Becoming a safe haven: Baltimore and the arrival of immigrant youth

Soon after Ana Herrera was born in El Salvador, her parents abandoned her. Her grandmother cared for her but struggled to keep her housed and fed. If the abject poverty wasn’t enough, gangs and violence surrounded her daily. One day, that violence brought her to a breaking point. She witnessed her cousin’s murder by local gang members. Because they knew she witnessed it, she risked being murdered herself. So, she made the choice that countless young people have made in the last several years—she fled.

Herrera made it over the U.S. border at Hidalgo, Texas, where she was detained and held in two different facilities for about two months. Herrera had turned 18 prior to crossing the border, so while still very much a young person struggling on her own, she isn’t counted among the unaccompanied minors that have migrated from Central and South America with increasing frequency over the past few years. But like unaccompanied minors, she was immediately thrust into the murky legal waters of the U.S. immigration system.

Ana Herrera and her family. Photo by Tanya Garcia.

Ana Herrera and her family. Photo by Tanya Garcia.

Herrera is one of thousands of young people who have been forced to flee their home countries to escape the violence brewing in Central America’s “Northern Triangle”–El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Between 2010 and 2014, more than 1.2 million Central Americans were detained at either the southern Mexico border or the southern U.S. border. El Salvador, Herrera’s home country, tops the charts for murder rates; in 2015, the small Central American nation saw 108.5 murders per 10,000 people, which is 24 times higher than the U.S. homicide rate.(1)

In Honduras, while safety has improved in recent years, the homicide rate is still 62.5 per 10,000 people; in Guatemala, it’s 29.2. This violence is largely attributed to gangs; in 2012, the U.S. Department of State estimated that there were some 85,000 gang members operating across the three countries.(2) These gang members use intimidation, extortion, and torture to profit off of local residents. The dangerous journey to the United States is often the only option to avoid being killed.(3)

Many of the migrants are families or individual adults, but a substantial minority are young people under the age of 18, traveling alone. Since 2012, over 225,000 of these unaccompanied minors have been detained at the southwest U.S. border.(4) Those numbers started to rise back in 2011 and 2012. In 2012, 24,403 young people were detained and then in 2013, over 38,000. Then 2014 hit, and over 68,000 unaccompanied minors were stopped at the U.S. border.(5) For many organizations that work with immigrants and refugees, 2014 marked the year that the numbers started overwhelming the organizations’ capacity to help.

“[The migration] wasn’t catching any media attention before 2014 because [the numbers were] still being managed,” said Kimberly Haynes, the Director of Children’s Services at the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which is based in Baltimore. Haynes represents the only Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) service provider that assists unaccompanied minors through all stages of their care.

“When they arrived at a pace that outpaced the amount of space that ORR had,” she said, “it became identifiable by the general public. That steady mixed migration flow was occurring. Up to [the] present, it didn’t really catch the interest of people that it was a refugee crisis.”

These youth aren’t sent back to their home countries; rather, they’re sent all over the United States to live with family, friends, or foster households. When they arrive, immigrant-serving organizations and social service agencies are there to help.

However, when 2014 hit, those organizations began to split at the seams of their existing capacity. They were under-resourced and under-staffed, and insufficiently able to face the deluge of young people coming with a variety of unique needs, from legal services to mental health support.

During that spillover year of 2014, 3,884 unaccompanied minors (of the 53,515 in the country as a whole) were released to sponsors in Maryland. Baltimore City alone received 379 of those youth in 2014 and 141 in 2015. In 2016, 3,871 unaccompanied minors were resettled in Maryland, 346 of those being placed in Baltimore City.(5)

Immigrant- and refugee-serving organizations such as The Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center—which provides a variety of services including family reunification assistance, English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, healthcare, and legal services for immigrants—began to feel the effects quickly.

“Prior to about [the summer of 2013], Esperanza Center didn’t really serve kids at all,” said Val Twanmoh, the organization’s director. “We’d have adults bring in their kids and occasionally see a physician or a pediatrician if we had a volunteer pediatrician there. But generally, we didn’t offer direct services to kids.”

