On the front lines of care for undocumented children who cross the border

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. Border Patrol has apprehended nearly 63,000 unaccompanied children at the southwest border just this year.  Many of them are then relocated to various cities across the country, creating a growing need for health care and education.

Judy Woodruff recently visited a D.C.-based organization that is providing some of that support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: When Maria Gomez was 13 years old, she and her mother emigrated to the United States from Colombia, after her political activist father was murdered.  The two settled in Washington, D.C., where Gomez grew up in the midst of a burgeoning Latino community.

Seeing the difficult time many were having, in 1988, Gomez gave up her job as a nurse to open Mary's Center, a place for pregnant Latina women to receive free or low-cost prenatal care.  Many of these women had come to the U.S. to escape poverty and civil war in countries like El Salvador; 26 years later, a much expanded Mary's Center is on the front lines of providing an array of services to an influx of Central American families and children.

Already this year, nearly 6,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America have crossed the U.S. border and have been released to sponsors in Virginia, D.C., and Maryland.  Mary's Center alone has received more than 500 of the unaccompanied children just over the past few weeks, putting a serious strain on its resources.

Since its founding, the organization has grown enormously, in order to address the needs of children and adults who've received little or no formal education, and many of whom don't speak English.  Mary's Center now offers schooling and social services, in addition to medical care.

A few days ago, I visited one of Mary's Center's four locations in the Washington area and spoke with its president and founder, Maria Gomez.

Maria Gomez, thank you very much for talking with us.

MARIA GOMEZ, President, Mary's Center: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have run Mary's Center for over a quarter-of-a-century, since 1988.  You have seen families, children coming into the United States from Central America and other places.  What are you now seeing?  How is that incoming of people changing?

MARIA GOMEZ: Yes, the incoming that we see now is — it's almost the same, but really people were coming really fleeing a war back in 1988 from El Salvador.

Now people are fleeing the gang members who are basically doing pretty much the same, killing their families.  We have one child after another whose families have been killed, their brothers and sisters, their mothers, their fathers.

Yesterday, we were at a vigil and one of the children, one of the boys, a 16-year-old, both of his parents were killed right in front of him, and was threatened that if he didn't pay them whatever he earned from the rest of the family that was there that he would also be killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And these are not an occasional story.  You're hearing these regularly; is that right?

MARIA GOMEZ: Every kid that comes in has a story, whether it's their aunt, their grandmother, their father.  Many, many, many men, the fathers of many of these children have been killed because they refused to give them their daily payments that they earned.

And, sometimes, it's for nothing, at the maximum, $2, $3, $5 that these people are making a day anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How are most of them getting here?

MARIA GOMEZ: Well, what we're hearing from the families and the kids is that the parents or the family members over there sold pretty much everything they had, the little land they had, whatever they had, their cows, their sheep, whatever they had, to make sure that they could get enough money you know, $5,000.

So not only do they now have nothing back home, but now they owe money still to those people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also have young women, girls who are being raped, sexually abused on the way?


Many of them, unfortunately, because of the gang activities, particularly in Honduras, the individuals, these young women are being raped even back home.  And so they're fleeing.  There's a 50/50 chance that they will cross the border alive.  Then there is a chance for them to be living back home, because they're either — they either be submissive to the abuse or they will get killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But once they're in the United States there's a good chance they will be deported back to their home country.  What do they face if they go back?

MARIA GOMEZ: Death is really what they're facing, because once an individual becomes a wage-earner, they are threatened daily for their wages or they will be killed.

That's basically — that's the option they have at this point.  That is why, you know, many parents are taking the risk of actually sending kids as young as 9, 11 years of age across the north.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're dealing with families with children who've seen trauma.  What are you seeing and how do you deal with it?

MARIA GOMEZ: Some of them have gotten pregnant.

Some of them come to relatives.  What we're seeing when they come to relatives, they go through another trauma, because the relatives really can't afford to have them in their apartment.  They realize that they're sort of a nuisance, an extra.

Many of the kids come with the aspiration of coming to school, because they have never been to school.  Some of those kids have never been to school because it's too dangerous.  One girl was telling us that they actually killed one of her friends and left body parts on the way to give her the message that, if she went to school, that would happen to her, unless she became part of the gang group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does the money come from to take care of all this?

MARIA GOMEZ: So, right now, it's costing us over $800 to take care of these kids because they come…


MARIA GOMEZ: A person, every person, because — especially because we're not only taking care of the medical piece, but the mental health and the dental health.  And when you add all those things together, we can get bills as high as $1,300, $1,500 per person, when you start dealing with that.

But the basic health care right now is about $800 per person, because we are having to do special tests now for young kids as young as 9 years of age for sexually transmitted diseases, for HIV, that we wouldn't otherwise do that at that young, right?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you feel you're able to address the need?  Are you able to do what needs to be done?

MARIA GOMEZ: Yes.  Well, we have the staffing.  We have the staff to be able to do that, even if it means we extend hours.  We have the psychiatrists, the psychologists.  We have the medical staff to do that.  We have the capacity.

I think what's we're concerning now is that, right now, we're running — as of the end of July up to now, we are — we have racked up almost $400,000 worth of free care that we have given, because these individuals are not able to pay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The stories you tell that they tell are so powerful, and yet there are still people in the United States who say, we're very sympathetic, we wish it weren't this way, but we first have to pay attention to problems in our own country.  We can't receive people who are suffering from all around the world.

What do you say to those — to those people?

MARIA GOMEZ: Yes, I totally understand what they are saying, and — but I also know that this land has an opportunity we have — this is how we were created — to take people from all over the world.

And what I say to people who talk about the fact that we can't take on, and we have so many people that we have to still take care of, I often wonder, are we really taking care of the poorest and the most vulnerable in this country?

When we're given an opportunity, we, as Americans, always pay it back.  And that is, I think, what we need to look forward to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Maria Gomez, Mary's Center, we thank you very much for talking with us.

MARIA GOMEZ: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Hear more voices from the immigration debate. PBS NewsHour has invited an immigration judge, a border patrol officer, an immigration lawyer, an Arizona rancher and more to give a personal account from their front-seat view of the clash over the recent influx of migrants from Central America. Watch these conversations in the playlist below: