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Seeking asylum: Young migrants hope to make Oakland their home


In 2014, media attention was white-hot on Central American children crossing the border alone. Though the headlines have since died down, the migration — and the gang warfare causing it — has not.

Today, unaccompanied minors continue to arrive in the Bay Area, and their journeys aren’t over once they get here. They have to find a way to make a new life here, often with limited support from adults. But first, they have to make a case for why they should be given asylum and allowed to stay.

Leaving Home

Silvia* is 19, a soon-to-be senior at Oakland International High School. A warm smile stretches across her face as she describes her school. She likes math the best. It’s a time when she gets to solve problems.

Solving problems is something Silvia’s been doing for a long time now. She was born and raised in Guatemala in a town that’s been reshaped by drug-related violence. There were no police, and little protection for those outside of gangs, she says. She never felt safe. The threat of violence became real when a man began following her on her way to wash clothes in the river.

“They follow me,” she recounts. “And then he put the knife under my neck … three times.”

In gang-ruled territories like where Silvia’s from, it’s become routine for girls to be forced into marriage or sex. For a lot of young women, leaving home is the only escape. So when she was just 16, Silvia set out alone.

Silvia is one of thousands of young men and women who have made the harrowing journey to the U.S. border since 2014. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, this past year over 10,000 unaccompanied minors from Guatemala were recorded crossing. In 2009, the number was closer to 1,000. That’s just Guatemala — but throughout Central America, children are leaving in record numbers.


Surrounded by Violence

Jaime* knew it was time to leave El Salvador when he saw a man murdered right in front of him. He says half the other teenagers in his town had joined the gangs by then. His faith and his devotion to his grandmother helped him resist following suit, but that made him a target. He was harassed and threatened routinely. Like so many young men, Jaime had two choices: join, or run.

Silvia and Jaime joined the migrant trail up through Mexico, riding on the tops of trains or traveling by bus or by foot to reach the border. They joined thousands of other young people fleeing extreme poverty, systemic violence, and domestic abuse, leaving their families behind because their lives are at stake. One Guatemalan boy we spoke to said he walked through the desert without food or water for two days. He lived in constant fear of getting extorted or abused by Mexican immigration officials, and kidnapped by the drug cartels who control the borderlands.

The Fight to Stay

Nearly all unaccompanied minors are apprehended at the border by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). They are held in jail-like detention centers until officials can track down a contact here in the states — maybe a family member, or a friend of a family, or a sponsor who agrees to take them in. That person’s address is how immigration keeps track of undocumented minors.

Upon being released, minors are given a court date. In court, they have to make the case for why they should be granted asylum and allowed to stay. Even though they are fleeing war-like situations, these Central American migrants are not technically designated as refugees. So to win asylum they need to prove that they are being targeted personally on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexuality, membership to a particular group, or nationality. It’s not an easy process to navigate, and it often requires the child to recount their most traumatic memories to a room full of strangers.

“Talking about my life in El Salvador was pretty hard,” Jaime says. “Because what I lived through . . . it was horrible.”

Jaime and Silvia both got lucky. In Oakland, they were connected with free legal services and successfully won their cases for asylum. But that victory was bittersweet. The first thing Jaime did when he heard the news was call his grandmother back in El Salvador to ask whether he should come home to his family instead of taking the asylum. She convinced him to not look back.

“There,” he says grimly, referring to his hometown, “I had no future.”

Global Crisis, Local Impact

Here in the Bay Area, there are hundreds of other kids with stories like Jaime’s and Silvia’s. Because of the long-standing Central American community in the East Bay, Alameda County has taken in more unaccompanied minors than any other county in the state except Los Angeles.

The influx is having a profound impact on local schools. The Oakland School District’s population of newcomer students — kids who arrived in the last three years — more than doubled in the last three years. So OUSD has rushed to create specialized programs within four of its high schools for recently-arrived English language learners.

Castlemont High in East Oakland is the latest school in the district to create a newcomer program. Castlemont is in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Oakland. The school has long struggled to keep its enrollment numbers up. It was an obvious choice for a new newcomer program because many of the migrants live in the neighborhood.

