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Immigration

Guatemalan Refugees Come To Oregon

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Wilson Institute
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In recent months, unaccompanied minors and women with children from Central America have been crossing the border at a rate of 180,000 per year.  That's more than the surge of two years ago and the Obama administration is preparing for a further increase this summer.  Some will likely go to Lane County to join refugees already here. 

University of Oregon Professor Lynn Stephen has documented threats of violence, extortion, and torture against children and indigenous Guatemalan women whose husbands left to go north:

"They're leaving them in vulnerable, unprotected positions in communities, if you don't have a male protector, women and children may become marks."

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors have come to the U.S. in the past two years.  About seventy are in Lane County, and many others are in the Portland area:

"This is when it's most amazing when it's young people who are 15, 16, 14, deciding on their own to leave. My youngest son is 16. I can't imagine what it would be like for him to make the journey."

A Portland immigration lawyer told us that he's seen kids as young as five cross the border themselves. They are picked up by the U.S. Border Patrol and placed with sponsors, often an uncle or cousin. Those who work with these unaccompanied kids and with about an additional 100 Guatemalan women and children in Lane County, confirm they are here.  But with today's anti-immigrant climate, they try to keep the refugees invisible.  Julie is a volunteer who helps with asylum cases:

"We have been very cautious--and that's another reason for our secrecy--about disclosing how significant the population is because if it's not brought to someone's attention they they don't say, oh, here's another one."

Even the people who work with the refugees don't want to be named. About 150 new Guatemalan arrivals have settled in one part of Lane County, and refugee workers don't want the community name disclosed. Julie says gangs in Guatemala can and do keep tabs on the new arrivals:

"Their families have been harassed and extorted because somehow it circulates that there's a family member in the U.S. who is getting money and is sending it back to the family and so then the remaining family is targeted and extorted."

Rosa, a family outreach worker in Lane County, says the refugees stay to themselves, have a great work ethic, and are grateful to be here:

"They live close by, they worship together. I think faith is something very important to them. That was the first thing we noticed is how quickly they were able to form their church and find that support. So I think they come because they know that they're able to create this community."

The women and kids report monthly to immigration authorities and seek asylum from an immigration court in Portland. Nationally about half of the immigrants not turned back at the border are granted asylum,  according to the U.S. Department of Justice, but those in Lane County seem to be beating the odds. The consquences of going back can  be grave. Frank Aguirre's son made it to Portland at age 17 and decided not to go through a possible deportation, and headed back to El Salvador himself:

"He went back and then I got the bad new that he got shot 16 times by the gangs in El Salvador. Police was close by, two blocks away. When they asked for help, police instead of helping run away."

Aguirre says his son, Moses, refused to continue to be extorted and that's why he died. The Obama Administration is trying to get Central Americans to stop coming here.  They are using public service announcements:

"No proporciona ningun beneficio...."

Lynn Stephen says U.S. pressure on Mexico to interdict refugees has eased and she sees a new wave of Central Americans coming to Oregon:

"Deporting them out of Mexico may have kept them from getting to the United States but if the conditions don't change and they're fleeing, they're going to come again."

Outreach worker Rosa says most of those who have received political asylum are still here:

"Once you come into a community, you set roots and your children start going to school, and life happens. I think they will stay."

And volunteer worker Julie is glad of it:

"I love these people because they're so hearty and resourceful. Some of the stories I've heard, well they can bring  tears to your eyes. They have. I'm constantly amazed at how someone who has faced catastrophe, that they have survived, that they have kept an attitude of optimism."

The plan to stay off the radar seems to be working.  The workers say there have been no anti-immigrant incidents aimed at the Guatemalans in Lane County.

Copyright 2016 KLCC