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Crisis of children seeps into Pittsburgh

| Friday, July 18, 2014, 10:36 p.m.
Justin Merriman | TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
Janice Vanderneck, a nun in the Order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden, teaches English to cousins Victoria, 14, and Gerardo Martinez, 12, at Brookline's Casa San Jose. Housed in the basement of St Mark's Lutheran Church, the outreach program to poor Latino families is scrambling to find food, shelter and clothing for an influx of undocumented migrant children and their families fleeing crime in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. Victoria came to Pittsburgh in January from El Salvador, joining Gerardo who had arrived a year earlier.

In the end, Victoria Martinez said she was more afraid of dying in El Salvador than she was the deserts of Texas.

M-18, a narcotics cartel with tentacles reaching from Los Angeles into impoverished places like La Paz and other Central American cities and villages, had targeted her mother's tiny chicken farm for extortion. By January, the family had run out of money to pay the protection racket and the gang threatened to start killing them.

“We sold what little we had left and we ran,” Martinez, 14, told the Tribune-Review, through an interpreter. “Violencia. In El Salvador, we saw much violence.”

Victoria, her mother and a 3-year old niece sneaked out of El Salvador, bought a series of bus tickets that took them up the spine of Mexico and then walked into the Texas scrub, where they surrendered to U.S. Border Patrol officers. After getting screened at a border detention facility for diseases and U.S. criminal records, they were allowed to proceed on to relatives in Pittsburgh's Banksville section who are legally here.

They now await a hearing at the federal Immigration Court on the South Side — and a very uncertain future — as a debate over U.S. border and deportation policies boils across America and onto Capitol Hill.

Critics in Washington contend that any temporary help for youths like Martinez must be linked to renewed efforts to secure the border, close loopholes in and stiffen enforcement of immigration laws, and hike deportations of those who are here illegally. They say that many of the families crossing the border are cynically exploiting loopholes in anti-human trafficking measures to gain access to American jobs.

“These kids are not even trying to avoid Border Patrol. They're flagging them down,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “That's because that while these children are often described as ‘unaccompanied,' that's not really true. They're coming in groups, along with adults, and they're planning on meeting up with illegal immigrants who are relatives living in the United States. It's not some sort of ‘Children's Crusade' wandering through the desert — which is how it's getting portrayed. They're exploiting us.”

What no one doubts, however, is that Martinez is but a drop in a flood of human misery gushing across America's southern border — 52,000 undocumented children since October — that is spilling into Pittsburgh, swamping the limited resources of the few local charities that work with the Latino community.

They are struggling to find emergency housing, clothing and food for “dozens of children” and their families, said Sister Janice Vanderneck, a Roman Catholic nun with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden and executive director of Brookline's Casa San Jose. The nonprofit outreach program for the region's Hispanic families is based in the basement of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Brookline.

U.S. Health and Human Services told the Trib that 386 juveniles were sent from the U.S.-Mexico border to Pennsylvania between Jan. 1 and June 30, with 96 percent of them being discharged to relatives who passed criminal background checks. The rest entered foster care, which is subsidized by taxpayers.

Holy Family Institute, a Roman Catholic nonprofit in Emsworth, has responded to a federal call for temporary shelters that can hold children until their asylum cases are decided. The facility proposes to aid between 20 and 36 children ages 12 and younger, but it has yet to receive government funding. Allegheny County officials told the Trib that undocumented migrants cannot dip into social welfare aid available to lawful immigrants, such as war refugees who have settled here.

That leaves Casa San Jose and a handful of other nonprofits, plus a regional Latino community estimated at 19,000, to fill the void. Casa San Jose has a staff of four — counting Vanderneck, who draws no pay — and an annual budget of $90,000 that does not include money for extra translators or English tutors.

The scattering of Central American migrants widely across Allegheny County complicates relief efforts, Vanderneck said. When the South Side's Latino Family Center opened in 2009, for example, caseworkers enrolled 60 families from 27 ZIP codes.

“The majority of the families we work with are a mix of migrants. The older children are often here under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They were brought here as toddlers, and they only know our country, but they were undocumented when they came and they now they have some protection from deportation. Their younger brothers and sisters often were born here. They're American citizens. And their mom might be documented but the father is undocumented. That's what we're dealing with here,” Vanderneck said.

Critics weary of dealing with the rush contend that Vanderneck's relief operations would not be so complicated if the United States ramped up border security and deported more illegal migrants who got in. They want to arm federal officers with the power to deport undocumented migrants — including children — after apprehending them, instead of packing families into detention centers or sending them on to Pittsburgh and other cities to await immigration hearings that can take years to resolve. Similar policies already apply to Mexican migrants, who are transferred to their government's agents at the border.

Krikorian fears that allowing these families to stay will send a message to every crime-ravaged nation that “billions of their citizens” can enter the United States. That policy, he said, is as unsustainable as it is unpopular with the American people.

Carl Prine is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7826 or

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