How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration: Community organizations try to keep up with demand

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El Rescate was founded in 1981, during the Salvadoran civil war that sent waves of refugees fleeing to the United States.

Decades later, this and other local community aid organizations that date back to the Central American conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s are scrambling to assist a new wave of newcomers: the unaccompanied minors and families that have been leaving El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras en masse for the U.S. 

“Basically our organization is serving as a clearinghouse and a hotline for parents who are calling from all over the US," said Salvador Sanabria, El Rescate's executive director, "first of all to locate where their kids are physically, second to request advice from our paralegals and lawyers on how to guarantee the release of these kids, and family reunification.”

Los Angeles has the largest concentration of Central Americans in the nation, especially immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, who established themselves in the city after escaping lengthy conflicts in their home countries.

Thanks in large part to these long-established networks, Southern California has now become a destination for many of the U.S.-bound children, teens, and parents seeking to reunite with family as they flee more violence, this time at the hands of gangs and drug traffickers.

Non-profits like El Rescate, the Central American Resource Center and others who serve the Central American community have been busy fielding requests for help as more migrants pour in, often from immigrants searching for their children and other loved ones.

So have smaller groups like Maya Vision, which serves indigenous Guatemalans. The group's Policarpo Chaj said he's been getting requests from border NGOs that deal with migrants to provide interpreters who speak K'iche' and other indigenous languages.

"This is our way of giving back to our community," said Chaj, who helps coordinate a group of volunteer interpreters who translate for detained Mayan migrants, often via teleconference.

But even for the larger organizations, the demand is tough to keep up with. The largest is the Central American Resource Center, or CARECEN, near downtown Los Angeles, which also got its start in the early 1980s and provides low-cost legal and other community services.

“We are overwhelmed in terms of the need for legal representation, and we are at capacity," said Martha Arevalo, the executive director.

While many legal non-profits have taken on unaccompanied minors' immigration cases, there simply aren't enough pro-bono or low-cost legal services to go go around, Arevalo said.

To that end, several legal groups this week sued the federal government, seeking that it provide legal counsel to minors in deportation proceedings.

Arevalo says there’s also strong demand for mental health services as minors arrive traumatized from the journey and from the violence they escaped – a need she says is still unmet.

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