Watch this powerful 3-Part Series from NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit, featuring Bay Area Central American Refugee Stories, East Bay Sanctuary Covenant, and Bay Area Sanctuary Congregations.
Central American Immigration, a three part series: (transcripts are below)
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A Humanitarian Crisis: Children and Families Immigrate in Record Numbers
Violence and instability in Central America are forcing a lot of children north. A lot of them are coming unaccompanied, creating a humanitarian crisis at the border. The Investigative Unit goes to these border towns, and rides the bus north with immigrants trying to make their way to the Bay Area.
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Refugee Children Ride the Death Train
There’s no easy way out. The Investigative Unit speaks to children that rode the “Death Train”–a northbound train that takes migrants hundreds of miles through Mexico to the US border. Children balance themselves precariously on the roof of the cars for days.
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Part Three: Sanctuary
The decades-old social movement is coming back to California: “Sanctuary”. Supporters of the sanctuary movement are offering shelter and protection for immigrants in churches around the Bay Area in churches for Central American Immigrants. Airs Monday, November 24th.
Tuesday, Nov 4, 2014 • Updated at 6:22 PM PST
The United States’ already polarizing immigration issue has devolved into a humanitarian crisis. A surge in Central American nationals crossing the United States’ southwestern border strains local and national resources.
In the last fiscal year ending in September, 2014, a quarter-million migrants not from Mexico have been picked up at the Mexican border by US Border Patrol. By and large, those migrants are allowed to stay in the US, where they end up living in the shadows.
Rather than deport them or lock them up in crowded holding facilities, federal agents release the migrants into the US, allowing them to travel to relatives already living in the US.
The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spent several days speaking with migrant families arriving at the bus station in Tucson.
“The night we left, I had been raped. I felt they were going to kill us” explained a 19-year-old migrant who escaped Honduras with her family. We refer to her as “Sofia” to protect her identity from the Honduran gangs who threatened her life. Sofia spoke to us in Spanish, which we’ve translated here. “These people entered our home and really hurt us,” she said.
Her attackers were members of “Mara 18”, one of the most violent gangs in Honduras and the world. She said the gang was trying to collect extortion money from her family.
“My dad couldn’t pay them anymore,” she said. “He was tired of them threatening him. So they sent a note to the house, threatening him with death.”
When her family went to the police with the threat, the gang came back, tipped of by the very police the family had put their trust in.
“They said frogs (or rats) get their tongues cut out,” said Sofia.
“They beat me,” said Sofia’s father. “That, and when they entered our home and raped my wife and my daughter. That’s the hardest thing that happened to me in my life. I don’t even want to remember it.”
Certain that he would die if he stayed, he fled Honduras with his family, eventually winding up in a single small room in the Bay Area.
According to the US Border Patrol, more than 68,455 families have been apprehended crossing the southwest border with Mexico this last fiscal year. That’s more than three times the previous year when fewer than 15,000 families were apprehended.
The timeframe corresponds to a spike in gangs, violence and lawlessness in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, the three countries where the majority of these refugees come from.
“The immigrations policies in the United States…tries to accommodate two inconsistent ideas,” said Tom Haine, who served as a federal attorney prosecuting immigration cases as well as an immigration defense attorney before retiring this past July.
“One is we provide a place for refugees who are suffering. And at the same time, the immigration system is also designed to protect the homeland.”
The numbers of Central American Refugees have become so large, there’s no room in court or holding facilities. After picking them up along the border, federal agents usually re-release immigrants into the US if they have a relative already in the country who can pay for a bus ticket.
As part of the bargain, the refugees agree to report into local immigration authorities once they meet up with their relatives in the US.
“The president is very committed to taking executive action to fix our broken immigration system” said Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on “Meet the Press” recently. Johnson insists that while refugee numbers have peaked in June, they’ve now declined to levels closer to what the US has seen in January 2013.
“Bottom line,” he said, “in recent years the total numbers of those who attempt to cross our southwest border has declined dramatically.”
But at the local bus station in Tucson, the Investigative Unit saw local resources that were buckling under the influx of immigrants dropped off by immigration agents.
“Many of them were dehydrated. They were hungry. You know, their clothes were torn and dirty.” said Galen Hunt, an AmeriCorps worker who works to house, clothe, and care for the people left by immigration agents. You know, they weren’t prepared to go to Minnesota, you know, shirt sleeve shirts. And that’s where this program stepped in further for those people at the Greyhound Bus Station.” “They dropped us off four blocks from the station,” said Sofia, the 19-year-old Honduran immigrant who now lives in the Bay Area with her family.
“Thanks to my English, we were able to get here,” she said.
Every two weeks, they make the trip to San Francisco to report to federal authorities, honoring the deal they made when they were apprehended at the border.
“We are very scared,” said Sofia’s mother.
Yet, they admit they feel safer here than back home, if not exactly secure. For them, a deportation back to Honduras would be a death sentence.
