Community Responds Strongly to Help Central Americans Fleeing Harm

First roundtable meeting draws 150 community leaders to help people escaping life-threatening conditions

unaccompminorforumJuly 15, 2014 CHELSEA — Dressed in a plain skirt, top and sandals, but with a GPS detention device strapped firmly to her left ankle, a Honduran woman addressed nearly 150 community leaders Thursday afternoon at the Chelsea Collaborative, speaking about the gang brutality that forced her to flee her country, about her detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and about her temporary reunion with family members in Chelsea. Her story exemplified those of many Central Americans who have come to Massachusetts in the past few months to await immigration proceedings that could ultimately result in either amnesty or deportation.

"The day before I left I saw a young man being taken into a field by gang members holding the baseball bat that would kill him," she told the crowd. "So many of our daughters have been raped, so many of our sons murdered. I am a churchgoing woman, and I came to this country because I know the people here are good people and they won't let us suffer any more." 

The audience was also introduced to ten-year-old Alberto, from El Salvador, who also fled gangs who had tried to extort his family, a story also told on NewsCenter 5 by Jorge Quiroga (see here)

“The majority of those that we have seen come from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador," said Gladys Vega, Executive Director of the Chelsea Collaborative. “And those are the three countries best represented among the immigrant community of Chelsea. So when they  arrive here ICE releases them into the care of family members or other people they know.”

Ms. Vega spoke to a meeting room so packed with concerned community members, an audio speaker had to be placed in the outside hall for the overflow to hear the proceedings.

Those in attendance included a local school superintendent, a state representative, private and non-profit immigration attorneys, pediatricians, and members of community agencies across the North Shore. After the personal testimonies, attorneys then described the detention procedures by ICE and by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which handles unaccompanied minors, and school officials and others described increased enrollment in the schools, the post-traumatic stress syndrome suffered by some asylum-seekers, and the logistics of response.

"We worked with the Chelsea Collaborative to organize this meeting, expecting a turnout of about 30 people," said Cristina Aguilera, Organizing Director at the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA). "The 150 people who turned up demonstrate the depth of our commitment in Massachusetts to help people in need. This first step suggests that we can manage that with both heartfelt compassion and smart coordination. We urge President Obama and Congress to do the same, and to follow the full intent of our asylum laws so that no-one is sent back into harm's way."