Castlemont was told by the school district that they would likely take in 100 newcomer students in the program’s first year. But new migrant kids were showing up to enroll every single day. Halfway through the school year, the school had already reached 200 newcomers.

Castlemont shares its small campus with a charter school, so teachers and administrators scrambled to find space to accommodate the incoming students. They started turning storage rooms into classrooms, and putting up dividers to split single rooms in two.

Teacher Carrie Haslanger stepped up to coordinate the school’s newcomer program. On top of a full English and Ethnic Studies teaching load, she led the charge in hiring and training six new teachers. Though Haslanger runs a bilingual classroom, a handful of her students only speak an indigenous Mayan language called Maam. A few student translators help break down some of the more difficult language barriers with her.

There are other barriers to learning. Many of these students carry trauma with them across the border. In order to reckon with it, Haslanger uses trauma-sensitive curriculum that helps students process, rather than hide, painful memories. For example, instead of supplying a vocabulary list for her students, she asked them to name words that describe their homes.

“Houses, flowers, people, apples, cars, cows, deaths, violence, gang, poverty, buildings, parks, beach, ocean, waterfalls, light, drugs, alcohol, blood, trash, beef, beans, burning... It’s a varied list of their absolute reality,” she says.

Meeting Needs

“A  traumatized child can’t learn,” says Arianna Flores. She’s the Unaccompanied Minor Support Specialist, a position the Oakland school district created in 2014 to keep kids from falling through the cracks. It’s her job to link kids to housing and services like counseling, legal aid and medical care. Newcomer programs like Castlemont’s have turned school campuses into hubs of interconnected resources. Flores says these needs come before education; meeting them is what makes education possible.

Flores tells the story of a newcomer student who recently told her he wanted to drop out of school. With a little probing, she quickly discovered why. Back in El Salvador, this student had witnessed a horrible massacre. It was the reason why he left home, and the reason why he found it unbearable to be in the classroom. Flores says the student was constantly triggered being around large groups of people. His anxiety was disorienting; he felt out of control. Flores persuaded him that his problems wouldn’t be solved by leaving school in order to work. His problems would follow him. But in school, he had reliable access to counseling. So for now, he’s agreed to stay enrolled.

Flores and Haslanger want their students to know that they can make more money with a high school diploma than they would working under the table in a job like construction. Being inside the school system also helps their legal cases for asylum, and makes it easier to access much needed social services. Haslanger is trying to push for more career-oriented curriculum to make education more useful for newcomers. But for many migrant youth, education is a luxury they just can’t afford.

Outside the School System

Alberto* is only 18, but he’s the sole breadwinner for his younger brothers and sisters back home in Guatemala. He says there’s no time in his life for school. He has two jobs and wakes up at 5:30am every morning to paint houses in the South Bay. Alberto says it’s a lonely existence, working day in and day out in a country where he doesn’t speak the language. He says his siblings cry for him on the phone, and he cries too. And then he goes back to work.

Jaime, from El Salvador, was pressured by some family members to drop out and work full-time. But his grandmother convinced him he’d be able to help his family more with a degree. His teachers encouraged him in school, too.

“I don’t know if it’s true, but they tell me I’m smart,” he says, smiling bashfully.

Jaime wants to go to community college, transfer to San Francisco State and get a degree in engineering. Back in El Salvador, his ambitions didn’t have a chance. He missed half his classes working in the fields and avoiding the gangs. He isn’t taking this opportunity for granted.

“I want to be el orgullo de mi familia (the pride of my family),” he says. “For my grandma.”

Ripples of Change at Castlemont

Newcomers have been enrolling at Castlemont High since the beginning of the year. Teachers and staff had to make room for them — and so did the existing students. They weren’t all exactly welcoming. Teacher Carrie Haslanger points out that the other students are by and large “also marginalized and disenfranchised populations.” So when the newcomers started getting a lot of attention and resources, like free school supplies, it felt unfair to them. That’s a big part of why the newcomers became targets for bullying.

