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For immigrants, legal advice, English class and hope

Jermin Laviera, an energetic woman with a bright and generous smile, works on the first floor of the Esperanza Center in Southeast Baltimore, which gives her a street-level perspective on the immigrant crisis emanating hundreds of miles away in Central America. Just about every day, undocumented immigrants — parents with children, children without parents — walk through Esperanza's front door on South Broadway.

They all need help, and they all have stories — often ugly ones.

Two weeks ago, Laviera says, there was a woman from El Salvador with two sons. She and her boys made the passage across the U.S. border with Mexico, but along the way the woman had been gang-raped. "She tells me nine men raped her," Laviera says, shaking her head. "She wants to bring her two girls here from El Salvador, but not now — she's afraid they might be raped on the way, too."

There was another woman from El Salvador, also with two boys, ages 13 and 15. The woman told Laviera she came to the U.S. to get her sons away from a gang. Gang members force boys to give up even the modest things they own — a new T-shirt or pair of sneakers.

"One little boy was on his way to church," the woman told Laviera, "and the gang asked the little boy for his shirt. And they shoot him, kill him, right in front of the church, in front of the [other] boys." So the woman fled with her sons; they ended up, as so many Latino immigrants have for years, at the Esperanza Center in Fells Point.

Esperanza means "hope." The program dates back more than 50 years, to the time of the original Hispanic Apostolate under Cardinal Lawrence Sheehan, then archbishop of Baltimore. It has been operated since the early 1980s by Catholic Charities, providing language and legal services to thousands of immigrants.

While right-wing politicians and other xenophobic loudmouths grandstand on the immigrant crisis and exploit it for political gain, people like Laviera, employed by faith-based organizations and other nonprofits across the nation, quietly respond to the immediate human emergency. The influx of immigrants has increased workloads for Esperanza's staff and created waiting lists for services.

Managers of the Esperanza Center were well aware of the crisis in Central America long before it became fodder for the TV talking heads.

Valerie Twanmoh, the center's director, and Adonia Simpson, managing attorney, say unaccompanied minors have always landed at the Esperanza Center. But the numbers have been increasing for at least 18 months, due largely to violence in El Salvador as well as Guatemala and Honduras.

Sometimes, a child with no family walks in the front door. But, more often, children who cross the border and end up at Esperanza have a parent or other relative here, Twanmoh and Simpson say.

By then, the immigration process is already underway. The children are detained in Texas or Arizona, their cases assessed, a parent or guardian identified and located. Esperanza provides fingerprinting for background checks of prospective sponsors of the children.

A lot of this work was being done at a federal building in Montgomery County, Simpson says, but that center could not handle all of the new cases. That has meant more work for Esperanza's limited legal staff on the third floor — and for Jermin Laviera and others who work on the first.

Laviera, a native of Venezuela, was once a client of the Esperanza Center. Her husband brought her there on their wedding day 27 years ago. Within hours of getting married, she was enrolled in an English class.

Later, she volunteered to help other immigrants who came in off the street. That turned into a part-time job and eventually a full-time position in client services.

"I tell all the parents who bring their children here they must go to school," Laviera insists. "'We help you with immigration, help you learn English, but the children must go to school.'"

She feels strongly about this because of the stories she hears. A 17-year-old girl from Honduras had had only two years of education — not because her parents were irresponsible, Laviera says, but because her parents were afraid to allow their daughter to leave the house.

Other Esperanza families reported having withdrawn their children from schools because they needed the tuition to pay "renta," the extortionate practice of criminal gangs, such as MS-13, that threaten violence unless they get money, even from families of meager means.

In case you're among the caring:

Laviera needs notebooks and other supplies for children who are being enrolled in local schools.

Simpson needs a few good lawyers willing to work pro bono on any of 50 immigration cases created by the surge across the border.

And there's another need. "Many of the people we see here are survivors of trauma," Simpson says grimly. They need psychological counseling, and such services offered in the Hispanic community by Johns Hopkins Hospital and Kennedy Krieger Institute are already filled to capacity.

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