Now half of Esperanza Center’s programming serves youth and unaccompanied minors. “When I started here at Esperanza five years ago,” Twanmoh said, “we were serving about 5,000 adult immigrants per year.” They still serve around 5,000 adults per year. But, she adds, “in our fiscal year 2016, we will serve over 10,000 [immigrants] total.” Those additional 5,000 immigrants are kids and teenagers.

Students in class at the Esperanza Center. Photo by Noah Scialom.

Students in class at the Esperanza Center. Photo by Noah Scialom.

Esperanza Center isn’t the only organization scrambling to redirect resources to accommodate the surge of unaccompanied minors. The schools and social service organizations around Baltimore, and elsewhere across the nation, have also had to adjust, first in 2014 and then with each wave of new arrivals. Because young immigrants face unique challenges, even organizations that traditionally serve immigrants have had to find new means of support.

Navigating the Murky U.S. Immigration System

Most young people fleeing to the U.S. will be detained at the border before being placed in standard removal proceedings. Children are more vulnerable than the adults and families that come across the border, so their cases won’t be expedited. Delaying the cases provides additional time to find representation and support for these kids before they have to sit in front of an immigration judge.

To begin the processes of reunification and adjustment, unaccompanied youth immigrants are placed in the custody of Health and Human Services within 72 hours of their apprehension.(6) There, they’ll work with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to identify family members already residing in the United States to whom they can be transferred. That is how many of Baltimore’s child and teenage immigrants arrived.

Since the first priority is to get unaccompanied youth into family custody or a safe foster household, the removal proceedings will proceed at a slower pace. But that doesn’t make the legal process any easier. The U.S. immigration system is complicated, opaque and, at times, seemingly contradictory even for a native English-speaking adult, let alone a non-native speaker who hasn’t yet turned 18 and has little access to legal support.

“It’s crazy because you’re not entitled to legal representation in immigration. It’s not like you get a public defender,” said Alejandra Morisi, the assistant managing attorney overseeing Esperanza Center’s unaccompanied children department. Even unaccompanied minors have no right to representation.(7)

“Kids are so scared going before a judge,” Morisi said. “It takes a lot of explaining, but no matter what, I’ve seen kids petrified up there. I’ve heard stories of kids going by themselves, and they can’t even talk sometimes in front of the judge. I really don’t know how they could vocalize anything. The whole situation is so scary for them.”

Not everyone is so concerned about the prospect of leaving migrant youth without legal representation. Senior Justice Department official and immigration judge Jack H. Weil believes that even a 3-year-old can represent him or herself in front of a judge.

Testifying at a federal court deposition in Seattle, he noted, “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of patience. They get it. It’s not the most efficient, but it can be done.” When pressed, he repeated his statement and then said, “you can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.”(8)

Other immigration attorneys were shocked by Weil’s claim that child migrants do not need professional legal representation. Amy Maldonado, an attorney in Michigan, voiced her opposition by mock-interviewing her own 3-year-old son as if he were in immigration court and then posting the video to YouTube.(9)

As cute as the video is—when asked to state his full name, the boy responds “I don’t know what to do” in a toddler’s high-pitched voice—it pointedly questions the justice of denying unaccompanied children public legal representation.

Unsurprisingly, children and teenagers who can afford an attorney, or gain access to pro-bono representation, tend to receive more favorable judgments. One study found that, among unaccompanied minors with legal representation, almost three-fourths (73 percent) were allowed to remain legally in the U.S. For those without representation, the number drops to 15 percent.

The study also found significant disparities in court appearances. Among youth with legal representation, 93 percent show up for their final court hearings. In contrast, only 33.4 percent of youth without representation made it to court.(10)

In 2013, as an increasing number of unaccompanied youth were migrating across the border and landing in Baltimore, Esperanza Center recognized the need for legal aid. They created two positions dedicated to working on legal cases for children, using funding from the Department of Justice’s newly created Equal Justice Works Fellowship program.(11) Morisi got one of the positions.

