by Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, Guardian Angels Co-Founder
The 9 year old girl arrived in the US from El Salvador four days ago. As she colors in a coloring book, she can’t stop talking about her brother. The last time she saw him, he was being beaten by members of the Marasalvatrucha, an international mafia which is controlling increasing large territories of Central America. She tells me for the fourth time that there was blood coming out of everywhere – “His nose, his eyes, his ears, everywhere”. Then she whispers, “We will be safe now. We are here.” Of course, they are not yet safe; they could be deported any day – but not if the Guardian Angels can help it!
For the past two years, our Synod has led the ELCA in a creative response to the crisis of the Central American refugees. The murder rates in Central America are some of the highest in the world – similar to Syria – as the result of an increasing conflict that Bishop Gomez of the Lutheran Church of El Salvador calls a “social war.” International mafias whose income comes from drug trafficking, human trafficking and guns trafficking are in charge in many areas of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – and they are ruthless in their extortion of small businesses, their forced conscription of young boys and their sexual violation of young girls – all on pain of real threats of violence. As a result, roughly 80,000 young boys and girls have fled to the US over the past two years along with about 10,000 mothers with younger children.
Our Synod’s Guardian Angels program sends volunteers in Guardian Angels T-Shirts to immigration court to monitor the legal cases and advocate for rights of these refugees. We also connect them with legal resources and provide emotional and spiritual support. As outside “eyes”, we document what happens to these children and families in the court, turning our information over to public interest lawyers for a national lawsuit attempting to get them legal representation. The US does not currently provide free legal representation to asylum seekers. When these children have legal representation, roughly 80% receive asylum, which is similar to official refugee status. When they don’t have lawyers, over 90% are deported – many to their deaths.
The Guardian Angel program has been replicated in the Chicago Synod and is being considered by Sierra Pacific Synod (which just replicated our Welcoming Congregations Network which gave birth to the Guardian Angel program) as well as the Pennsylvania Synod.
Our local Guardian Angels program works in partnership with the Presbytery of the Pacific and Esperanza Legal Services (Catholic Charities.) Esperanza provides legal orientation and support with asylum applications for these families in a small room near the courtrooms. The Angels work with our interns Luis and Ana to connect the families with the orientation; we try to keep the families from panicking and becoming victims of unscrupulous lawyers who take their little money and do little or nothing to save them. When they are in the orientation, we help care for their children. When appropriate, we also refer these families to the few low-cost immigration legal services that exist, helping the children and families with the most urgent need to get priority assistance. We also hand out information about other community resources. When we have enough volunteers, we accompany the families in facing the many problems of their lives. We also connect volunteers with opportunities for advocacy to try to improve the legislation and regulations which negatively affect these children and families. Our next Guardian Angeles training and volunteer recognition dinner will be 6:30 p.m, November 21st at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, 3300 W. Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles.
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