The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement says nearly 800 children have been placed with families here, landing in places like New Bedford. Ten-year-old Erica is among them.
A bright-eyed girl born in El Salvador, Erica and her older sister arrived in February after being detained at the U.S. border. Federal officials reunited the girls with their parents in New Bedford while their deportation order is processed.
Erica says the "coyote," or human smuggler who carried them across the border, was good to them. Erica and her sister had not seen their mother since 2007, when she left their village to work in the fish plants in this port city.
Erica's family — which includes three sisters and both parents — live in a humble triple-decker in New Bedford's South End. The daughters are part of a tide of nearly 60,000 Central American children who have been apprehended crossing the border since October.
The bulk of them are entered into the Unaccompanied Alien Children program run by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which offers the children the chance to be reunited with families if they are here, and offered basic necessities like shelter, education and immigration proceedings, which are reviewed by courts and can take years.
Isabel, Erica's 35-year-old mother, has asked that her last name not be used because her own deportation order is being processed. She worried about her daughters making the long and often dangerous journey to the U.S. border.
She says they heard stories about children being kidnapped and dying along the way, but when her mother told her about the growing threats to the girls from local gangs, she decided to send for her oldest daughter. When she arrived safely, she then sent for the younger daughters.
Federal officials say nearly 800 children have been released to sponsors in Massachusetts. Most of the youth have entered the U.S. from three Central American countries — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, which have seen increasing violence from gangs and drug traffickers.
New Bedford was the site of the 2007 raid of the Michael Bianco factory, when 361 workers were detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Adrian Ventura emerged from the raid as the voice of the city’s Mayan population
“Let’s talk about Latin America. The gangs. The lack of opportunity. The lack of a plan on the part of the governments. The drug situation. That’s the exodus. And when they get here things get better," Ventura said. "They study. They’re not taking bread from anyone else. They feel safe and comfortable. They’re in school. They have opportunities they don’t have in their countries.”
Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, says child arrivals are nothing new. He said he first left Guatemala at age 12, destined for Mexico, and would enter the U.S. illegally twice before finally settling in New Bedford 10 years ago and receiving asylum. He thinks things will pan out for most of the newcomers.
“In sum, I think they find stability here," he said. "The kids are in peace — there’s no one threatening them here."
It's difficult to confirm how many have landed in New Bedford. School officials say 228 children from those three countries have enrolled in city schools over the last few years.
Schools Superintendent Pia Durkin says the schools are no place for the political furor over immigration politics.
"We know public education is the great equalizer. We also know it is a zero-reject model," Durkin said. "Children come into our doors not only in August, but in September, November, May, and we accept and have a moral imperative to teach and ensure that every child has access to equal opportunity, to be a successful, contributing citizen."
The district has hired more English language teachers and needs more social workers to help students and families integrate, Durkin says. These families also need legal services and representation, which is where Irene Scharf comes in.
"I can't say all, but, actually, I would. We win essentially all of our cases," said Scharf, who heads the immigration law clinic at UMass Dartmouth Law School, which is providing legal counsel to several unaccompanied minors seeking relief.
Scharf says many of the newcomers will qualify for Special Immigrant Juvenile status, and by demonstrating parental neglect, abuse or abandonment, these cases can qualify for green cards and citizenship. Others can apply for asylum or as victims of trafficking or of a crime.
Those who don't qualify could be deported, though all have the right to immigration proceedings.
"We're all becoming border states now. I mean Massachusetts is becoming a border state with the number of people who are coming here directly from the border," said Bristol County Sheriff Tom Hodgson, who has been a vocal critic of current immigration policies despite his federal contract to operate a immigrant detention facility in Dartmouth. He recently visited the Texas-Mexico border to see the impacts of the recent surge of young immigrants.
"The most profound experience would have been visiting the processing center, and seeing so many kids in the processing center — 14, 15 of them in a cell — some sort of looking out, sleeping on the floor in the middle of the afternoon," Hodgson said.
The future for many of these immigrants is uncertain, including those like Isabel who are trying to rebuild their lives in New Bedford and other communities. Despite all the risks of dangerous journeys and possible deportation, she believes she made the right decision.
It takes a lot of work to get into this country, she says, but it's worth it. When you're here it's better to stay and settle down. It's no good to return.