Two juniors on campus, Dominique Smith and Sahana Roy, say they don’t start problems with the newcomers but they understand why other kids do. It’s mostly the usual high school stuff, like not having the “right” clothes or shoes. But it’s also that the newcomers “just act different.” They show unrestrained enthusiasm. According to Dominique and Sahana, the newcomers rush and push for lunch or to get on the bus.

“No lie, they will run you down though,” says Dominique. “I’m like, ‘Can I get some space?’”

Bullying got so bad at Castlemont that some newcomers were skipping school to avoid the problem.But over the year, things really improved. According to Haslanger, a lot of the credit for that goes to student allies.

“The biggest advocates for the newcomers have been kids who have come here when they were children,” she says.

The Advocates

There’s one group of boys in particular that took it upon themselves to defend the newcomers. Two of the boys in the group, seniors Ismael Hernandez and Ray Ramirez, say they “have a good reputation” among students and adults at Castlemont.

When the group of boys caught wind of the severity of bullying, they intervened. They say they first tried reasoning with the students that were doing the most bullying, who were some sophomores, Latino like them.

“We just told them straight up, ‘You guys shouldn’t do this,’” says Ray. “You’re making them feel depressed, suicidal — making them want to leave the school.”

Then, they came to the newcomers with advice for how to avoid getting targeted. An “advisory,” they called it, about what the newcomers were doing to provoke the other students.

“The newcomers are really playful,” says Ray. “So they like running around. I get it, they got their freedom here because maybe back home they didn't have that freedom and that enjoyment.”

So they advised the newcomers: “At lunch you can have your fun, but maybe not in the hallways because here people care a lot about their shoes. You might step on them. You also shouldn't be looking at them for so long because people take it as offense, like you're trying to start problems with them.”

“I know it sounds ridiculous, but this is how the streets roll,” Ismael explains.

But the intervention didn’t put things to rest. So Ray and Ismael got in the middle of the beef and turned on the main kids doing the bullying — and a fight ensued.


“We admit that it got physical,” says Ray. “We do not [endorse] violence, but it got to the point where we were tired and irritated.”

But the fight was only one incident. Ray and Ismael insist that talking with the students has actually been the most important part of helping the newcomers. They think the other Castlemont students are catching on that the newcomers bring something special to the school.

“They’re pretty cool, if you get to know them,” says Ismael.

Both Ray and Ismael got made fun of when they first came from Mexico as younger kids. Oakland is their home now, and they rep it, but the  newcomers remind them of their past. They never used to play soccer at school, now they play during every lunchtime with the newcomers.

“It’s funny,” says Ismael, “I remember how I used to act like them and I did change. It just reminds me of both ways.”

Seeing the Future

Ms. Haslanger says the school has depended on its Spanish-speaking students to help newcomers get adjusted. One student, April, helps translate Haslanger’s classes. April came to the U.S. when she was little. She says the newcomers look to her as an example of what their lives might become.

“I guess they see themselves in the future when they see me,” she says. “Like, ‘Maybe in the future I’ll be doing the same thing.’”

April says the newcomers are ambitious about school and learning English. “They're so competitive, but I like that.”

April says the backlash to the bullying has been stronger than the bullying itself.

“We stand up for them. We all come together. I guess it's united us more.” She’d not just talking about the Latino students at Castlemont, “but African American students too.”

A lot of kids echo this idea. That the influx of newcomers has created a challenge but Castlemont has risen to it. One student said that because the newcomers think of this place as a sanctuary, she’s appreciated it more too. She didn’t realize how much she’d lost her motivation at school until she saw the newcomers fighting to be here.

But clearly, that’s not the whole story for a lot of kids. Dominique wasn’t especially concerned about the newcomers. Before heading to class, she shrugged and said, “We have our own struggles here. People be dying every day here.”

It’s not a huge exaggeration: Oakland has one of the highest murder rates in the country. Some people feel like the city just can’t afford to take on another population’s problems

The City’s Response

Back in 2014, when reports of the huge uptick in Central American migration began to surface, Oakland decided to do something to help. Oakland’s City Council provided close to $600,000 to help pay for free legal services for unaccompanied minors. But eventually, there was pushback.

When it came time to renew the funding the following year, the amount was reduced by half, and the council promised to re-evaluate the funding later in the year. This came as a serious blow to legal aid providers. Their funds were cut in half but the number of people in need of their services had tripled.

Some Oakland citizens felt that allocating resources to unaccompanied minors was unfair; disadvantaged kids already living here would have to sacrifice the funds. At a City Council meeting back in November 2015, Oakland resident Asatta Olugbala asked, “What about the children of Oakland — who are exposed to violence, who are the victims of violence? You’re not spending one copper penny on these kids.”

A lot of people agree with Olugbala on her point that the migrant crisis is a federal issue. There are federal funds available for legal aid and Oakland is unusual in spending city money in this situation. During the same City Council testimonial Olugbala asserted, “Don’t say that we’re not trying to help these kids! We’re saying you didn’t have to spend this money!”

This is a delicate issue. It can feel like black and brown communities get pitted against each other, fighting for limited resources. A lot of people brought this up, but didn’t want to talk about it on the record.

Oakland City Councilmember Noel Gallo co-sponsored the measure to fund legal aid. He’s Latino, as is much of his district, which includes Fruitvale.

“I don't want to get into the race thing but it's real,” he says. “I'm more sensitive to it than maybe my other colleagues.”

For Councilmember Gallo, prioritizing problems is tough. On his office wall beside pictures of his daughters are headshots of every person killed on Oakland’s streets, year by year.

“The needs of Oakland are great,” Gallo says. “But the reality is the taxpayer is saying, ‘You need to take care of my special needs before you try to take [on] the world’s needs.’”

As for Asatta Olugbala, she says she thinks communities should stick together.

“Gallo should look out for his people, but if he’s going to ask for everyone else to pay for their needs, they should help us pay for those same needs in our community,” she says.

Right now, City Council is deliberating over renewing the funding for legal aid. It’s looking less and less likely to happen.

Stakes Are High

Since 2014, both the city of Oakland and the Oakland school district have poured in time and money to help unaccompanied minors make their new lives here. But this effort might be moot if kids are deported back to their home countries.

For children who don’t have access to a lawyer, or have not yet won their asylum case, that’s a real probability. Central American migrants have become more vulnerable here in the United States. President Obama has made this particular population of immigrants a priority for removal: more women and children have been deported under his administration than during any other president’s.

Access to a lawyer is crucial. Studies have shown that without legal representation, these young people have a one in ten chance of winning asylum. With a lawyer, the odds go up to 50/50.

“We are really worried,” says Eleni Wolfe-Robatus, Immigration Program Director at Centro Legal de La Raza, an organization that trains and provides pro-bono immigration lawyers, and is partially funded by the legal aid money from the city of Oakland. Wolfe-Robatus thinks the impact of withholding that funding could be catastrophic.

“The literal consequences are that we will have to let attorneys go,” she says. “Less children will be represented, and children will be deported to countries where they have suffered extreme harm and likely will be killed. There have been reports that keep coming out that within 24 hours of being deported, [children have] been murdered or they've been raped again. So, not to be dramatic, but it's literally life or death.”

Wolfe-Robatus believes there is a moral obligation to protect these kids. But at the simplest level, she wants people to understand: “These children belong to families who are Oakland families. They don't choose to come here, they are released here because this is where they have ties. Which means this is part of the community, and an extremely vulnerable part of the community.”

It’s hard to predict how many unaccompanied minors will make their way to Oakland this coming year. The violence and terror in Central America isn’t changing anytime soon. But for the children who’ve already crossed the border, Oakland is now their home. And while a lot of them live with the terrible fear of being deported, at least for today, they’re safe.

A special thank you to Francisco Navarro, Ariana Flores, Omar Ramirez, Amanda Irwin and Vanessa Pope. Their voices are not in this piece but their help was crucial and we are indebted to the work they do.


*Note: Some of the names in this story have been changed due to safety concerns.


Hannah Kingsley-Ma is a reporter and producer living in San Francisco.