Armed gangs threatened to kill them, guns were fired near their homes, siblings were killed. They were forced to flee and made their way to the United States this year from El Salvador, Ecuador, Guatemala and Mexico.
That is what seven children, ages 6 to 17, faced before they were reunited with family members in Minnesota.
Jane Graupman, executive director of the International Institute of Minnesota, and her team helped connect those children with relatives. What Graupman did not expect was to find many more like them in the state — at least 173, according to federal records.
“That was news to us,” Graupman said.
Tens of thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence in their home countries have crossed the southern U.S. border in recent months. The United Nations designated some of the nations there as among the world’s most violent.
The wave of immigrants, many of them unaccompanied minors, has left state and federal officials scrambling to provide for them. In some Southern states, makeshift shelters are overflowing. Other countries, such as Mexico, are also taking in unaccompanied children.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement released data for the first time this week showing where the 30,340 unaccompanied minors ended up after leaving the shelters this year. Thousands of children were placed with family members or sponsors in California, Florida and New York. Since January, 173 have come to Minnesota. North Dakota received four. There were 122 in Iowa and 50 in Wisconsin.
“The majority of these children have family in the United States,” said Graupman, adding there is a misconception that children are fleeing to the United States without having any family ties here. “This is a family reunification issue.”
Graupman said it is unfathomable to many Americans that a parent would allow a child as young as 6 to make such a dangerous journey.
“It’s beyond our comprehension because we live in safe communities. Honduras is the murder capital of the planet. Your child has a large chance of being killed,” Graupman said. “Sometimes it’s just the child making the decision to leave. It’s for their survival.”
When a child makes it to the U.S. border, he or she is transferred to a temporary shelter while the Office of Refugee Resettlement attempts to place the child with a family member. The seven children that Graupman helped place with family members were housed in Chicago in facilities run by the Heartland Alliance of Chicago, a social service agency that helps resettle refugees.
Sometimes the process is straightforward, and the child is placed in a stable household, with family members who have experience dealing with children.
Graupman is called in when cases are more complex and families need more support. Heartland asked the International Institute of Minnesota this year to help reunite children with ties in Minnesota to their relatives.
The seven children faced a significant amount of trauma or had not seen their relatives for a long time.
“That’s always an adjustment, to get to know one another again,” Graupman said. “If you haven’t seen your family in 10 years, they may seem like strangers. It takes time to adjust.”
Licensed social workers ensure that the minors get registered in school, receive mental health services and are connected to a health clinic.
Graupman said there are fewer unaccompanied minors in Minnesota compared with states like California because there are not large numbers of Honduran, Guatemalan or Salvadoran immigrants in the state.
It is not likely that an unaccompanied child coming to Minnesota would have no family ties here, Graupman said. With support from other organizations, she said she would consider setting up temporary housing in the state.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., said Minnesota is well equipped to house more children and provide resources to them.
Amanda Smith, the refugee services director at the International Institute of Minnesota, said she received about 15 calls last week from people volunteering to house immigrant children.
“We don’t have that need yet,” Smith said. “But Minnesotans are willing to open their homes and help.”