All the kids are "Mi amor" to Cristi Rosales-Fajardo. The smaller ones climb on her lap, and the older ones give her tight hugs. It's hard to distinguish between "Miss Cristi's" own three children and the dozens of others who rotate in and out of her office.
"What do you need, mi amor?" she asks a teenager who wants to know if Rosales-Fajardo wants any red peppers and onions from a nearby garden. "Hola, mi amor," she says to a first-grader who has something to tell her about his day at school.
Many of Rosales-Fajardo's newest "kids" are from Honduras — young people who have fled that country's violence and terror. The United Nations listed Honduras as the world's murder capital in a 2013 report (see "Why Are So Many People Fleeing Honduras?"). Nearly 57,000 undocumented minors from Central America have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border this year. The greater New Orleans area has seen an influx of about 1,000 children, with close to 2,000 thus far statewide and more arriving all the time. This year alone, Rosales-Fajardo has worked with about 150 Honduran youth.
According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), a division of the U.S. Health & Human Services Department, Jefferson Parish has seen the highest number of arrivals since the beginning of the year, with 585 minors released to "sponsors" as of Sept. 30. The ORR cites 267 minors released in Orleans Parish during that same time period. Those counted are only the minors who were detained at the border, taken to detention centers and then released to family members or other sponsors. While children are coming from other countries, more are arriving from Honduras than any other country — and many Hondurans gravitate toward the port city of New Orleans, where they know people. Originating in ties to the birth of banana corporations in the early 20th century, a relatively large and deeply rooted Honduran and Honduran-American community has long called New Orleans home.
The recent surge over the summer is part of a larger trend that shows no sign of decrease. Three years ago, just under 7,000 children were detained by U.S. immigration authorities and placed in federal custody. This year's estimates go as high as 90,000.
Rosales-Fajardo is a lead organizer at VAYLA New Orleans, a youth-centered organization with a stated commitment to positive social change, community empowerment and cultural awareness. From its home base in a strip mall on Chef Menteur Highway, the group holds citizenship clinics and helps to enroll the immigrant kids in school and connect them to social services. Equally important, it acts as a safe place that welcomes any and every child.
At a recent VAYLA event, the Honduran kids read aloud single-sentence "poems":
"I am undocumented because I saw my father killed over a war tax."
"I am undocumented because I am running from a country with corrupt government."
"I am undocumented because I do not want to be a future victim of rape."
"I am undocumented because I do not want to be in a gang."
"I am undocumented because I had to cross rivers and mountains and cities to be here."
"I am undocumented and all that I ask is for the opportunity to be free."
Unlike other immigrants, Rosales-Fajardo points out, these children didn't come in search of the American dream. For many, it was literally a life or death decision. They didn't ask to have their families torn apart, their childhoods severed and their inno- cence broken by unim-aginable violence.
Martin Gutierrez, vice president of Community Services Ministry for Catholic Charities, says if more Hondurans were aware of the legal nightmare their children face once they reach the United States, they might reconsider the perilous journey. But Gutierrez notes that when the other option is certain death — anything is better than that.
Now the Honduran kids are struggling to fit in a new country and learn English and coming to terms with what it means to be "undocumented" or an "illegal alien." They miss their homes and the family left behind. But they are survivors, Rosales-Fajardo says. They are here, and they are alive to tell their stories.
Junior Rivas, 16, is a quiet and polite boy with sharp features, but there is sadness in his dark eyes. Junior fled Honduras about two years ago because his only alternative was to join a pandilla — a gang — that would force him to participate in violent acts about which Junior hesitates to get specific: either they would kill him, or make him do cosas males (bad things). Junior has friends and family members who have been killed and others who joined the gangs. Going to a different town or neighborhood wouldn't save him, he says; they would kill him wherever he went.
He doesn't want to go into specifics about the journey either, only to say that it was "muy peligroso." He knows exactly how long it took — six weeks — but all he says is that it was "feo" (bad) — "muy feo."
Junior doesn't know what his future holds. Some of his family members here are facing deportation. He misses Honduras and the more peaceful aspects of the life he knew, but he is doing his best to continue his education. Junior attends public school in New Orleans, and wants to be an architect.
