KIND Staff Story of Coming to the United States through the Central American Minors Program

July 9, 2024

Laura blog CAMLaura Bautista, a paralegal for KIND’s national team, arrived in the United States in 2016 from El Salvador at age 21 through the Central American minors (CAM) program. CAM provides a pathway for eligible parents and legal guardians living in the United States to apply for their qualifying children in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to be considered for refugee status or humanitarian parole in the United States. (Learn more about KIND’s CAM program here.) Today, eight years later, Laura helps other children and young people from her home country of El Salvador and countries around the world find safety in the United States.

Laura’s mother had moved to the United State when Laura was one year old. Laura stayed behind in El Salvador with her grandmother. Two decades later, in 2014, her mom saw an advertisement for the CAM program on the news. She called Catholic Charities and began the process to bring Laura to the United States to be reunited. At that time, CAM was limited to parents with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). When her mom called her to tell her the news, Laura did not want to get too excited in case it didn’t work out. “I remember going for the interview at the U.S. embassy. I was very nervous and everyone there was very serious. They asked me a few questions and then I was denied. So, with CAM I didn’t want to get too excited. I was not optimistic.” But she began the process, sending her birth certificate, photos, and other documentation.

From the small town where she lived, she had to travel three hours to the capital city of San Salvador several times to do various tests and paperwork. “I remember having an interview with an officer in a little room. I was so proud of myself because the whole interview was conducted in English, and I understood everything and was able to express myself.” Her mom had sent her to private English classes since she was 12 years old. Every Saturday, she would travel one hour from her house to attend English classes from 8 am to 3 pm—even when she did not want to. This training came in handy during her CAM interview.

Soon after, she received the call that she had been accepted and would receive refugee status and be able to come to the United States to reunite with her mother and sister who were living in New York. After more medical appointments and paperwork, she was ready to go to the airport and to the United States. Everyone from her family including uncles and little cousins went to drop her off in San Salvador. “I remember crying and thinking, ‘is this really happening?’” as tears flowed down her face, a mixture of excitement and sadness.

Her mom and sister were waiting for her at the airport. Her mom was holding a big balloon and a teddy bear. Laura had not seen her mom in three years, and her sister for even longer. “Lots of hugs and crying,” she recalls. The initial adjustment was challenging. “What is this place? I thought. Everything is new.” Catholic Charities helped her resettle.

“Once my mom went back to work and my sister went back to school, the culture shock began,” Laura shared. “Ok what do I do now? What’s next?” She started working part time, attending an ESL program, making friends, and building a social life. The transition with family and culture was not easy. Laura had some difficulties at home, but she kept moving forward and eventually things got better.

A few months after arriving, Laura received an offer to work at Catholic Charities Immigrant & Refugee Services, first in an administrative role and then assisting with translation and interpretation. There she realized she wanted to work in immigration. “Exposed to all these stories and cases about children migrating and parents separated from their children, I started thinking deeply about immigration and family separation and knew that this is what I wanted to do.” Eventually she began working with the CAM program, helping parents fill out applications for their kids to come through CAM just like her mom had for her years earlier. She got to meet the next cohort of kids and one of them was a girl from her hometown in El Salvador. “I was so happy to see her.” Later, she worked at private law firms specializing in immigration, first in Long Island and then in Houston, Texas, where she decided to move to be closer to her brother and dad’s side of the family.

In 2021, Laura started as a paralegal at KIND’s Houston office. In August 2023, she joined KIND’s national team as a paralegal. About her experience at KIND, Laura said:

Working at KIND, you learn the stories of children. Hearing kids say difficult things they have never said out loud, hearing their hard stories…They are vulnerable, it’s scary for kids. You develop an emotional connection with the kids and the parents. It’s sad to see people from my own country, their stories are shocking. Often these children are fleeing violence. We come from the same place but two different realities.

What I love about KIND is that we are human: we focus on the human. It’s not just a case or form to fill out. We see the whole person, learn their story, and ask: how can we help this person? All children deserve the opportunity to be safe and live free and peaceful lives. We make kids feel seen as human beings and then we do the paperwork. We change people’s lives.

Laura is enjoying gaining more experience in immigration law and plans to become an immigration attorney in the near future—maybe even return to KIND as an attorney! When she left El Salvador at age 21, she was attending law school to become an attorney, so taking that step in the United States will complete a cycle.

“The CAM program was a life-changing opportunity,” Laura shared. “It made my dream of reuniting and building a life with my parents and my siblings possible. I am thankful for CAM every day because without it, I would not be where I am today, part of our wonderful team, changing lives every day. I wish for other children experience the same: having their dreams come true.”