Working from the Heart
Santuario del Corazón provides wide-ranging services to immigrant families and children
By José Gonzalez
In today’s times, we are facing a significant humanitarian crisis exploding close to home.
Resources for underserved and immigrant populations become scarcer and the needs even greater, as New Mexico becomes a safe state for Central America asylum seekers, Afghan refugees and soon, Ukrainian refugees.
Many of us may remember the unsettling media images of “children in cages” during numerous peak periods of immigrant exodus from Mexico and Central America into the United States. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, immigration authorities reported that upwards of 150,000 unaccompanied minors were encountered at or near the U.S./Mexico border in fiscal year 2021, an all-time high. About 76% of unaccompanied children placed in federal care were 15 years of age or older, though authorities also detained infants and toddlers. Under U.S. law, “unaccompanied immigrant children” are defined as migrants under the age of 18 with no lawful status in the United States and who have no parent or legal guardian available to care for them. Many factors can impact the reasons an unaccompanied child arrives in the U.S. Impetus to leave one’s home can include unimaginable poverty, the pandemic, and casualties due to the never-ending war among drug cartels.
Back in 2019, when the family-separation crisis began reaching extreme numbers along the Borderland, Las Cumbres Community Services initiated its Santuario del Corazón Program (The Heart Sanctuary). Since then, Santuario del Corazón (SDC) has become a nationally recognized program serving hundreds of immigrant children and their families every year in Northern New Mexico (Santa Fe, Bernalillo, Rio Arriba, Taos and Los Alamos counties.)
SDC has grown over the past three years to provide a specialized, evidence-based array of wraparound services for immigrants from Central America and other regions in crisis, combining behavioral health and case management to provide crisis intervention, support with traumatic separation, risk assessment and long-term mental health treatment. Family navigation services are available to address housing and food security, transportation, health care access, translation and interpretation services, legal aid, child care, vocational and educational assistance, and more, for both children and their family members.
For children settling into their Northern New Mexico community, the adjustment period can be extremely challenging. They must be given time to acculturate, and special services for meeting new educational standards. Beyond performance support in school, SDC provides immigrant students with ongoing resettlement assistance to help them integrate into their new communities and establish a safe social environment in school and at home, while preserving their culture.
Las Cumbres’ SDC team has found innovative ways to provide more comprehensive and multidisciplinary services to clients by also integrating legal services into their work. Through a cross-agency partnership with New Mexico Immigrant Law Center and other legal providers, the program has been able to give immigrant families, youth and children hope, resilience and a chance to thrive and succeed in abysmal circumstances.
Despite the support offered in northern communities, being undocumented often means the loss of one’s identity and culture. An immigrant carries an extensive set of experiences and potential psychological trauma as a result of leaving their country of origin and birth. Most immigrants have been exposed to violence and demonstrate a high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and depressive disorders. The motivation behind their northern journey, as indicated above, can range from domestic violence, political persecution, gang violence, religious reasons, poverty and lack of employment opportunities where they lived. This is particularly true for women and children who face an increased risk of gender-based violence, abuse and human trafficking.
Unfortunately, upon arrival in the U.S., success is not guaranteed, due to socioeconomic advancement limitations, political climate, exploitation, discrimination and lack of employment opportunities for non-citizens. In order to help families reestablish themselves here, secure their new lives, and create brighter futures for their children and loved ones, SDC helps them set goals to overcome obstacles, seeking to encourage motivation and willingness to persevere.
These families wish to continue to succeed without giving up hope. Here is but one success story.
This 25-year-old woman arrived at the U.S. border with her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son in June of 2021. She made the decision to begin the risky journey from Guatemala to the Mexico/U.S. border after experiencing panic attacks as a result of death threats from her former partner, who demanded the custody of her children in order to avoid paying his court-assigned child support. SDC was able to assist the mother with enrollment in the Santa Fe Community College GED Program, which brought back her taste for studying as well as to become an inspiration for her children, as her father was for her as a doctor in Central America.
“I feel proud that I am making the right decisions,” she explained. “My children have a mother who loves and fights for them every day and will teach them not to remain on the floor but rather to get up despite the adversities.”
The SDC program plays a significant role in ensuring that families are able to reach their objectives and have access to basic social needs, emotional support, economic integration, educational access and, most importantly, ability to build a strong foundation for success. Program methods involve a system-care approach to minimize language barriers, increase community collaboration, and provide encouragement as well as advocacy. Children and families are assessed for cultural stressors and social marginalization that could affect the wellbeing of the family unit.
SDC will continue to build bridges and collective movements to raise awareness across diverse communities and reshape the framework of what it truly means to be an immigrant in the U.S. and specifically northern New Mexico. The ultimate goal is to help families succeed and to present the human faces of this population, connecting these faces to the experiences and stories these individuals hold and continue to face.
For those who are able to help, SDC welcomes monetary donations and the support of dedicated volunteers. The program provides emergency funds to directly assist client families with the expense of school supplies, assistance with rent or utilities, food and clothing. You can make a donation to the Santuario del Corazon program here. Supporting families with transportation costs and lodging as they make the journey to Texas for court hearings regarding asylum and other legal status decisions, in addition to providing general operating support is key to sustaining the program. An agency-wide Safety and Stability Flex Fund provides financial assistance to parents and caregivers when no other community support is available, for as-needed expenses such as car seats, cribs, housing and utility bills. Finally, if you wish to volunteer for SDC or any of Las Cumbres’ programs, please use our online form, or contact Ericka Coriz at (505) 412-8869.
José Gonzalez is the program manager for Santuario del Corazón.