Sulmi Cantillano looks like a typical American 17-year-old. She wears big silver earrings, skinny jeans and white sandals, and the black eyeliner around her almond-shaped eyes is applied perfectly. She is sweet-tempered and shy. But beneath that there is pain and fear.
Sulmi fled Honduras in June with her two younger step-brothers. When Sulmi was in seventh grade, she says, she was raped. Afterward, she was afraid to leave the house and her family received death threats against her and her relatives. So Sulmi came to New Orleans to live with family, leaving behind her 7-month-old baby. Sulmi did not think the infant would survive the journey and the border crossing, so her grandmother agreed to take care of the baby. Asked to describe her baby, Sulmi tears up; she only can say "preciosa."
The eight-day trip was scary, Sulmi says, but they made it with the help of a coyote (smuggler), crossing the Rio Grande in Texas and turning themselves over to U.S. Border Patrol agents. After 10 days in a detention center, they were released to a relative living in New Orleans.
Sulmi says she wants to work so she can provide for her daughter. But Rosales-Fajardo has encouraged her to finish her education, telling her that is how she can best take care of her child. Right now, Sulmi is attending public school and has a place to live, though those arrangements may not last.
Sulmi says she is considering a career in law enforcement, so she can prevent what happened to her from happening to other girls.
Elvis Diaz, 17, is more outgoing than Junior and Sulmi, with curly black hair, long dark lashes and a big smile. He has been in New Orleans for about a year and is enrolled in a public charter school. Elvis doesn't understand all the strict "zero tolerance" rules, but he is getting by, and likes it "mas o menos." But it doesn't take long to see that smiling is also his defense mechanism. The more painful a memory a question elicits, the more Elvis smiles.
Elvis says he came to New Orleans in hopes of reuniting with his mother, who came here for work when he was 8 years old. He hadn't seen her since.
Some accounts of the violence involving children in today's Honduras are staggeringly brutal.
It took Elvis three months to get to the United States. He made it to Mexico twice, only to be deported. The third trip took 15 days. The first attempt was scary, Elvis says, but not after that — it was just long.
Elvis misses Honduras. He looks down, still smiling, and fights tears when he thinks about home, his father and brother. He doesn't want to stay in New Orleans, but he knows it is too dangerous to return to Honduras. He hopes to go to college. But as with all the others who made it across the border, the courts will decide his future.
Being undocumented isn't something Elvis likes to think about. "It feels terrible," he says.
All the undocumented children are at risk of being deported back to the violence overwhelming Honduras. The legal challenges they face are lengthy and complex. Some also rely on family members who are also undocumented, though not awarded the same layer of protection as the juveniles. Their greatest need right now is legal representation, Rosales-Fajardo says.
In a Metairie office building about 20 miles away from VAYLA's home base, immigration attorney Kathleen Gasparian devotes her free time to the newly created "Pro Bono and Juveniles" (PB & J). Gasparian started the organization to connect lawyers and other volunteers to kids who cannot afford legal representation.
In Louisiana, there is a severe shortage for pro bono legal services, Gasparian says, especially pro bono immigration legal services. Even if a child or family is able to pay, there are not enough lawyers trained in immigration law. In addition, Gasparian adds, the detention centers (including one of the largest in the country in Jena) are located far away from cities and adequate resources.
The law provides protection for refugee youth — provided they can access legal representation. A 2008 law made it easier for the United States to quickly deport minors back to Canada or Mexico, but the process for other countries is more complicated and lengthy.
Gasparian says she was "floored" by the response to the first PB & J meeting she held calling for volunteers; she had hoped 10 lawyers would show up, but the number was closer to 100. From the first meeting, Gasparian says the group was able to make about 50 matches. But the shortage remains, and there also is a significant need for more Spanish-speaking lawyers and interpreters, she says.
Obtaining legal representation is only the beginning of the fight. Once represented, one path is to apply for amnesty, which Gasparian says can be very difficult to prove and to win. Another option is to apply for a special juvenile visa, which requires proof that a child was abused, abandoned or neglected by one or both parents.
