During an event in downtown Los Angeles on Monday, members of Southern California Grantmakers gathered with nonprofit and public service providers to discuss the recent influx of unaccompanied immigrant children into southern California and how the philanthropic community is responding to it.
After an introduction to the reality of unaccompanied minors by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sonia Nazario, two panels consisting of service providers and funders discussed their work on this issue, what the role of the philanthropic community might be going forward, and described the children’s greatest needs.
Nazario has been widely acclaimed for her Los Angeles Times series and subsequent book, Enrique’s Journey, which outlines the dangerous quest undertaken by thousands of immigrant children seeking asylum from the violence of their home countries in Central America. Nazario’s recent Op-ed in the New York Times explores the violent experiences of unaccompanied minors when she revisits the village in Honduras that her previous subject, Enrique, had fled years earlier.
A panel of two Los Angeles-area service providers, Martha Arevalo, executive director of The Central American Resource Center, and Caitlin Sanderson, program director for Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project, described the services being provided and the need for additional resources. Ensuring adequate legal representation for these children is a top priority for both of these organizations.
“Without legal services, these kids do face a judge alone,” Sanderson said during the event. “I’ve seen little kids whose feet can’t touch the floor sitting at the counsel table.”
California legislators are working to divert $3 million for this purpose, but providers estimate that the cost of providing representation is upwards of $2,500 per child. According to Sanderson, the Esparanza Immigrant Rights Project estimates that there are eight to 10,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who have been released to the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Immigration Court since October 2013. The exact number is known to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services but is not being shared with service providers.
Also of concern is the political climate around the issue. Arevalo, herself born in El Salvador, recently traveled to that country as part of a delegation.
“Just like there’s politics here, there’s politics in Central America,” Arevalo said. “When we went to meet with the vice president and the vice minister of foreign relations, the first thing that they told us was ‘there really isn’t any violence. These children are not leaving because of violence. They’re leaving because of family reunification,’ and to me, as a Salvadoran, it was a shock, you know, because that type of mentality and public comment only hurts the children that we’re trying to help.”
Advocates believe the message being handed down by political leaders must change in order for public perception of the issue to shift.
“We should be talking about these children as refugees; it shouldn’t be that hard for them to get political asylum,” Arevalo said. “But it’s that public position of these governments that allows the United States to say they’re not refugees. Until they change that position we‘re not going to see long-term solutions.”
The session concluded with a panel of Southern California funders and political appointees, including Maria Blanco of the California Community Foundation, Beatriz Solis of The California Endowment, and Dr. Linda Lopez of the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Dr. Lopez reported that the Mayor’s office is focused on a number of initiatives related to unaccompanied immigrant children, including access to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and locating “standard temporary shelters” where children can be housed for 30 to 45 days in Los Angeles.
Funders and service providers have identified five priority areas that will need to be addressed in order to improve outcomes for young people attempting to make the harrowing journey from Central America to the United States. In addition to legal representation, these areas are mental health services, the post-release process and related resources, and outreach to affected individuals living in the more remote areas under the Los Angeles Immigration Court’s jurisdiction.
Earlier this month, Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR) released its own list of recommendations for philanthropic response, which are broken into categories of legal services, direct services, communications, policy advocacy and research.
“This issue is probably going to be one of the issues that defines us as Angelenos and as Americans,” said Lopez. “Looking at it from a macro perspective, I think regardless of your politics these are children first and foremost, it is a crisis, it’s not going to go away, and we can continue to have policies that deport these children but the children are still going to come.”
Christie Renick is the Southern California Coordinator for Fostering Media Connections.