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Chelsea officials, activists meet about child immigrants

Nate Homan
Chelsea officials, activists meet about child immigrants
Photo: Superintendent Dr. Mary Bourque, Cristina Aguilera, Organizing Director of MIRA Collation and Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative at the roundtable meeting.

Representatives from the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Chelsea Collaborative held a roundtable meeting with the Chelsea school superintendent, local lawyers and other activist groups addressing the need for communities like Chelsea and other cities with large immigrant populations to prepare for the arrival of undocumented unaccompanied minors and separated family members while tending to the needs of those who are already integrated in the community.

“We are trying to gather resources for legal aid in treating this issue as a humanitarian crisis,” said Gladys Vega, executive director of the Chelsea Collaborative. “We are hoping to put together a legal team and are trying to prevent ICE from separating families.”

Vega said that the Chelsea Collaborative handles about 15 new cases a week.

“We have no idea how to handle this issue outside of calling on you in the community for help.”

The meeting came as immigration issues are at the forefront of a national debate that has Republican lawmakers blaming the Obama administration for what many see as a crisis at the nation’s borders. Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Honduras and El Salvador are being held in detention facilities in the U.S.

At the same time, hundreds of undocumented immigrants have been flown from overcrowded Texas detention facilities to jails in Massachusetts, including a facility at the Suffolk County House of Correction.

Two women, who organizers asked remain nameless, recounted the horrors they fled from their home countries.

Speaking through an interpreter, one woman told the group that she wanted to stay in her home city in Guatemala but gangs extorted residents, demanding a war tax. Refusing to pay the tax results in threats towards family members and households.

She wept as she described how the gangs murdered her father when she was 11 over the war tax. Her brother was killed not long after when he refused to join the gang. She said that the gangs are free to commit murder and other crimes out in the open without fear of legal retribution or community retaliation, enough so that locals are not fazed or appalled by the sight of a body in the streets.

“We’re not here to take away resources,” she said. “We’re here because we want to survive.”

The second woman told the roundtable her family had to flee because her children were reaching the age where gangs would target them. She said gang members try to recruit teenage boys and harm the ones who refuse, and target teenage girls, who are frequently raped and sexually assaulted. Her cousin was killed in a different community and the family had to approach the gang members in order to beg for permission to bury him in a cemetery in his hometown.

The day before she left her home, she witnessed the gangs drag a person into a cemetery and beat him to death with a baseball bat, then leave his broken body on display for all to see. She said that in the face of this, she and her family were willing to comply with every law in the United States in order to avoid returning to the hostilities of her hometown.

The woman is currently in an ICE program, and is required to wear an ankle bracelet that tracks her location, similar to the ones required for people on house arrest. She is required to check in with ICE agents in Burlington each week. These bracelets are for adults only and are not put on children.

“From the school department’s lenses, we’ve had a steady stream for about 3 years of immigrants coming from these particular countries into the schools,” Mary Bourque, superintendent of the Chelsea Public Schools said. “It has evolved from a stream to a current from about January to the end of the school year.”

“Our students need vaccinations. We need to make sure that we are aligned with Beth Israel and MGH in making sure our students have initial physicals and vaccinations, which are on a three-wave cycle.

“For us in the school department, there are obviously the wrap-around services and social services. We have increased the number of social workers and we need to continue to increase those numbers. The acclimation to a new country is a difficult process, but there’s also the trauma of the journey.”

Bourque said that another issue is the academic gap and the fact that while these students may be teenagers, some have not been in a classroom for many years. In response, the Chelsea schools have hired two new teachers, one at the high school, one at the middle school, for shelter immersion. These age demographics are the most common among new arrivals.

“We also have to remember that a second grade education in Honduras is not the same as a second grade education in Massachusetts.”

“What we need right now is people and we need resources,” Cristina Aguilera, organizing director of the MIRA Coalition said. “We need skills that people can provide, if they are an attorney or a member of a church or any organization. The issue is much larger than just the children, but right now we want to focus on them. We want to support them as best we can in this situation.”

While the onset of community-wide preparation is in the preliminary stage, each group at the roundtable stressed the need to strip the issue of its’ political climate and address the situation on a human level.

“The message that we’re saying to all families is this: The schools are not a political entity. It is nonnegotiable. Do not bring the politics into our schools. Our job is to welcome every student that crosses over our threshold and move them along towards that trajectory of success,” Bourque said.

“This needs to stop being a political debate,” Aguilera said. “These are children. This is about their suffering in their native countries and we need to make sure that the mainstream understands the compelling and difficult situations they are in.”