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Eye-opening experience at Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services

November 19, 2015
Mary Podesta

The teenage boy sitting across the table from me at Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services office in San Mateo talked calmly about his chilling experience fleeing gang violence in his home country of Honduras and strapping himself by his belt to the top of a train to escape through Mexico. His younger sister, sitting next to him and his step-brother, recounted her own daunting escape from violence, her voice trembling as she remembered the trauma and threat of being separated from her mother. Nearby, their mother listened, her eyes welling with tears.

This was something I had read about in newspapers, the heartbreaking tales of thousands of unaccompanied minors who have flocked from Central America to U.S. southern borders seeking refuge – and now I was hearing about it firsthand from the children themselves who had survived their harrowing journey to be welcomed without judgment and treated with respect at Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services, which provides minor refugees with guidance and legal assistance at their offices in San Francisco and San Mateo.

I was among a group of parishioners who had accepted the invitation extended by Catholic Charities in September to all parishioners in the Archdiocese of San Francisco to tour six of their programs and witness the positive impact of our donations provided during the Catholic Charities Sunday annual parish appeal to support the work of Catholic Charities programs like Refugee and Immigrant Services, where I was now on tour. It was a visit I will never forget, hearing these children talk so openly about what had happened to them and then smile with the promise of their transformed lives as a family now reunited with their mother and a new step-father. The children talked about how much they love their new schools on the Peninsula, and the joy of eating Chinese food and playing soccer in the U.S.

What struck me besides the testimony of these resilient children was the level of expertise and compassionate care provided by Catholic Charities seven-member Refugee and Immigrant Services San Mateo staff, accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals to provide a broad range of immigration counseling and representation to immigrants and their families. I met staff member Lea Rosen, an attorney who specializes in working with unaccompanied minors. Lea carefully assesses the specific circumstances of each child’s situation and steers them and their legal guardian toward the most optimal path to a successful outcome. She was joined by Sandra Becerra, Program Coordinator, who provides legal representation to clients and also manages the program’s volunteers. Heading up the staff is Diana Otero, director of Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services in San Mateo, who has worked for Catholic Charities for more than 14 years and lives with her husband, Jose Luis Aguirre, and their 4-year-old son, Juan Jose, in Redwood City where they attend St. Pius Parish.

Catholic Charities provided legal consultation to 2,002 individuals last year, helping reunify families that have been separated by the migration experience through petitioning for visas, guiding legal residents through the citizenship process, and assisting undocumented battered immigrant women and children gain legal status.

The cases involving unaccompanied (now resettled) minors are both time-consuming and costly, between $2,000 to $6,000 per case to apply for two possible legal remedies: Political asylum or special immigrant juvenile status. Many of these families lack the financial resources to afford the full cost. Catholic Charities does not turn anyone away for purely financial reasons. The children now at their doorstep seeking help are victims of extreme, sometimes unspeakable trauma. They have experienced or witnessed violence in their home communities and on the journey to the U.S. The process of detention, applying for asylum, and the prospect of deportation add to the stress and, for a child, may feel like a continuation of the trauma and distress from which they were fleeing. Family separation and “homesickness” can also compound feelings of depression and anxiety.

These children need the very best we can offer as a caring and giving community. They need financial assistance, legal advice and representation, food and clothing, medical care and mental health counseling. Most of all, they need our compassion and care that respects both their dignity and their status as children.

Podesta is an account executive for Catholic San Francisco and a parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Belmont.

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