lives in Maryland, says it was worth the risk, though, to get him away from the gangs back home. She says the family has been terrorized for years.

"It was so hard for me when I got a phone call ... with the news my sister had been killed," Marta recalls tearfully, speaking in Spanish.

She says two years ago, Jose's father and mother — who was five months pregnant at the time — were murdered for refusing to cooperate with local drug traffickers.

Jose's three younger siblings remain in his village, living on their own. His sister is 15, his brothers are 11 and 7. He fears for their safety, which is one reason NPR agreed not to use his full name, or to identify which of three troubled Central American countries Jose is from — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

"There are no laws where we come from — no police, no justice, no nothing," says his aunt. She says the family pulled together $4,000 to get Jose out before it was too late.

Jose says he gave himself up at the Texas border and spent eight days at a detention center, where it was dark and cold.

Now, he sits at a Mary's Center office in Prince George's County, Md. He's wearing black and white Converse sneakers, khaki shorts and a T-shirt that has pictures of surfboards on it and the words "Santa Cruz, Calif."

"I feel safe here, but I'm worried because my siblings are alone," Jose says in Spanish.

Maria Gomez says stories like his are not uncommon.

"So far almost every single one of the kids that we've gotten has been through some horrendous trauma," she says. She adds that many of the children have been physically or sexually abused, at home or on the way to the U.S. Gomez says one 11-year-old girl they're seeing was raped by the men her family paid to bring her to the United States. She's now pregnant.

"One of the many who can't even talk anymore, can't even talk," Gomez says. "She has no idea what it all means, but she now is carrying this baby. And the tragedy of it all is that the parents are so overwhelmed, because they left her back home when she was an infant, and now they don't know how to handle it, and so she's being blamed for getting pregnant."

Other agencies say they're seeing similar cases — children with layer upon layer of problems that will need to be dealt with soon. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a nonprofit that is helping the federal government settle about 1,000 unaccompanied minors, says more than 90 percent of the girls they're dealing with have been raped.

Many of the groups, like Mary's Center, are now meeting with state and local agencies, trying to figure out who can do what, and how they can work together. But their efforts are somewhat hampered because the federal government can't tell them how many more children will arrive and when, and where they'll be living.

Tom Harr is the CEO of Family Services, a nonprofit agency in Montgomery County, Md. So far, more than 2,200 unaccompanied children have been placed in Maryland homes, many of them in his county. He says it will be a challenge getting them the help they need.

"I think the biggest concern I would have is our capacity, because our programs are already filled," says Harr. He adds that there are obstacles to providing services for children who are undocumented, especially for things like mental health, which is expected to be among the children's greatest needs.

Daliris Amaya is a youth and family counselor with Family Services. She's already working with newly arrived immigrant children at a local high school. She says many of them are angry and confused, especially if they've rejoined parents who fled their countries years ago.

"They haven't met Mom like in 10 years," Amaya says. "So [she's] a complete stranger to them. I have had cases that my clients didn't have a clue that Mom was pregnant or that Mom had another child. When they come here, [it's] 'Surprise, you have another sibling.' "

This comes on top of all the other stresses of being in a new country and not knowing if they'll be sent back home, Amaya says.

Gomez of Mary's Center says her biggest fear is that these vulnerable kids will become prey to U.S. gangs, like those they were trying to flee in their own countries.

Right now, Jose's Aunt Marta is more worried about finding him health care and a lawyer to argue that he should be allowed to remain in the U.S. She also plans to enroll him in high school — although back home, Jose stopped going to school in third grade. That's a challenge for another day.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next we'll report on some of the Central American children who have entered the U.S. illegally this year. Since January, more than 30,000 have been placed with family and friends in the U.S. They're awaiting immigration hearings. And many say they are also absorbing the trauma of violence in their home countries. NPR's Pam Fessler reports on the effort to help.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Mary's Center is a nonprofit agency that's been helping immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area for years. Until recently, they might see five to seven newly arrived children each month. Now they're seeing that many every day.

JOSE: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: And many, like 16-year-old Jose, come with horrific tales which social service providers say will require serious counseling.

JOSE: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: Jose says he feared throughout his two-month trip to the U.S. that he would be killed or kidnapped by gangs. His Aunt Marta, who lives in Maryland, says it was worth the risk, though, to get him away from the gangs back home. She says the family's been terrorized for years.

MARTA: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: She say two years ago, Jose's father and his mother, who was five months pregnant at the time, were murdered for refusing to cooperate with local drug traffickers - one reason we've agreed not to use their full names or to identify which of three troubled Central American countries Jose is from - El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Jose's three younger siblings remain in his village living on their own.

MARTA: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: Marta says there are no laws in her country - that the police only come when the bodies are being buried. So the family pulled together $4,000 to get Jose out before it was too late. He says he gave himself up at the Texas border and spent eight days at a detention center where it was dark and cold. Now the teen sits at Mary's Center in Prince George's County, Maryland wearing black and white Converse sneakers, khaki shorts and a T-shirt that has pictures of surfboards on it and the words Santa Cruz, California.

JOSE: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: Jose says he feels safe now, but he's worried about his siblings back home. His sister is 15. His brothers are 11 and 7. Maria Gomez, who runs Mary's Center, says stories like Jose's are not uncommon.

JOSE GOMEZ: So far almost every single one of the kids that we've gotten has been through some horrendous trauma.

FESSLER: She says many of the children have been physically or sexually abused at home or along the way here. She says one 11-year-old girl was raped by the men her family paid to bring her to the U.S. And now she's pregnant.

GOMEZ: One of the many who's, like - can't even talk anymore - can't even talk. She has no idea what it all means, but she knows - carrying this baby. And the tragedy of it all is that the parents are so overwhelmed because they left her back home when she was an infant, and now they don't know how to handle her now. So she's being blamed for getting pregnant.

FESSLER: Other agencies say they're seeing similar cases - children with layer upon layer of problems that will need to be dealt with soon. Groups like Mary's Center have been meeting with state and local agencies trying to figure out who can do what and how they can work together. Although they're somewhat hampered because the federal government can't tell them how many more children will arrive and when.

TOM HARR: I think the biggest concern I would have is our capacity because our programs are already filled.

FESSLER: Tom Harr is CEO of Family Services, a nonprofit agency in Montgomery County, Maryland. So far more that 2,200 unaccompanied children have been placed in Maryland homes. Harr says it will be a challenge getting them the help they need.

HARR: Some programs - you can't provide services if people are undocumented. Mental health is a tough one.

FESSLER: And that is expected to be one of the kid's biggest needs. Daliris Amaya is a youth and family counselor with Family Services. She's already working with newly arrived immigrant children at a local high school. She says many of them are angry and confused, especially if they've rejoined parents who fled their countries years ago.

DALIRIS AMAYA: They haven't met mom, like, in 10 years. So that's a complete, you know, stranger to them. I have had cases that my clients didn't have a clue that mom was pregnant or that mom had another, you know, child. And when they come here, you know - surprise, you have another sibling.

FESSLER: On top of all the other stresses of being in a new country and not knowing if they'll be sent back home, Maria Gomez of Mary's Center says her biggest fear is that these kids will become prey to U.S. gangs like those they were trying to flee.

MARTA: (Spanish spoken).

FESSLER: For now Jose's Aunt Marta is more worried about finding him a lawyer and healthcare. She also plans to enroll him in high school. Although back home, Jose stopped going to school in third grade. That's a challenge for another day. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.