Mental health care for the children fleeing traumatic circumstances in Honduras is another major concern, says Gutierrez. He has teamed up with PB&J, and with Catholic Charities Works to connect the kids to social services as well as legal.
Hondurans have been immigrating to New Orleans for more than a century for a variety of reasons — because of the port connection, for better job opportunities and schools for their children, as a place of refuge after Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras in 1998 and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 for work opportunities. Many of the immigrants were from middle- and upper-class Honduran families, who readily assimilated into the region and are now part of the fabric of New Orleans society, notes Dr. Steve Striffler, a professor of anthropology and the Doris Zemurray Stone Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of New Orleans.
Some accounts of the violence involving children in today's Honduras are staggeringly brutal. In a July 11 opinion piece in The New York Times, Sonia Nazario wrote about her interviews with 11-year-old Cristian Omar Reyes, a boy living in Honduras and desperate to escape. Nazario recounts: "A girl his age resisted being robbed of $5. She was clubbed over the head and dragged off by two men who cut a hole in her throat, stuffed her panties in it, and left her body in a ravine across the street from Cristian's house." Nazario also described the young children sucked into the violence: "Teachers at Cristian's school described a 12-year-old who demanded that the school release three students one day to help him distribute crack cocaine; he brandished a pistol and threatened to kill a teacher when she tried to question him."
For Rosales-Fajardo, her daily focus is about addressing the needs of the wave of Honduran youth now that they are here. Access to education is a priority at VAYLA, and there is a constant effort to make sure schools are serving English language learners and undocumented children, as required by law; if the law requires kids to be in school, Rosales-Fajardo says, then the schools need to meet their obligation (that comes with federal funding) to enroll them and educate them. The schools in New Orleans (now nearly all privatized charter schools) require monitoring to ensure kids with additional needs, like language services, aren't pushed out or discouraged from enrolling. "There's a lot of push-out," Rosales-Fajardo says.
Last month, VAYLA and The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote letters to all charter schools that required a Social Security number on enrollment applications, informing them it is not a requirement (the law allows children a public education regardless of legal status). In 2012, VAYLA published a report and filed a federal complaint regarding the violation of laws related to language services in public schools in New Orleans. The report documented students who were placed in inappropriate classes — some who spoke English but were assessed based on their surname, and others who were not provided needed language services. According to the report, 69.5 percent of Asian and Latino students surveyed said they were placed in an English as a second language class they did not feel was appropriate for their level of language development. Other stories detailed students being pulled out of class to be used as translators, and the failure by schools to translate important communication with families.
The flood of Honduran children entering America has become a flashpoint for immigration reform.
At the downtown Catholic Charities offices, Gutierrez excitedly shares the news they soon will be hiring two full-time immigration attorneys to help with the caseload. Aiding immigrants and refugees has long been part of the group's mission, and undocumented children fleeing danger in Central America is nothing new. In an average year, Catholic Charities might see 15 cases, Gutierrez says. So far this year they've seen close to 300.
To respond to the increase, Catholic Charities has been holding group orientations, after which they screen every child individually. From there they try to ensure the children's basic health and education needs are met, and then determine which cases have the best chance of finding legal remedy. Word of mouth brought 150 people to the first orientation session held in late August, Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez also is starting a mental health program modeled after the one at PB&J, enlisting pro bono counselors and psychiatrists, pointing out undocumented children don't qualify for most social services other than education and major emergency medical care.
Rosales-Fajardo, Gasparian and Gutierrez don't question that these kids deserve help, but they are not ignoring the bigger immigration debate. Gutierrez emphasized that the church does not support "blanket amnesty" but does support comprehensive immigration reform. People who meet certain basic requirements should "have the chance to legalize their status," Gutierrez says.
That attitude isn't shared among many Louisiana politicians.
Despite the relatively small number of undocumented Honduran minors who have come to Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal's reaction has been unequivocal. In a July letter he wrote to President Barack Obama, Jindal, the son of (legal) Indian immigrants, wrote: "For just one example of the potential negative ramifications of your actions, we are in the midst of hurricane season and I am gravely concerned about the safety and well-being of the 1,071 unaccompanied immigrant children who were placed without our knowledge in the last six months. ... The introduction of 1,071 additional children to unknown locations gravely hampers state and local government emergency response. Furthermore, the school year is about to start. The state has received no guidance or resources to ensure the education and health care for these children."
