Ana and her daughter Bessy

A. Garcia / SFVS

A year ago, Ana — a native of Honduras — spent two weeks traveling by bus from her country and across Mexico, sleeping in cheap motels and trying to avoid Mexican immigration authorities before reaching the U.S. border in the area of McAllen, Texas.

It was there she was apprehended, along with her then 4-year-old daughter Bessy.

Ana had decided to leave her country, she said, because she was tired of the domestic abuse inflicted upon her by her youngest daughter’s father. In fact, she noted, he was deported from Spain because of domestic violence charges against him there.

Feeling that she had no other option, one day, when he left their home, she took her daughter Bessy and ran away.

It wasn’t an easy decision to leave. Her other four children, ages 15 to 22 from a previous marriage with a police officer who was killed by criminals, remained in Honduras. It seemed there was little hope of climbing out of her circumstances, and she feared the abuse could only get worse.

Detention In The United States

Ana and her daughter were part of the wave of families that saturated and overwhelmed the country’s immigration centers last year, escaping violence, lack of employment and resources in their native countries. Like many others, Ana felt the only means of survival for her and her child was by making the dangerous illegal trek to the United States.

After being apprehended at the border by U.S. immigration authorities, she and Bessy spent a week in overcrowded conditions with many other mothers and young children. They were “in a prison,” she said.

“We were treated like dogs. We cried there,” recalled the 43-year-old woman who had tried to enter the country twice before. Both times she was arrested and deported.

What she remembers the most is the cold.

“The food they gave us was cold, a cold-cut sandwich, and you had to sleep on the cold floor,” she said.

“It was full of people suffering. We all just wanted to leave.”

 By the end of her incarceration and not used to air conditioned rooms, Ana had lost her voice.

She was freed at the end of a week, and she made the trek to Los Angeles to reunite with relatives. Ana did not know the reason for her release. But other detained families have been allowed to leave detention centers if they had family in the U.S. who could vouch for them, thanks to pressure by pro-immigrant groups.

Refugee Center Opens In North Hills

Ana is one of the persons the North Hills Methodist Church Mission wants to help. Last weekend, she and Bessy found themselves in a more welcoming scenario as part of the July 25th opening of the church’s “You Are Not Alone” Refugee Children Welcome Center, the first of its kind in the San Fernando Valley.

 The center seeks to provide information and referrals for medical, dental and counseling services to those recently arrived from their native countries. They can receive legal counseling, emergency supplies such as food, toiletries, health kits, blankets, school supplies, phone cards, toys and children’s books. They can also receive spiritual and moral support as they navigate a system and country foreign to them.

 Center officials cannot house them.

 Rev. Fred Norris, the church’s pastor, said 300 migrant children who arrived in the past year are currently living in the San Fernando Valley. Much more could come as a result of a recent federal court decision.

 “But we don’t know where they are because the government won’t tell you. That’s why we hope people see this and come to us. We’re ready to help,” he said.

 Of particular interest to Norris is that the recently arrived migrant families receive much needed legal help as they deal with their immigration cases.

 He points out that a large portion of these children and families would qualify for refugee status if provided the right legal representation. Many of them suffered through tremendous violence in their countries, and fled in many cases from fear of death from criminal gangs.

That’s the kind of help the center hopes to provide for Ana, who doesn’t yet have a lawyer. She still fears for the lives of her four children and father who remain in Honduras, and tries to send as much money as she can from her earnings as a night office cleaner.

Ana still owes $5,000 from her illegal journey to the United States, but is hopeful about her future.

 “I just want to work and help my kids,” she said.

 Federal Ruling

Ana’s story is not unique. Hundreds of mostly Central American mothers and young children remain, sometimes for weeks and months, in immigration detention facilities, something pro-immigrant activists have denounced since last year.

Now they hope a recent legal decision changes the lives of those detainees.

On Friday, July 24, a federal judge ruled the U.S. Department of Justice’s current system of detaining children with their mothers after they’ve crossed the U.S.-Mexico border violates an 18-year-old court settlement.

The decision by U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in California is a victory for the immigrant rights lawyers who brought the case, but its immediate implications for detainees were not yet clear.

The 1997 settlement at issue bars immigrant children from being held in unlicensed, secure facilities. Gee found that the settlement covered all children in the custody of federal immigration officials, even those being held with a parent.

The Justice Department had argued it was necessary to modify the settlement and use detention to try to deter more immigrants from coming to the border after last year’s surge and it was an important way to keep families together while their immigration cases were being reviewed. But the judge rejected that argument in Friday’s decision.

The ruling upholds a tentative decision Gee made in April, and comes a week after the two sides told her that they failed to reach a new settlement agreement as she’d asked for.

For Ana, who lived six years in Spain before coming to the United States, the decision is a fair one because she said the immigration centers are no place for women and children.

“One suffers in there,” she said.

For more information, visit the Refugee Center “You’re not Alone” at United Methodist Church Mission of North Hills, 15435 Rayen Street in North Hills, or call (747) 529-4783.