Oakland churches offer aid, sanctuary to Central American immigrants


Like many churches in the days before Christmas, the Primera Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana in East Oakland held a posada one recent night. But rather than reenact Joseph and Mary’s search for shelter, this candlelight procession told a contemporary tale much on the minds of congregants.

Participants portrayed a Honduran family escaping gang violence and extortion, in a nod to the thousands of unaccompanied Central American minors and families with young children who have recently traveled to the United States, where they await court proceedings.

About 60,000 unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala were taken into custody at the Southwestern border between October 2013 and Nov. 30 of this year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and families with young children — though receiving less attention — have also arrived by the thousands each month.


The greatest numbers of unaccompanied minors to be placed with relatives or sponsors in California are in Los Angeles County, federal statistics show. There, several philanthropic groups are raising funds for legal representation and have hired someone to coordinate the effort. Gov. Jerry Brown has also committed $3 million for legal help statewide.

In the Bay Area, where the second-largest group has settled, a particularly robust activism has developed — fueled in part by the region’s history as a birthplace of the sanctuary movement of the 1980s to help those fleeing Central American civil wars.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors committed $2 million in September to guarantee legal representation for every unaccompanied youth residing in the city who is on the immigration court’s expedited “surge docket” of Central American newcomers.

The Oakland City Council followed with a $577,000 commitment for legal help, and Alameda County is considering allocating as much as $2 million for mental health counseling and temporary housing.

Religious groups in the East Bay have also stepped up. Led by Guatemalan-born Pastor Pablo Morataya of the East Oakland church, four congregations this fall declared “sanctuary” — pledging to shield young people and their families even if they are ordered deported.

In the meantime they are helping with sponsorships, legal costs, food and clothing.

“It’s a very powerful moment — the importance of the faith communities protecting people even if the government doesn’t,” said the Rev. Deborah Lee, director of the Interfaith Immigrant Rights Project, a Bay Area arm of Los Angeles-based Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, and organizer of the posada.


Among those holding a candle was Rene, who, fearing for his safety, asked that only his middle name be used. The 14-year-old Mayan youth said he had been beaten by gang members who were pressuring him to join.

“The very next day I left,” the native Mam speaker from western Guatemala said in halting Spanish in a later interview.

Rene recalled the day and a half he spent clinging to a freight train as it hurtled north through Mexico as “terrifying.” After three months of detention in Texas and Arizona, he was placed with a cousin in Oakland who could not shelter him.

When Rene showed up on Morataya’s church steps one Sunday in July, Maria de Jesus Martinez Luna was teaching Bible study. She and her husband came to the U.S. a quarter-century ago and won asylum after family members were slain during El Salvador’s civil war. They have a 16-year-old son of their own. Martinez couldn’t turn away.

“I identified with him as if he were my child, arriving this way, in this situation,” said Martinez, 47. She called her husband and told him, ‘He’s alone. We could take him into our house.’”

Rene now sleeps in a twin bed in the family living room. He is learning English with help from Martinez’s son and two daughters, ages 12 and 2.



The latest Central American influx captured the national spotlight last summer amid a spike in the number of youths making the journey.

In a June visit to Guatemala, Vice President Joseph Biden pledged money for programs aimed at combating gang violence and urged mothers to keep their children at home. The Obama administration also ordered the cases of the youths and families with young children expedited.

In East Oakland, a largely low-income cluster of immigrant neighborhoods, the surge and the hastened court schedule have triggered a burst of need.

Public funds have largely been committed to nonprofit organizations providing legal representation. But legal help is just one piece of the equation, as Morataya is reminded daily.

On a recent Friday, a couple from San Salvador sat in his office. They had fled gang threats and extortion with their three young children and were placed with a relative, who told them they must leave. (Days later, Morataya scrounged up donations to temporarily place them in a hotel.) His next appointment was with the Oakland schools’ coordinator for unaccompanied Central American youths, who was stopping by with a 16-year-old Salvadoran girl.

Like Rene, she made the journey alone. Like Rene, the relative who took her in no longer wanted her there. Morataya would brainstorm to find a sponsor.


He has some help. Inundated in early fall, Morataya sent an email to other churches seeking assistance. Three stepped up, among them St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley, which in 1982 provided an apartment in the church to a Central American family facing deportation.

The Rev. Max Lynn of St. John’s described meeting a Guatemalan mother and her teenage daughter who had been assaulted and raped — her daughter impregnated — after the girl’s father unwittingly took a job driving a boat for a drug cartel and tried to quit.

“Once we heard their story it was ‘No way we’re not responding to this,’” said Lynn, whose church has held fundraisers for their legal fees and accompanied them to court hearings.

Lynn’s church also contributed wrapped Christmas presents and bags of rice and other staples for families at the posada. There, tales of similar trauma were common.

Guadalupe, 37, who asked that her last name be withheld, is among a family of 11 — six of them between ages 3 and 15 — who fled a San Salvador suburb earlier this year.

She wept as she told their story: Her sister and brother-in-law were extorted by gang members. When they could no longer pay, he was pressed to become a drug courier and refused. He and his 12-year-old son were then driven a short distance from the home and shot to death. Gang members next demanded $15,000 from Guadalupe and her husband, who operated a small grocery store. When they could not pay, she was pulled off a city bus, she recounted, beaten and sexually assaulted in a sugar cane field as her 3-year-old daughter watched.


“Thank God that people from this church have helped us,” said Guadalupe, whose family has received food, toiletries, clothes and mental health counseling. “We can never repay the kindness.”


Rene is reluctant to discuss the details of his circumstances other than to say he fears a return. When he is not in school at Oakland International High School — two bus rides from the Martinez home — the 14-year-old stands at Home Depot looking for “any kind of work — construction, painting.”

He must repay $9,000 borrowed to make his journey before he can start sending money home to his mother and two young sisters.

It is unclear whether he will prevail in court. Asylum requires political or religious persecution, and amassing required documentation when gang threats are the driving force of oppression is difficult, though not impossible, lawyers working the cases say.

Sanctuary for some of the participating churches has meant mostly helping with financial assistance and living arrangements during the court process. But Morataya is prepared to take it one step further: He is readying a small dormitory on the church’s second floor in case youths like Rene or families like Guadalupe’s are ordered deported.

“There are risks,” he said, “but for us it is a calling of our faith.”

The posada ended with the Honduran family knocking on the church door. The pastor answered: “Enter. You are always welcome here. We consider you brothers and sisters.”


Twitter: @leeromney