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How the IRC is helping unaccompanied children find their footing in LA

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In the fall of 2019 José* and his father left their home in El Salvador and journeyed to the United States. It was an idea that José’s father had considered on his own for a while – one that José, at the age of 16, decided would be best executed together as a pair, even if it meant leaving behind his mother and siblings for a while. Their ultimate goal was to reunite the family in America once José and his father were settled. But over the following months, José would find that things did not turn out as planned.

The journey through Mexico was relatively calm, as José and his father made sure to be careful and discrete. But near the U.S-Mexico border the two were apprehended by Mexican immigration officials and told to hand over whatever cash they had, or else they would be turned into the Americans. After complying, José and his father crossed the Rio Grande alongside other migrants, including families with children, many of whom were younger than José.

An unaccompanied minor plays soccer at the IRC-LA office last fall. Photo: Hannah Lord

On the other side of the border, José and his father were apprehended by American immigration officials and placed in detention. After three days José was transferred to an unaccompanied minors shelter while his father remained in a detention center for four months before voluntarily returning to El Salvador due to the high cost of legal fees. “It was really sad that after everything we couldn’t stay together,” said José.

According to Karina Gonzalez, the Unaccompanied Children Caseworker at the IRC Los Angeles, José’s situation is not uncommon. A report by the ACLU states that from 2017-2018 over 5,000 minors were separated from their parents at the U.S-Mexico border. Typically, Gonzalez deals with 25 cases at a time and works on each for three to as long as over six months. Cases are categorized as either standard Post-Release cases, or as TVPRA (Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act) cases in instances that deal with abuse, disability, or a serious medical condition. The children Gonzalez works with are almost all from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and usually aged 16-17. However, she has worked with unaccompanied children as young as 6, who wait to be reunited with parents stuck on the other side of the border.

Once clients are referred to the IRC Los Angeles from unaccompanied minors shelters, Gonzalez and her team of two interns provide assistance with school enrollment, acquiring state medical insurance, and obtaining pro bono legal services from local partner organizations. As the IRC Los Angeles’ only unaccompanied minors case worker, Gonzalez calls the role “gratifying” but “intense.” It’s a position she’s held for almost a year now and balances with being a graduate student at the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School.

Karina Gonzalez, IRC's Unaccompanied Children Caseworker, assisting a family at last year's holiday party.

Photo: Carly Boos

“What she does is really beautiful,” says José. “I think it’s great that an organization like IRC exists to support young people who are migrants like me.”

Since his case closed in February, José has been living in a house with family friends. During quarantine he has tried to keep himself busy by gardening and playing basketball. In July, alongside 12 other minors, he participated in an unaccompanied children summer program held by the IRC Los Angeles for the second year in a row, which included virtual sessions in financial coaching, ESL, and optional wellness workshops. For many young migrants in the U.S. without parents to guide them, Gonzalez believes that the IRC’s efforts to help establish a sense of financial literacy and independence are crucial.

Now, as summer comes to end, José’s days are mostly filled with Zoom high school classes and homework. Although José says that his life is starting to feel settled in U.S, he hopes that one day he will have the chance to safely visit El Salvador. He often wonders when he will see his family again. The desire for better economic opportunities, education, and a brighter future have not come without sacrifice.

“I want to graduate high school and go on to study industrial engineering,” said José. “But my main goal will always be to help my family and one day bring them to the United States.”

Karina Gonzalez, pictured center, along with Luke Van Lant, Financial Literacy Coordinator, pictured left, and several students at the 2019 Youth Summer Program graduation.

Author: Isabel Guarco