Dead bodies were part of the daily grind.
Death and rape were imminent realities.
These were the words relayed through tears of two women who just arrived from El Salvador to Chelsea via the Texas border as part of the huge influx of women and children flooding the country.
Last Thursday afternoon, a huge crowd of City leaders, school leaders, attorneys, community groups and other concerned citizens from Chelsea gathered at the Chelsea Collaborative to figure out what to do and how to help the large numbers of people like these two women who are coming to Chelsea from the border.
Chelsea and Lynn, both of which already have large Central American populations, have been identified as ground zero for the influx in Massachusetts. Many are coming to stay with relatives, distant relatives or even sponsors who already live in the community.
“We’re not here to take anybody’s resources; we’re here because we want to survive,” said one anonymous woman from San Marcos, El Salvador, who crossed the border in May and is staying with relatives in Chelsea who are also in the country illegally. She appeared to be in her late 20s.
The two women who spoke to the standing-room only crowd talked mostly about gang violence that has ripped apart their communities. One woman even spoke of a “war tax” imposed on the people by violent gangs – a payment demanded by the gangs in exchange for not killing family members.
“My mother decided for us to come here in May so she wouldn’t lose me,” said the first woman in Spanish via an interpreter. “She had already lost one son. When I was 11, they killed my father. It was all about the money, the war tax, and stealing, stealing, stealing. What I need is your help. I need an attorney because I want to stay here. I need to get money to my mom, but I need to do it secretly behind everyone’s back or the gangs will steal it…I would love to be back in my home country, but I have to come here because I want my daughter to survive and I want to survive.”
The second woman, also from El Salvador and who also came in May, said she fled so her 5-year-old would not be raped by the gangs in the coming years.
“I have a 5-year-old daughter and in the neighborhood we live the gang members said any girl 12 or 13 years old will be raped by the whole gang,” said the second woman, who appeared to be in her late 30s. “All the girls in my neighborhood have been raped and they’re not speaking up because they’re afraid of being killed. The gang already killed two members of our community. We need your help. I’m willing to abide by the laws and follow all the rules of the country just so I don’t have to go back. Help us and think of us and please allow us to stay here and not go back.”
Neither woman, nor a young teen who apparently came over the border alone, would allow themselves to be photographed or identified by name.
The unabashed violence spoken of above is one major reason why so many from Central America are rushing to cross the border. However, reports from the border also indicate there is a mistaken belief among the immigrants that are presenting themselves that if they make it across the border, they will be able to stay. It’s a belief that is said to have been sparked by a misunderstanding of President Barack Obama’s deferred action plan of two years ago that allowed young people brought to the country illegally as children to stay temporarily without fear of deportation.
However, how or why they have come is now beside the point, said Collaborative Director Gladys Vega.
Right now, she said there is a humanitarian crisis in Chelsea as more and more people trickle into the city with nothing to eat, nowhere permanent to stay and no idea how to navigate the immigration system (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) they are beholden to.
Vega said they began to see children and young mothers come to their front door earlier this spring. First there were one or two who were desperate for help. Now, there are 15 children a week filing into their offices for help.
“We had no idea how we would address the issues with this other than to do what we always do, which is to bring people together,” she said at the outset of the meeting. “We are treating this as a humanitarian crisis right now and we need to identify all kinds of resources…For these women, dead people in the streets are the norm. They’re not even appalled or surprised to see a dead body in the street as they walk to church.”
The meeting was also held in conjunction with MIRA – a Hispanic immigrant advocacy organization. The organization’s local representative, Christina Aguilera, stood side by side with Vega to put out the call for help.
“We know this is an issue that is part of a larger issue, but right now we want to just focus on the children,” she said. “We want to support the children and the families. This situation is really not new, but it is really escalating…This needs to stop being a political debate. This is about children and the terrible situations they suffer where they’re coming from.”
Vega and Aguilera hosted attorneys from Catholic Charities, Suffolk Legal Services and Greater Boston Legal Services, as well as mental health professionals from North Suffolk. They asked for pro bono legal assistance, volunteers to provide rides for the women to their immigration appointments in Burlington, and even people to volunteer to be ‘sponsors’ for those who show up and have no family members to care for them.
One of the hardest hit local institutions are the schools, and Superintendent Mary Bourque said they have seen a trickle over the last three years turn into a steady current over the past six months – mostly young people of late middle school and high school age. There aren’t, she said, many elementary school children coming.
They have had to hire English immersion teachers and also mental health professionals to cater to those who have shown up in the schools. Like in many communities across the country, the Chelsea schools are likely to be the front lines in addressing the situation as it grows.
“Our students need vaccinations,” she said. “We need to align with medical facilities in our community to make sure they get checked and get vaccinated and that they get the two or three rounds of vaccinations that are necessary. We’re going to need more social workers in the schools over the next two years. There’s an acclimation issue that takes place naturally, but there is also the trauma of the journey. We definitely see an increase in regard to social-emotional issues.”
She also said that many students are coming at the age of 14 or 15 – or even older – and they have a very limited education. They are so far behind that the likelihood of them graduating from public school is very low. She called for career training and other services to help educate these older students.
“Many come at 14 or 15 and they haven’t been to school since the second grade,” she said. “Even then, the quality of a second grade education where they’re coming from is not the same as it is in Massachusetts. The academic gap here has to be thought out.”
In conclusion, legal advocates said the community can expect this to be a long and slow situation – and one that won’t end anytime soon.
“This is a horrible situation for everyone and a horrible situation for the kids, but until they appoint a gazillion more immigration judges to speed up the process, it’s going to be a slow process,” said the woman from Greater Boston Legal Services