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Unaccompanied Minors Came To LA For Safety. Now They're Struggling For Peace Of Mind

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The U.S.-Mexico border fence crosses the desert at sunrise between Yuma, Arizona and Calexico, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

When Juana was 8 years old, her parents left their small Mayan village in Guatemala with the same dreams of many other Central Americans: to find a job in the U.S. But her mother and father went alone. Juana said she and her sisters were left behind with their abusive grandmother.

"Every time I was mistreated by my grandmother, I thought about my mother and father," said Juana, who asked that we not use her last name because she's in the U.S. illegally.

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As she become older, life became more dangerous. She said some women were raped and even killed by gang members. She remembers when a gang member targeted her.

"He threatened to kill me," Juana said. "I came here [Los Angeles] to save my life."

So at 17, Juana traveled 2,000 miles -- alone -- to find refuge in South L.A.


U.S. Border Patrol Apprehensions FY2018 YTD

The Trump administration is still working to reunite the last of the migrant parents and children who were forcefully separated in recent months at the U.S.-Mexico border. Mental health experts believe family separation and border trauma can lead to long-lasting mental health challenges, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression. But minors like Juana have been coming alone to the U.S. for years.

Organizations in the Los Angeles-area are tackling mental health challenges that these unaccompanied minors face by providing group therapy, private counseling and other mental health services.


When Juana reunited with her parents in L.A., she finally breathed a sigh of relief. She saw safety in the police cars and ambulances "all over the place."

"I see police and ambulances all over the place," she said. "If something happens a police will be there and I'm not scared," she said. "It's not like over there where I'm always having to check."

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But just because she felt safer her life became safer doesn't mean it became she felt better.

Juana said her energy levels were very low. She often felt sick. She couldn't shake the trauma that she experienced back home and would isolate herself from her parents and others.

"I thought it was going to be the same," she said. "That there were going to be gang members over here."

So she isolated herself. It was difficult for her to talk about what she experienced back in Guatemala to her family and even her immigration lawyer. She didn't want to talk.

And that made the process of seeking asylum difficult. That all made it more difficult for her to move forward as she started the process of seeking asylum. Applicants have to sit for a series of interviews with an immigration officer or a judge to recount trauma and threats they experienced in their home country.

Juana's immigration lawyer suggested she seek help at Amanecer, a community counseling center in downtown Los Angeles.

For eight months, she attended group therapy with other unaccompanied minors like herself and one-on-one sessions with a therapist. She said the counseling changed her life.

"My mental health to me is now more important," Juana said. "It felt like they gave me water and I started to bloom."

Now Juana is 21, she's about to become a mother and is still pushing ahead with her request for asylum.

"I got a lot of help with the therapy," she said.

"Thank god, I'm now here starting a new life."


Juana came to L.A. in 2015, when the flow of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was at a peak. She was one of 68,541 who entered the U.S. that year alone. While those numbers have significantly dropped since then, there are still many minors crossing the border to escape violence in their home countries.

Seventy-six percent of unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. in 2014 came from three Central American countries.

One of them is "Carlos" (he shared his story on the condition that we not use his real name because of his immigration status). He came to L.A. illegally about seven months ago from El Salvador.

Like Juana, Carlos escaped gang violence in his home country. He said when he was about 8 years old a gang killed his uncle.

"We didn't feel safe anymore" because the police didn't do anything, he said. Then when he was 16, the gang started pressuring him to join it. Carlos said he was threatened when he refused. That led to his decision, at age 17, to leave his family and go somewhere safe on his own.

Carlos made it as far as Mexico before he was caught and deported to El Salvador. Since 2014, it has been more and more common for Mexican officials to deport Central Americans crossing the border.

Carlos was determined to make it to the U.S. He said he tried again and eventually made it to Los Angeles, where he lives with a cousin.

"The only thing that has made me feel sad is that I'm so far from away from my parents," he said as he shuffled his keys from hand to another.

Like Juana, he feels safer in L.A., but his emotional state is fragile.

"My body gets all tense. Sometimes I don't know what to do," he said. "My head hurts so much. I feel like staying inside and not talking with anyone."

School is another source of tension. The high school Carlos attends put him in ninth grade when he arrived -- even though he graduated high school in El Salvador -- because he doesn't speak English.

And of course there's the constant threat of deportation.


Carlos hasn't formally started the process to get legal status, but on a recent evening he went to an event hosted by Esperanza Immigrants Rights Project to find out about his rights. Esperanza holds a weekly legal orientation for unaccompanied minors and their sponsors and relatives in a basement near downtown L.A. Attendees learn how to get to immigration court, how to sign up for school and how to get mental health care.

A retired therapist spoke to the group about identifying negative emotions like stress and anxiety and what it's like to talk to a professional counselor. He offered to connect them with a therapist or clinic near where they live.

Carlos hadn't considered going to therapy before, but during the evening he began to open up to the idea.

"I don't feel safe with myself," he said quietly as he jingled his keys in his hands again.

"I feel that therapy can help me."

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