Children flee violence in home countries, seek asylum at Oakland school

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At first blush, Leonardo Lima looks and acts like most Bay Area teenagers.

On a recent weekday, the senior hung out at his locker chatting with friends dressed in a royal blue jogging suit, an iPhone in his pocket, his bushy hair piled high on his head. He busied himself at a computer during a film class where talk of prom was in the air.

But the 19-year-old has lived far from a typical teenage life.

Lima escaped gangs and violence in El Salvador and spent a month trekking across Guatemala, Mexico and then Texas with a dozen other boys before finally landing at Oakland International High School four years ago. He is considered an unaccompanied minor, since he fled his homeland without his parents -- a legal category of student that has skyrocketed 183 percent at the Oakland Unified School District since his arrival. Oakland Unified has the second highest number of unaccompanied minors in California, behind Los Angeles Unified, according to district data. This year, there are about 650 unaccompanied minors out of about 2,800 newly arrived immigrants.

Lima does not take any of this lightly.

“I remember in Mexico I had to walk for like two weeks,” he said. “We didn’t have food or water. There was a time when I couldn’t walk anymore.”

These concepts are hard for his American-born peers to grasp.

“They don’t know how hard it is,” Lima said. “Some of them, a lot of them, don’t appreciate what they have.”

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The majority of students, teachers and administrators alike, at least in the Bay Area, say the socioeconomic commitment to those like Lima is even more important now, as the Trump administration seeks to clamp down on illegal immigration and make it more difficult for those seeking asylum to enter the United States. Within the last two years, California in general, and Oakland Unified in particular, have established themselves as sanctuary jurisdictions, meaning they work hard to resist ICE deportation efforts.

“In the Trump era, our work is just as important as it has always been,” said Lauren Markam, Oakland International’s community school program manager. “Our mission and work has not changed. However, we do believe that offering a safe, supportive, positive environment for newcomer students to learn, grow and set roots in this country is all the more important now, when immigrants are being weaponized and used as pawns for political gain.”

Oakland International has the oldest and most comprehensive newly arrived immigrant program in the state of California, according to the nonprofit Internationals Network based in New York. Over the last 12 years, with the influx of more immigrants, Oakland Unified now also offers about a dozen smaller newcomer programs at other campuses.

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In the last five years, the profile of the typical newcomer has changed, from Mexican children who fled their country with their parents to Central American boys fleeing alone.  In Lima’s case, he has since been reunited with his parents and some of his siblings in Oakland. His entire family is hopeful their requests for asylum will be granted

Students like Lima often are far behind educationally when they arrive in the United States. The teen didn’t go to school  between the ages of 6 and 14. He said he would have gotten killed if he went to class, crossing gang turf. “I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school,” he said, adding that he worked in the fields for most of his childhood. “My parents didn’t want me to live there with all that violence.”

“I didn’t know any English,” he said of his skill level roughly four years ago. “I didn’t learn very much in my country.”  

Benita Lorenzo, 18, was in a similar situation two years ago when she came to Oakland with her brother, 24, and sister, 17, after their mother died in Guatemala. But after three years, she now has her green card and is hoping one day to graduate and be a pediatrician. “It’s good here,” she said, a shy smile lighting up her face.

It costs more to educate newly arrived immigrants because of the extra services they require. On average, the district spends about $15,000 per student. The district then spends an additional $2.1 million on newly arrived immigrants, which, except for $300,000, is paid for with grant money, according to district spokesman John Sasaki. The expenditures, he said, are well worth it.

“OUSD is a sanctuary district, inside a sanctuary city, inside a sanctuary state," Sasaki said. "And so we are very focused on making sure that the young people who come here, no matter where they came from, no matter how they got here succeed in our world."

Sasaki added: “For any critic out there who says, ‘Why are you paying additional money for these people?’ Well, what happens if we don’t support these people?”

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The salary of Jizabel Navarrete, the school’s newcomer counselor, comes from money granted by Salesforce of San Francisco, which has donated $50 million to Bay Area schools since 2013.

Navarrete sees about eight students a day in her small office, punctuated with a string of  calming white lights, who talk to her about everything from rape to homework. Many of her students have often suffered unspeakable trauma in their home countries, had an arduous trip to the United States and may live in unstable conditions in the Bay Area. They worry about money, their shaky legal status and learning a foreign language they must learn to speak.

“We know that if they’re not OK mentally and they’re not OK socially and emotionally, it’s going to be really hard for them to be OK academically,” she said. “We should be providing more money for these students. We should be providing all the services that they need to succeed. They come to this country to have a better lives for themselves and for their families. They deserve that.”

Today, Lima feels as though he’s deserving of a better future.

He has nearly perfected his conversational English, he’s working as a busboy after school. And while he was far behind academically when he came to Oakland, he plans to graduate high school in April. After that, he wants to study mechanical engineering at Laney College.

And even though his life is now free of violence, Lima can’t forget where he’s from or what he’s been through.

“Sometimes I get sad because we know where we come from and we start thinking about what we left behind and start thinking about the kids that are right there,” he said. “I feel sad about that I think this high school is a place where I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity.”