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Journey of faith: Catholic Charities works to reunite unaccompanied minors, families

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In 2016, Alejandro and Emeli Avalos set out from El Salvador to join their mom in the United States. She had left them with her mother and sister when Alejandro was 5 and Emeli was 4 to earn money for their education, but when they became teenagers, gang members tried to give Alejandro a phone to be a drug lookout; they took notice of Emeli as well. 

Alejandro knew their options were limited. “You can either die trying to find something better, or die there,” he said. 

For thousands of unaccompanied minors each year, making their way to the United States is “a journey of desperation — and a journey of love,” said Stephen Carattini, president and CEO of Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities, which works to reunite about 200 children with family members in the area each year. 

The agency was called after Alejandro and Emeli were taken into custody at the border and sent to a temporary shelter in Texas. When they said their mom was in Virginia, officials of Customs and Border Protection contacted Catholic Charities here.

When minors are apprehended at the border, typically an order of deportation is issued, said Carattini.

“If they say they cannot return home, they are allowed to petition for asylum and stay with relatives while waiting for their day in immigration court,” said Jessica Estrada, director of Newcomer Services at Catholic Charities. The agency’s role is “keeping them safe with their families” while they wait.  

“Children will only leave and travel on their own if there is a compelling reason,” she said. “It’s an extreme action, and children traveling on their own is a terrifying thing to think about.”

Once contacted, Catholic Charities does a thorough assessment of the family and the residence to ensure it is a safe environment, that the family can support the children financially and that they will be cared for in order to thrive, Estrada said. The agency helps with school enrollment and provides medical and legal services, as well as trauma and family counseling. Many of those services are available directly through Catholic Charities, which continues assessments for three months after the child is placed in a home. If children have been victims of human trafficking, assessments continue until they turn 18.

Alejandro and Emeli arrived at Dulles airport in February 2017 to reunite with their mom, Erlinda Barillas of Reston. Alejandro keeps a photo on his phone of the three of them hugging at the airport; Emeli says it was one of the happiest days of her life.

“I’m so proud of them. They’re very strong,” said Barillas.

Estrada notes that the young people the agency works with are “full of hope and faith when they embark on this journey, in hopes of reuniting with someone they haven’t seen in many years, trusting that God is going to take care of them. It is incredible bravery on the part of these families and children after such difficulties.”

Carattini agrees. “To facilitate that reunification is an honor and privilege. It is an incredible journey of faith for these families, and I am so grateful that we get to be a part of their journey in a positive way,” he said, citing Catholic social teaching’s mandate to “serve the poor, protect the vulnerable and welcome the migrant.”

With the recent reinstatement of the government’s Central American Minors program, Catholic Charities said it will reopen cases it was handling when the program was suspended in 2017. The program allows legal residents of the United States with minor children in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to apply to have their children join them here legally “so they don’t have to make this dangerous journey,” Estrada said. Catholic Charities will help them fill out the paperwork and facilitate travel. 

Today, Alejandro is 20 and Emeli is 19; both have learned English, graduated from high school and applied for permanent resident status. Both are attending Northern Virginia Community College, where Alejandro is studying computer science and Emeli is studying social science, with plans of becoming a police officer, social worker or counselor.

“I want to help people because people helped me,” she said. “I want to pay back what I get.” 

Find out more

Learn about Catholic Charities Migration and Refugee Services.

Families interested in applying for the Central American Minors program can contact Migration and Refugee Services at 571/364-8010.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021