The influx of new immigration cases has impacted the local legal system and its judges. Fortunately, Morisi says, young people in Maryland have great immigration judges overseeing their cases.

“They know about the work [we] do,” she says. “They promote the work we do. They give parents more time [before finding representation]. They even advise them, ‘If you call [Esperanza Center or other legal organizations] and they sound like they’re busy, keep calling.’ For the most part, most of the kids that we see do have relief. There’s some way to get their status.”

Most of the cases Morisi and her staff oversee are Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) status cases, which are specifically for children who were abused, abandoned, or neglected.(12) Ana Herrera’s lawyer, Scott Rose—with whom she was connected through Esperanza Center’s legal program—worked with her to pursue SIJ status.

Ana Herrera. Photo by Tanya Garcia.

Ana Herrera. Photo by Tanya Garcia.

Since Herrera’s parents abandoned her as a child, she qualified. Now, just two years after her arrival in Maryland, she is awaiting a green card.

Morisi is proud of successes like Herrera’s, but she worries about the kids who fall through the cracks. Esperanza Center recently had a five-month backlog of immigration appointments. Even with three full-time staff attorneys working exclusively with children and a slate of dedicated pro-bono attorneys, it is difficult for them to keep up.

“That’s really scary for us because there’s a lot that can happen in five months for the kids,” Morisi said. “They could get a hearing notice and not show up. They could move around. They don’t get counseling. We schedule [intake appointments] far out, and they might not remember the appointment.”

To relieve the backlog, Esperanza Center began holding Saturday clinics once a month. At these all-day clinics, Morisi and her colleagues train pro-bono lawyers to work with unaccompanied minors. With the extra hands—and with a dedicated group of volunteer interpreters—they’ve reduced the backlog to three months.

Morisi hopes that with more clinics, the wait time will be further reduced. Still, she sees no sign of unaccompanied migration abating. Violence remains high in the Northern Triangle. The youth are still coming.

Mental Health Knows No Borders

The legal system is merely the first hurdle unaccompanied minors have to overcome. After a child arrives in the United States, they’re shuffled through detention and the beginning stages of the legal system, then they are reunited with family. Even then, the difficulties mount. Youth immigrants have to enroll in school. They have to learn to live with family members they haven’t seen in years, or maybe haven’t ever met.

They also have to continue dealing with the loss and violence they experienced in their home countries. These challenges tend to be much more difficult for advocacy organizations to address. They are also often more deep-seated—children and teenagers are frequently left coping with trauma from their past lives while trying to fit into new ones, in a new environment and without much parental guidance.

For Ana Herrera, the transition from a Texas detention center to family life was smoother than it is for many others. She was warmly welcomed into her aunt’s household, about an hour outside of Baltimore, and she has adapted well to playing an older sister role for her younger cousins.

“The hardest part,” she said in Spanish, “was adapting to the language because many people scoffed because I don’t know how to speak as well in [English]. This made me feel bad.” But by taking classes at a local community college, she has become a more confident English-speaker.

While Herrera has largely adjusted to living in the United States, there’s still a lingering effect of the trauma she experienced in El Salvador. When her cousin’s murder comes up, she responds, “It's a part of my life that I try not to think about because it causes pain. So I don't talk about it.”

Her lawyer, Scott Rose, understands the balancing act between helping a young person tell their story and avoiding re-traumatizing them.

“I’m in the mental health field,” he said. “Years ago, we thought that it was cathartic to relive the details of their past trauma. We now know it's not cathartic; it's re-traumatizing. I struggle with [this] as an attorney demonstrating in the court that this child was abandoned, abused, and neglected. I need to present the case of that trauma and yet, I try to do it in a way that isn't re-traumatizing for the kid.”

No single coping mechanism works for everyone who has suffered from trauma. Every day, mental health providers find themselves trying to support young immigrants who experienced all sorts of hardship in their home countries, many of whom express their pain in different ways. In some cases, the trauma manifests itself in the young person acting out.

“I can tell you a hundred stories,” said Oscar Mejia, the family care coordinator at Hope Health Systems, which provides mental health, substance abuse, and community support services in Maryland. Many of those stories take place in schools, where young immigrants can struggle to adjust. One story in particular stands out to Mejia.

Two twin sisters from Central America were acting out at school. “Their behavior was completely out of control,” said Mejia. “They were having issues with their family; they were trying to get out of the house. Normal symptoms of trauma. The school referred them to our [group counseling program] to find a safe space to tell their story.”

“I’m sure these children knew nothing about their future or where they were going,” Mejia said. But after a few group sessions, “I started seeing their behavior slow down…. [They began] to tell us the story of what is going on in their lives.”

It wasn’t until their fourth session that their story came out. The girls’ mother was imprisoned in their home country because of her gang activity, and rival gang members had killed their father. When their sole caretaker, their grandmother, died, they were living on the streets.

The twins’ only option was to journey to their sister in Baltimore, but she had no idea they were coming. As the therapy continued, the twins began to settle into their new lives in Baltimore.

“They started telling how excited they were about their future,” Mejia said. “They want to be mechanics. They want to fix cars. That really excited me, because it gives them hope for the future.” That hope is possible because “there is someone listening to their story,” he said, “trying to help them with their situation.”

Getting to this point, however, takes dedicated support. In particular, public schools—often the first responders to mental health needs for youth—can be ill-equipped, or simply too overwhelmed, to provide that support by themselves.

While Baltimore public schools are accustomed to teaching newcomers to the United States, the rise in youth migration strained resources for supporting not only students, but also staff who were effectively called upon to be both teachers and social workers.

“We were constantly readjusting our program,” said Margot Harris, who directs the ESL program at Patterson High School in East Baltimore. “We didn’t have the teachers to accommodate” the influx. “The teachers weren’t prepared to have mostly non-English students.”

As the number of Central American students climbed dramatically, Patterson took any assistance they were offered. The school received a part-time social worker. In turn, the state began to put together an English-language task force.

While Harris sees improvements at Patterson, she is thinking about what Baltimore ought to do next. For inspiration, she looks to a new schooling model introduced less than an hour to the south, in Prince George’s County, Maryland.

A School of One’s Own: Finding a Place of Belonging

For the 2015-2016 academic year, suburban Prince George’s County established two new international schools to support immigrant students all the way to graduation. These schools are designed specifically for recent immigrants who are English language-learners, and they aim to integrate students of diverse backgrounds.(13) Both Harris from Patterson High School and Twanmoh from the Esperanza Center say they’d like to see the model adapted in Baltimore.

A pledge on the wall of the Esperanza Center. Photo by Noah Scialom.

A pledge on the wall of the Esperanza Center. Photo by Noah Scialom.

“We’re similar and different [from traditional schools],” said Alison Hanks-Sloan, principal at the International School at Largo in Prince George’s County. The international school model is designed not only to provide a collaborative and team-oriented learning environment, but also, with the help of a full-time social worker and a team of interns, to provide the mental health support that many youth immigrants need.

This holistic model is designed to create a strong sense of community and belonging for many of these kids, by having them work in teams made up of different capacity levels. Instead of lecturing to the class, teachers act as facilitators, helping their students teach one another. While the ultimate goal is to get these kids to graduation and then to a successful career or education path thereafter, Hanks-Sloan has seen early success in their initial class of first-year students.

“It comes in so many different ways,” she said. “It’s everything from a baseball team of 17 kids, 14 of whom have never held a glove before... It was [also] watching students take ownership and creating bulletin boards, and developing assemblies, being the first to create the student government.”

The two International Schools serve only a small percentage of the immigrant students in the Prince George’s County school system, but it’s a start. And it’s a model that, if adapted in Baltimore City, could one day work side-by-side with organizations like Esperanza Center, Hope Health Systems, Behavioral Health System Baltimore, and Patterson High School, all of which are working hard to make Baltimore a safer haven for immigrant youth.

To Baltimore and Beyond

Ana Herrera is set to receive her green card any day now, and she has big plans for her life in the United States. “I want to go to school to be a lawyer,” she said. “I want to be able to help my grandparents who are still in [El Salvador] in the way that they helped me. I want to help people.”

This is the kind of story that the teams at Esperanza Center, Baltimore City Public Schools, and Hope Health Systems love to hear. Herrera’s story is an inspiration for those working with young immigrants, especially in the moments where there seems to be little hope.

For Oscar Mejia at Hope Health Systems, Herrera’s story is the kind he wishes for all of the kids he works with. He sometimes remains troubled by the serious obstacles facing these young people. In conversation, he mentions a 14-year-old student who was cutting herself regularly. During one of their group sessions, she opened up about it, and other students revealed that they were doing the same thing.

“My heart was cold,” Mejia said. “How is it possible that there are four people in this group of eight that have suicidal thoughts?” But he has also seen glimmers that give him faith: these four students all began individual therapy and have since improved dramatically. “I can say at this point, we have saved lives. I can say with confidence that this child, specifically, is out of those suicidal thoughts,” Mejia said. “That encourages me.”

Successes like these pull Mejia and the staff at other immigrant-serving organizations through the challenging moments of their work. They know success is possible for youth immigrants, and they know they can help these kids achieve it.


  1. They Are Refugees: An Increasing Number of People Are Fleeing Violence in Northern Triangle, Center for American Progress (Feb. 24, 2016): https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/immigration/news/2016/02/24/131645/they-are-refugees-an-increasing-number-of-people-are-fleeing-violence-in-the-northern-triangle/

  2. Gangs in Central America, Clare Ribando Seelke, Specialist in Latin American Affairs (Aug. 29, 2016), figure is on pg. 3: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL34112.pdf

  3. Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle, Council on Foreign Relations, Danielle Renwick (Jan. 19, 2016): http://www.cfr.org/transnational-crime/central-americas-violent-northern-triangle/p37286

  4. United States Border Patrol Southwest Family Unit Subject and Unaccompanied Alien Children Apprehensions Fiscal Year 2016, US Customs & Border Protection: https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/stats/southwest-border-unaccompanied-children/fy-2016

  5. These figures are provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s state and county on reports on unaccompanied children released to sponsors, available at: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/ucs/state-by-state-uc-placed-sponsorshttp://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/unaccompanied-children-released-to-sponsors-by-county-fy14http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/unaccompanied-children-released-to-sponsors-by-county-fy15 http://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/unaccompanied-children-released-to-sponsors-by-county

  6. A Guide to Children Arriving at the Border: Laws, Policies and Responses, American Immigration Council (June 25, 2015). https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/guide-children-arriving-border-laws-policies-and-responses

  7. Ibid.

  8. JEFM V. LYNCH-DEPOSITION OF HONORABLE JACK H. WEIL, ACLU (Oct. 15, 2015); Can a 3-year old represent herself in immigration court? This judge thinks so, Washington Post, Jerry Markon (March 5, 2016).

  9. Immigration lawyers try to prove judge wrong with funny videos (March 12, 2016) http://www.local10.com/news/crime/immigration-lawyers-try-to-prove-judge-wrong-with-funny-videos

  10. Representation for Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Court, TRAC Immigration: http://trac.syr.edu/immigration/reports/371/ ; Children in Immigration Court: Over 95 Percent Represented by an Attorney Appear in Court, American Immigration Council, Fact Sheet (May 16, 2016): https://www.americanimmigrationcouncil.org/research/children-immigration-court-over-95-percent-represented-attorney-appear-court

  11. Equal Justice Works Fellowship: http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/post-grad/equal-justice-works-fellowships

  12. Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status, US Citizenship and Immigration Service: https://www.uscis.gov/green-card/special-immigrant-juveniles/special-immigrant-juveniles-sij-status

  13. Internationals Network for Public Schools: http://internationalsnps.org/international-high-schools/school-models/