Sara, 20, is a Mexican student in Des Moines, Washington, a half hour south of Seattle. She wears her hair in two braids, tucked under her black knit hat. White ear buds hang from her collar. She’s friendly, but far from talkative.
We meet in a small meeting room at Highline Community College, where she is taking a GED-prep class. She looks out the window as she recalls her first days in the U.S., at an immigration holding shelter in California.
“They call it la hielera” – freezer – “because it was too cold,” Sara recalls in a mix of English and Spanish.
“It was so awful. The same food all the time – burritos, juice. No fruit. No beds. No place to shower.”
Sara was 16 when she got caught illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. She was on her own, without a parent. (Sara is a pseudonym; her real name has been withheld at her request.)
That was in 2012, just as the wave of unaccompanied child migrants, like Sara, started to swell.
In fiscal year 2014, U.S. border agents apprehended a record number of more than 68,000 children who arrived alone on the southern border. The influx overwhelmed federal agencies and caused a small ripple effect in Seattle. It’s one of 20 cities with a foster care program for some of these border kids.
Of about 1,700 children in this foster program last year, 70 kids were placed in Washington. There is almost zero chance they’ll be reunited with their biological parents.
Most are young teens from Central America or Mexico. Some come to reunite with parents here. Many are running from poverty, gangs or violence in their hometowns.
Whatever Sara ran from, she doesn’t want to talk about it. Or the younger siblings she left behind.
When I ask if she worries about them, Sara pauses then lets out a heavy sigh.
“Yeah,” she whispers, gently nodding her head.
This border crisis kicked off a fierce debate about immigration policy and how to handle the tens of thousands of kids who have crossed the border into the U.S. in recent years.
‘Scaled Up And Ready’
Most unaccompanied children are placed with a relative in the U.S. while they wait for an immigration hearing to decide their fate. But Sara fell into a subset of kids who are unable to be reunited with a parent. With the help of an attorney, she petitioned for and obtained a special visa for minors who are abused, abandoned or neglected.
Minors in situations like this, or who seek asylum or other legal status in the U.S., are then placed in shelters or foster care.
“We've definitely had an increase in the number of children who are being referred to us who are needing placement,” says Molly Daggett, program director of the Refugee and Immigrant Children’s Program at Lutheran Community Services Northwest. The organization is part of the nationwide foster care program that found Sara a home near Seattle.
The program mirrors the state foster care system, but it’s specifically for children who come from refugee camps overseas, or who cross the border alone.
“For the children in their care, it feels no different really than an adoption,” Daggett says. “And that’s what we would want, for every child to feel that way.”
To achieve that bond, it often helps to match up foster families and children who share a cultural connection.
Lately, because of the border influx, Daggett says they need a lot more parents who speak Spanish. And who are willing to take in a teenager.
“We're scaled up and ready,” Daggett says. “We could have a much larger program if we had more families.”
These placements are often a race against the clock, since kids must enter foster care before they turn 18. After that, they’re considered adults and can be put in adult detention centers, deported, or released to fend for themselves in the community.
Not Just Another Kid
A big home on a quiet, suburban cul-de-sac near Seattle is a world away from where Sara spent her early years in Mexico. Sara is at home here now, as she walks in and hugs her foster mom, Mary, in the entryway. Two young kids run in from the living room, squealing hello to Sara.
The reserved Sara I first met on campus becomes playful and relaxed. She coaxes a little family dog out from under the dining table and chases him around the carpet with her younger sister.
“We were really excited having one member more in the family,” Mary says. She reminisces about how her then 4-year-old daughter painted a welcome sign before Sara arrived. This was their family’s first experience with foster care. (Mary is also a pseudonym to further protect Sara's identity.)
Sara says for the first time in her life, she’s part of a loving family. She calls them mom, dad, brother, sister.
A few months ago, Sara got married and moved out. She’s only a few miles away but Mary is having a tough time letting go.
“We’ve always been together, so it’s kind of hard,” Mary says, as tears start to roll down her cheeks. “She knows that I love her a lot.”
Sara walks across the room and slides in on the couch next to her mom, wrapping an arm across her shoulders. Mary says she never expected this type of connection.
“I thought it was just another kid,” she says. “It was a new experience, so I didn’t know how you fall in love with other kids. How you get in love with them, and you feel like it’s your kid.”
Now that Mary knows, she wants to open her home to more kids. She’s already cleaned out Sara’s old bedroom for a new foster daughter.