For centuries, artists have taken to the canvas to create their version of the guardian angel, a larger-than-life figure that watches and protects. These celestial beings are often depicted hovering above with outstretched arms, with small children nearing the edge of a cliff or crossing an old bridge with rushing water below.
The paintings are symbolic of what is happening with Central American children who have fled the violence in their homeland and sought asylum in the U.S. Thousands of children have come across the border with no parents only to be placed in a courtroom to hear from people they don’t know in a language they don’t understand.
More than 3,000 children have been placed with families in the Los Angeles area in the past year, according to Susan Krehbiel, who works with refugee ministries for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. A majority of Central American children are able to reunite with a family member at least temporarily while going through the immigration court proceedings that will determine whether or not they can remain in the U.S.
Los Angeles is a major destination city for Central Americans seeking to find family or safety, sometimes both. Children appear at the hearings before an immigration judge, a government attorney, and an interpreter. Presbyterian Church leaders say the process is quick and often overwhelming for the children and the families involved.
“Sometimes court officials are trained in how to work with children, but not always. A judge may start out very child-friendly and then quickly get down to business, speaking in high legal terms,” says Krehbiel. “Children do not understand the implications of what they’re being asked and may not know they can ask for legal representation.”
Recognizing the difficulties the unaccompanied migrant children face, a group of churches organized a volunteer-based coalition to ensure that the children received a complete evaluation for political asylum. The Guardian Angels visit the immigration courts in bilingual teams to document whether the courts are respecting children’s rights.
“It not only sends a message to the children but also sends a message to the judge that there are people who care about what’s happening to these children and that they must be treated with dignity,” says Krehbiel. “It’s a personal way of engaging and supporting a systemic response.”
Rev. Heidi Worthen Gamble is mission catalyst with the Presbytery of the Pacific and serves as the point person for the Presbytery in this interfaith effort. Worthen Gamble helps organize training for volunteers in the program.
The volunteers, wearing their Guardian Angel T-shirts, offer care, prayer, and legal/medical referrals to children and families as they make their way through the legal red tape of immigration. Volunteer training is organized through the Southwest Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) in collaboration with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Presbytery of the Pacific, and the National Lawyers’ Guild.
“The children are terrified, confused, and bewildered when they walk into a courtroom, but seeing a Guardian Angel brings immediate comfort and hope,” say Worthen Gamble. “These children arrive with no understanding of the English language, in complete culture shock, with no capacity to understand how the American legal system works.”
Volunteers say eight out of ten children have no representation when they appear in court. Host families are just as confused and afraid of the entire hearing process, with no access to legal services.
“It’s absurd that we bring these children to court the way we do,” says Worthen Gamble. “However, there has not been one deportation ordered when a guardian angel was with a child. The judges realize we are holding them accountable.”
Both Krehbiel and Worthen Gamble agree that the biggest challenge facing the children is the lack of attorneys. It’s not just free legal service they need, but attorneys who can represent them for the long term.
“A study of court outcomes shows children are ten times more likely to be deported if they do not have an attorney than those who are represented,” says Krehbiel.
“We cannot underestimate the power of being present for these children in the name of Jesus,” says Worthen Gamble. “Our presence is a tremendous comfort to the children and families. It’s an opportunity for the church to be a powerful witness and live into what we’re called to be as a church.”
The Guardian Angels project has announced its commitment to double its volunteer force to be present every day a Central American child is in immigration court in Los Angeles.