“I don’t even want to think of it, that we’ll touch that soil” said Sofia’s father. “I think we’d be cadavers on a plane, traveling to our own death.”
Thursday, Nov 20, 2014 • Updated at 5:30 PM PST
The Guatemalan gangs came for him when he was only 12 years old.
“They were following me, to kill me,” the child told NBC Bay Area. “I didn’t want to die. I wanted to save my life.”
He asked to be called “Jaime,” not his real name. He is now 14 years old. He spoke to us in Spanish and we’ve translated his words here.
Jaime left his mother, his home and his country to come here to the San Francisco Bay Area. To get here, he risked starvation, dehydration and a harrowing ride on the roof of a train some call “The Death Train.” Without family or documentation, his life here life is uncertain, but he says the trip was worth it all the same.
“Yes,” he told the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit. “If I didn’t have this now, I’d be dead today.”
Tens of thousands of children have been forced to make the same choices as Jaime.
They’re part of a record-setting rush of immigrants picked up along on the United States’ southwest border with Mexico in the last nine months. While Mexican immigration remains relatively steady, there’s been a surge in immigration from Central American countries.
The number of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador picked up by federal agents at the border has more than doubled in the past year, to 51,705.
NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit spent two months traveling between the Mexican border and the Bay to get the inside stories from the youth who flee violence in their countries to come to the US. The Investigative Unit rode buses with immigrants making their way north.
To get to the US-Mexico border, Jaime said he first had to spend five days on the roof of a train some call “La Bestia” or “The Beast”. It’s also known in Central America as “El Tren de la Muerte” or “The Death Train” because so many people fall off or die riding it.
“I got here suffering many days on the train,” he said. “I suffered so much during the trip. I walked like 3 days in desert. Without water, food, nothing. I suffered so much.”
Jaime survived “The Death Train” and made it to the desert where he spent another three days crossing the barren landscape on foot.
Eventually he was apprehended by US Border Patrol. Federal agents processed him but allowed him to travel to the Bay Area by bus. With the drastic influx of Central American immigration, this is now common practice when apprehending undocumented immigrants.
“Darianna,” as she asked to be called, is another child who fled violence in Central America. She fled Honduras after she witnessed her friend shot in the head and killed by gang members. She was just 13 years old.
“There are some [gang members] that just look at little girls, spying on them so that they can rape them, kidnap them. That’s what they do over there,” she said. “They sequester [little girls] and rape them. They prostitute them out. And if not, they just kill them. Their bodies appear anywhere. In rivers. Anywhere.”
Darianna spoke only Spanish. We’ve translated her words here.
She told the Investigative Unit that one day, gang members confronted her and a friend while they were on their way home from school.
“One got off the motorcycle and shot my friend in the head. They told me that if I didn’t leave, the same would happen to me,” she said. “So I came alone.”
She, too, rode “La Bestia”, and survived. Then she, too, spent days crossing the the desert to arrive at the US border. By then, she says, the ordeal was so traumatic that it was a relief to be picked up by US Border Patrol, even though she was held in confinement for two months.
“I felt so bad,” she said. “I was alone. I had no one. Not until I was in prison. I didn’t get to talk to my mother. I didn’t know how she was.”
United States officials acknowledge the unprecedented mass exodus of unaccompanied minors who’ve swamped our immigration system in the last several months.
“We are looking at ways to create additional options for dealing with the children in particular consistent with our laws and our values,” said Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on a recent airing of NBC’s “Meet The Press.”
US officials maintain that while there was a peak in Central American immigration over the summer, the numbers have since declined. But the Investigative Unit observed a steady stream of refugees that has not ceased.
Back in the Bay Area, Sister Maureen Duignan said she sees at least two unaccompanied minors seek help at East Bay Sanctuary Covenant every day.
“Many of the children know that their parents are here somewhere and they’re looking for them,” said Duignan, executive director of the Covenant in Berkeley.
Sister Maureen says the Covenant, which is supported by several local Protestant and Catholic churches has given legal help to at least 65 unaccompanied minors just since June, 2014.
“It’s a crisis for them because if they don’t have representation—legal representation—they’ll probably be deported,” said Duignan.
Tuesday, Nov 25, 2014 • Updated at 6:01 PM PST
After a spike of immigration from Central America, the Sanctuary Movement is coming back to Bay Area churches that helped to spread it nearly 50 years ago. The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit spoke with religious leaders promoting Sanctuary and the immigrants who say they desperately need it.
Rosa Robles Loreto had been living, working and paying taxes for 15 years in Tucson, Arizona when her life changed in an instant. The mother of two young boys was pulled over for a traffic violation. When authorities realized she was living in the US illegally, they ordered her deported.
“If they tell me I have to go and separate myself from my kids, I couldn’t take it,” said Loreto. “That’s what I fear.”
After two months of detention, she sought refuge at Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson.
“You have people of faith who are standing up saying ‘we’re not going to fail to act in this time,’” said Reverend Alison Harrington, Southside’s pastor.
