Children's 'feliz' contrasts with rough past

(To see Archbishop Robert J. Carlson's message, see http://stlouisreview.com/Yjd)

For more than seven years, the four girls stayed in Honduras without their mother, in homes where they were neglected or abused. They had about a half dozen caregivers, all but a couple of them caring only about the money they were sent to care for them.

The girls’ mother, Lizeth Gavarrete, left Honduras for the United States just as her mother did when Gavarrete was just age 4. Gavarrete was seeking work and fleeing an abusive relationship.

She left the four children in the care of a close relative, confident they would be cared for with the funds she would send back from her earnings working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in the United States. She planned to gather enough money to bring them here when the children became old enough to travel.

It worked fine at first. “I thought they would be taken care of well,” Gavarrete said, noting that they were way too young to bring on a grueling trip.

The first caregiver died unexpectedly, and Gavarrete made an agreement with a more distant relative to care for the children. The girls bounced from one person to another, often mistreated. One forced the children into labor, and not only neglected them but also was physically abusive, hitting them with an electrical cord. Gavarrete learned that her girls were wearing makeup, exposed to alcohol, made to go to work selling tamales and more. Another caregiver was a good person but had health troubles that prevented her from providing the best care.

“It was miserable, miserable,” Gavarrete said, recalling what she had learned about the care of her children.

After getting a call about the situation from a trusted source, Gavarrete knew it was time to act. She sent for a “coyote” to escort them to the United States, borrowing money to pay the $13,000 it cost for an individual to take the children from Honduras to the U.S. border with Mexico. Coyotes are people whose business involves smuggling people as human cargo across the border.

They traveled 1,500 miles across three borders from Honduras. The girls — ages 9, 12 and twin 13-year-olds — left their home with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They met an adult couple along the way who looked out for them.

Once across, they looked for immigration authorities, telling them they were coming to find their mother and grandmother in St. Louis. They were detained and sent to Houston, where they stayed in a detention center until they were sent to a shelter, where they were treated well for 13 days. In August they came to St. Louis to live with their mother and grandmother, Erlinda Vargas.

Legal process

Gavarrete was stopped by immigration authorities in Texas in 2007 and is fighting a deportation order. She hired an attorney, paying $2,000 to get out of a detention center and $3,000 more, but she had no more money for attorneys. The case was transferred to a court in Chicago, and is pending.

The legal process in seeking an adjustment to permanent resident status is lengthy. The Department of Homeland Security works to verify that there are no medical, financial, criminal or prior immigration violation grounds to deny the application, and an appeal can be made if the application for adjustment of status is denied. Returning to Honduras would be problematic for Gavarrete for several reasons, including fears she has about the father of her children. He’s in prison but will be released before too long.

Immigration law is a type of administrative — not criminal — law, and deportations do not proceed through the U.S. judicial system. Undocumented immigrants facing deportation do not have the right to legal counsel provided by the government. Most cannot afford legal representation.

Ties to Catholic Charities

Gavarrete has worked as a housecleaner and dishwasher at a restaurant, moving up recently to a food-preparation position. And in St. Louis she watches over her mother, who has recovered from an accident and operation to remove a brain tumor. Before the children arrived late this summer, Gavarrete’s mother, Vargas, was unable to work for a time because of those health difficulties. She developed close ties during that time to St. Francis Community Services Southside Center in south St. Louis, a Catholic Charities agency that provides social services, mental health counseling and youth programming in a bilingual, culturally sensitive environment to immigrant and refugee populations of the community.

The family visits the center now to consult with staff on getting the children settled. The center has helped the family, mostly as a friend and information resource, but sometimes with basic needs. Recently, a case manager accompanied the family to a store to shop for shoes and socks, using a gift provided by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

In their first visit to Southside in August, days after arriving in St. Louis, the four girls hung close to each other. If it hadn’t been for an occasional protective look by the older girls toward the younger ones, they would pass as close friends rather than sisters.

They chatted, laughed and joked with each other, easily amused but well-behaved. No loud noises, no whining or griping like typical teens and preteens. The children were asked about their emotions on this day. “Feliz,” or happy, was the instant reply.

In September, the girls began attending a public school in St. Louis City providing an English language learners’ program. Their grandmother and mother work varied shifts, so one of them is home with the girls while the other works. The home is a first-floor apartment in south St. Louis with a living room, kitchen and two bedrooms. A broken clock on one wall contains an image of the Sacred Heart.

In the late afternoon, the girls played a game on the phone, helped with dishes and talked about how they help with minor housecleaning and do their schoolwork. Their mother can’t check the accuracy of their homework, only that it is completed, because her English skills are limited. Their morning routine is chaotic as all four move around, straightening up a room with three beds and no closet.

They promised to later display their skill in art and dance, giggling about the dancing. Life appears to be much better for them now. They are safe and with people who love and care for them, though struggles of a new culture and a low-income lifestyle remain.

“I’m so happy for my daughter,” Vargas said. “There was so much trouble in Honduras for the babies. God is good.”

Sanctity of the family

The Gavarrete family can’t wait for Christmas when Catholic Charities agencies typically receive many donations, especially with “adoption” programs where groups or parishes fulfill a list of needs.

“Although their income meets program guidelines, the family still does not qualify for food stamps or other state and federal benefits — one of the safety nets that many Americans take for granted,” said Meredith L. Rataj, director of St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, a Catholic Charities agency.

Others also have arrived from Honduras and other countries, and their needs are real, Rataj noted. “We know that many have heard the news about unaccompanied minors and have been moved by their stories, but they don’t realize that we have many of these children now living in St. Louis with their families, struggling to carve out a new life for themselves as a reunited family.”

Central American children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were migrating to the United States earlier this year in record numbers. A delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops traveled to Central America in November 2013 and reported that interrelated factors are contributing to the increase in forced child migration. Included are a lack of strong social institutions and civil society support, abuse in the family stemming from pressure on family units due to violence and family separation, a lack of viable economic and educational opportunities and environmental factors affecting crop production. The overriding factor, however, is violence and a breakdown of the rule of law that creates a culture of fear and hopelessness.

The sanctity of the family and the need to protect the vulnerable is an integral element of Catholic teaching. The Church adds that protecting family values should not depend on a family’s nationality or immigration status. The Church promotes humane and compassionate immigration reform that preserves the family unit as the cornerstone of the immigration system.

“Southside is honored to be a part of the Church’s loving response to fulfill the Catholic social teaching of welcoming the stranger among us, and we invite others to help us in our efforts,” Rataj said.

To help

Catholic Charities is part of a coalition of service providers who submitted a proposal to provide temporary shelter and care to unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border seeking safety and a better life.

Catholic Charities St. Francis Community Services already has helped and will continue to support children and young families who have been reunited with their family member sponsors in St. Louis. But there is no special funding for case management, mental health services or legal services once minors are placed with their relatives.

These children often come to St. Louis with just the clothes on their backs, and their families often are indebted thousands of dollars for the children’s journey.

Needed are basic supplies such as soap, toilet paper as well as gift cards for food and supplies.

To help St. Francis Community Services Southside Center and Catholic Legal Assistance Ministry as they practice the Catholic social teaching of welcoming the stranger, call or email to arrange a donation drop-off or pickup. Contact: Meredith Rataj, St. Francis Community Services Southside Center, 3401 Arsenal St., St. Louis, MO 63118, (314) 773-6100, mrataj@ccstl.org.

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