Jindal goes on to hold the Obama Administration accountable: "The crisis is a predictable one. It is happening because your administration has failed to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws, making our country a mag-net for these migrants."
Sen. David Vitter voiced his outrage through his Twitter account. On the rumor that a Shreveport coliseum might be asked to house Honduran refugee children, Vitter tweeted: "#Louisiana should not be bullied into housing them." In an email solicitation a few days later asking for support for his upcoming gubernatorial campaign, Vitter wrote, "I have a bill in Congress that will fix the border crisis now by creating mandatory detention of illegal immigrants who are trying to sneak into the U.S., and expediting deportation. And as Governor, I will use all of our state's power to block them from coming to Louisiana in the future."
But Gasparian points out that there is a higher level of border enforcement under the Obama admini-stration than under any other administration in history. Under Obama, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has seen a record level of funding and the highest level of deportations in history — total "removals" have increased over the past decade, according to DHS figures, from just under 250,000 in 2004 to close to 450,000 in 2013.
The flood of Honduran children entering America has become a flashpoint for immigration reform, with Republicans, Democrats and the public at large voicing strong opinions on what that means. Obama issued an executive order Nov. 20, blocking the deportation of as many as 5 million undocumented aliens while they register with the U.S. government and become legal. The president said the immigration system is "broken" and blamed Republicans in the House for thwarting attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform. He also challenged Congress members who did not like his plan to "pass a bill."
Even though Rosales-Fajardo's colleagues tell her not to do it, she reads online comments following news articles about the Honduran youth in New Orleans and across the country, where the undocumented kids are portrayed as law-breaking freeloaders and the comment threads are filled with vitriol. Others express sympathy, but along the lines of, "We have to take care of our own before we can take care of others. Resources are limited."
Partisan domestic politics and sticky foreign policy aside, the notion that America is a nation of immigrants hits close to home for Rosales-Fajardo, Gasparian, and Gutierrez.
Rosales-Fajardo was a young Brazilian who did not speak a word of English when she came to New Orleans. She's now a community activist married to a Honduran immigrant and is a mother of three. Gasparian also refers to her own history. Her grandfather fled the Armenian genocide and her mother's family fled the potato famine in Ireland. With her father in the military, Gasparian grew up traveling all over the world. "I understand how amazing it is to be here," she says. "I understand how lucky we are just by the virtue of the geography of our birth."
Gutierrez also identifies with the kids with whom he works. He moved to St. Bernard Parish from Nicaragua in the 1970s to escape violence. His father served in the military and stayed to work while the family decided to wait until things stabilized. But Gutierrez's father was a target, on the losing side of the conflict, and the family permanently relocated to Louisiana and applied for asylum.
In a July column in the Clarion Herald, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Gutierrez wrote: "This is a major crisis in a very complex world. The root causes that push these families to leave their countries and the forces that pull them to come to the U.S. must be dealt with. This will not happen overnight. In the meantime, we have to deal with this situation in a fair, humane, and just manner."
Gasparian knows how heartbreaking immigration law can be. If she loses, her clients get deported. She calls the current immigration laws "draconian," and says the process is trying for everyone involved and can last many years. There's a major backlog, having nothing to do with the recent influx of kids.
While Sulmi, Junior, and Elvis all are in limbo awaiting court dates, Gasparian says the time can be a gift. More time can mean better legal representation. At least for now, they are safe, in school and have a roof over their heads. Sulmi and Elvis are earning small stipends as part of VAYLA's leadership training program.
"The laws on the books allow the kids to be here and go through the process and have their day in court," Gutierrez says. "Many will qualify for visas. But the reality is that many will not and will have to be deported."
Gutierrez says he isn't optimistic that the attention given to the children fleeing violence in Central America will spur any meaningful immigration reform. "At the same time, I am encouraged by the opportunity to talk to people who normally would not care but do because it involves children," he says. "It gives the opportunity to highlight how complex and broken our immigration system is."
— Kari Dequine Harden is a New Orleans writer.