Harrington offered to protect Loreto and defy the deportation order so that her family could stay together.
“This isn’t just about Rosa,” said Harrington, “This is about the thousands and thousands of families who are living in fear of being separated by our broken immigration system.”
Southside has a long history of providing sanctuary for some of those thousands. It is a history that stretches back to the civil war in El Salvador. Southside provided sanctuary to hundreds of people fleeing that violence.
Many churches in the San Francisco Bay Area share that history. Montclair Presbyterian Church of Oakland and St John’s Presbyterian Church of Berkeley are two of them.
“We’re very connected historically,” said Ben Daniel, current pastor of Montclair. “I think that when we provide sanctuary we are sheltering people from violence.”
Montclair began providing sanctuary to young men defying draft orders to fight in Vietnam.
Then, in the early 1980s, Montclair Presbyterian joined St. John’s Presbyterian and Southside Presbyterian in beginning a movement shelter people fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.
“The Reagan Administration, the INS, were saying that to harbor an illegal alien would be a felony,” said Reverend Marilyn Chilcote who, with her husband Bob McKenzie, was a pastor at St. John’s in the 1970s and 1980s. “Eventually the administration turned itself around and said ‘No, you were right all along.’ I mean, ‘what you were doing was the right thing to do.”
“I’m glad to see that the congregation have once again claimed this,” said McKenzie. “We’re miles ahead of where we were in the 80’s. There is an awareness of immediately what the situation is. We don’t have to [re]learn all that.”
The movement is spreading once again, reaching New York, Los Angeles, Portland, San Antonio, Denver and Chicago. Sanctuary leaders say the reason for its popularity is simply that the need is so large.
According to the US Border Patrol, 252,600 people not from Mexico were picked up at the US border with Mexico this year alone. Of them, federal agents say 51,705 of those refugees were children traveling without their parents.
Violence in Central American countries such as Honduras drives most of this growth. The Investigative Unit spoke to one of those Honduran families seeking sanctuary in a Bay Area Church.
“I felt they were going to kill us,” said a young woman who asked that she remain anonymous. “We had to defend our lives and above all, the lives of our children.”
In Honduras gang members raped the young woman and her mother in front of her father. After that, the entire family fled the country for their lives, traveling by train and bus to finally reach the Bay Area this past summer.
Speaking in Spanish, through a translator, the young woman’s mother said, “We abandoned everything. Thrown everywhere. The moment we decided to leave Honduras, we can’t ever to back to our home.”
All fear deportation. They say if the US government forces them to go back, it will be a death sentence.
“We are very scared,” said the young woman’s mother, “If we return to our country, wherever we seek refuge, these people find people to kill them.”
Reverend Max Lynn, who serves as the current pastor at St. John’s in Berkeley, compared the plight of these refugees to the Old Testament story of the prophet Moses, whose mother sent him floating down the Nile River to save his life.
“There are mothers who are pushing their kids across the river,” said Lynn, “It’s not the Nile in Egypt, it’s the Rio Grande here. Now what would we do if Moses floats up to us in a basket? What are we going to do? Are we going to push them back across the river? Are we going to murder them? Are we going to hate them? Or are we going to embrace a child whose mother was so desperate that she sent them across the river?” asked Reverend Lynn.
Lynn says his congregation knows how to answer that question.
“If [the courts] say ‘no, they’re just illegal aliens,’ then we’re willing to harbor to find a safe haven, to protect them from deportation,” said Lynn.
Not everyone embraces the Sanctuary Movement.
“When churches or any other organization take this approach: ‘we are going to become the heroes by protecting this lawless behavior’–I’m sorry but they’re wrong,” said Gabriela Saucedo Mercer of Tucson.
Mercer emigrated from Mexico in the 1980’s. She said that she and her husband followed the law and applied for citizenship. But some of her family members emigrated illegally and were later granted amnesty under President Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform policies.
Mercer ran as the Republican nominee to represent Tucson in Congress in 2012 and again in 2014. She lost both times to the Democrat incumbent.
She’s adamant that there is no room in the political debate for the ‘Sanctuary’ movement.
“They are breaking the law, simple as that,” said Mercer.
Sanctuary Movement supporters say the current reality of Central American immigration leaves them no choice but to provide refuge, even if that means defying the law.
“People are saying ‘we’re not going to stand by and watch moms and dads being taken from their kids,’” said Reverend Harrington.
“I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything I could to save the lives of the family who have been given to us, have been entrusted to us,” said Reverend Ben Daniel, “I don’t want to be the kind of person to send someone back…to die.”
President Obama’s recent executive order doesn’t mean the end of this movement.
The executive order stays deportation for immigrants who have been in America for more than 5 years. Rosa Robles Loreto has lived and worked in the Tucson area for 15 years and may qualify for relief under the executive order. But some other families we spoke to have just arrived, and therefore will not receive relief under the President’s new order.
Representatives for those families say that they will likely remain in Sanctuary.