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Mendota Leaders Prepare For ‘Increase’ In Central American Unaccompanied Minors

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Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee
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A car drives past a welcome sign on the southern border of Mendota.

Marvin Cornejo left the small village of Azacualpa, El Salvador at just 16 years old. When he first arrived in Mendota as an unaccompanied minor five years ago, he was surprised to learn it wasn’t much different from his hometown. He had imagined the city would have skyscrapers like Los Angeles, but it was surrounded by fields.

“I got to Mendota and I was like, ‘it’s not that bad,’” he says. “You would go to the store and speak Spanish and they wouldn't look [at you] weird; they're going to talk to you in Spanish.”  

His goal was to reunite with his father in Mendota, population 11,500. The city is surrounded by agricultural fields and is often known as the cantaloupe center of the world. 

"2016 I came here, got a job in the fields with my dad,” he says. “He knew somebody and I was just working.”  

For years, there’s been a strong connection between Central America and Mendota.

Nearly half of the city’s residents were born in Mexico and Central America. Its main street has several Salvadoran-owned small businesses.  

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Credit Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee
A mural with farmworkers picking cantaloupes appears on the side wall of the Westside Youth center on 7th Street in Mendota.

Now, five years after Cornejo arrived in Mendota, local leaders and advocates are expecting many more Central American youth to be released from federal detention centers to parents or close relatives in the city.

“There seems to be a surge right now,” says lawyer Katherine Krassilnikoff with Kids in Need of Defense, the only organization in Fresno County that provides free legal services to youth under 18 who were in detention facilities. “And it kind of ebbs and flows.  We expect in the next couple of months for that really to increase.”

She says many of the unaccompanied minors are fleeing violence in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

“Almost every single child that we meet with has had some interaction with gang members, or the cartel, where they're trying to recruit them to join the gang,” she says.  

The number of unaccompanied minors in Fresno County jumped from 75 to 112 last month, according to data from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Krassilnikoff says it’s  unclear how many of those kids settled in Mendota but, “we've always had really high numbers in Mendota and that’s because the root causes of migration are not going away. They’re only being amplified.” 

Mendota school district supports minors

Like many Latin American teenagers in Mendota, Cornejo planned to continue working to help provide for his family back home. But under California law, all minors must attend school until they’re 18 years old. And because Cornejo was seeking asylum, he started Mendota High School as a junior. He says he enjoyed learning, participating in sports and sharing his progress with his father. 

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Credit Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee
Marvin Cornejo came from El Salvador to the United States when he was 16 years old and eventually arrived in Mendota. Now he is attending Fresno State and working toward a chemistry degree.

“A lot of it was me, showing my dad,‘Hey look I got an A,’ like, ‘hey, look, I'm passing the class,’” Cornejo says. 

This past year, as a record number of unaccompanied minors arrived at the southern border, Mendota Unified School District officials said 14 enrolled in local schools. That number is consistent with previous years. But Manuel Bautista, director of instructional services for the district, suspects many more recently arrived youth opted out of online learning. 

“We probably had a lot of 16- or 17-year-old kids that came in but in their mind, there's no school, so they just started working,” he says. “The challenge is, are we going to get them again?”

Now, with students expected to return to in-person learning in the fall and with more unaccompanied minors being released from detention centers, Bautista says the district is preparing to welcome them. 

“Our goal is to integrate them into core classrooms, to integrate them into all of our different activities and all of our different opportunities, but understanding that they also need some extra support,” he says. 

Thanks to a California Department of Social Services grant, the school district now has a counselor dedicated to helping the migrant youth. That counselor has reached out to local nonprofits like Centro La Familia and Westside Youth to provide more support to these minors and their families. 

Dino Perez, executive director of Westside Youth, says he tries to show unaccompanied minors that there’s more opportunities than just working in the fields. The nonprofit also provides food, clothing and a recreational space for youth in the city. 

“We understand that it’s difficult to make ends meet,” he says. “But trying to work with the counselor locally to show them that there’s more than just work, with other opportunities and advancements while you're here.” 

And through another grant from the California Department of Social Services, Centro La Familia is supporting 15 unaccompanied minors with a pilot program, “Opportunities For Youth.” 

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Credit Craig Kohlruss/The Fresno Bee
A Salvadoran-themed baby onesie, center, is displayed outside the Recuerdos de Mi Pais (Memories of My Country) shop in Mendota.

“We are hoping that through a holistic way we're able to link them to the services that they most need, such as medical, education, and food supplies,” says Yadira Sanchez, who oversees the program.  

Unaccompanied minors in Mendota face challenges

Despite those efforts, Mayor Rolando Castro says he has concerns that there won’t be enough housing or agricultural jobs for new residents, especially in the current drought.   

“Will there be anything for them?” he asks. “And if they don't find jobs what do you do? The town is small, there's not much options and there's not a job.”

But the mayor says the school district is better-prepared to support migrant youth. 

“They're very used to it,” he says. “This is not nothing new, they would start to get them educated, teach them English, and go from there.”

Cornejo acknowledged that youth like him face a lot of challenges adapting to life in Mendota. He says that’s why he volunteers to mentor newly arrived minors; he wants them to know they can do more than working in the fields.

For each individual, Cornejo has a message. 

“It’s going to be really hard. Please don’t give up,” he says. “There’s a quote from Martin Luther King, that says, ‘If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk and if you can't walk, crawl.” 

It’s something Cornejo reminds himself of often. He was granted asylum and is now pursuing  a degree in chemistry at Fresno State with the goal of one day becoming a family doctor. 

Meanwhile, local leaders continue to prepare for the arrival of more unaccompanied minors. 

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

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