It's Not Neglect, It's Survival: Ex-Undocumented Child

San Diego woman recalls being left at an Arizona fast-food restaurant when she was 5 years old with her 3-year-old sister

San Diego resident Alejandra Ceja-Aguilar knows more than most what it’s been like for the undocumented immigrant children and mothers from Central America.

When she was five years old, she and her family escaped the cartel violence and drug activity in Michoacán, Mexico. Her family made it to a Burger King in Nogales, Arizona. Then her parents left her and her sister.

“I was told, 'You stay here, and you watch your sister.' I'm five years old, and my little sister is three,” Ceja told NBC 7.

“Some people may look back and say that was neglect on behalf of my parents. It's called survival. It's what you do to save your family,” she said.

Sponsors helped reunite her family, Ceja said.

They also helped her through the process of becoming a U.S. citizen in 2000. She went on to earn a Master's degree in counseling and currently works with families caring for disabled or chronically ill adults.

Her experiences, Ceja said, have given her a sense of what today's undocumented immigrant children are going through.

Hundreds of undocumented children are set to arrive in San Diego in the coming weeks as the federal government grapples with a flood of Central American children fleeing into the U.S.

More than 52,000 unaccompanied children who crossed the Texas-Mexico border have been detained since October, in what President Barack Obama has called a humanitarian crisis.

Ceja was heartbroken to watch Tuesday's protest in Murrieta, where demonstrators blocked buses carrying undocumented immigrants on their way to a processing center.

“I’ve had so many opportunities. And to see that there are these children who we’re not even acknowledging as people, we’re just saying to take them out...,” she said. “I just go back and think, I wasn't a headache. I was a person. I was just 5 years old.”

They are the reasons why she’s planning to open up her home to the undocumented immigrant children and families being transported to Southern California from Texas.

“I know these kids are afraid, and they’re looking for home, and home is where Mom and Dad are,” she said.

Ceja said she has applied to be a foster parent and is preparing to receive a family as early as Friday from the group of undocumented immigrants who arrived in San Diego this week.

Getting approved as a foster family will be necessary for those people who want to help the unaccompanied minors, according to Pedro Rios with American Friends Service Committee.

Many local non-profits are taking a cautious approach and coming up with a plan on how to best help these immigrants, Rios said.

Although it’s great families want to open their doors, he said they need to consider some important things. “As simple as a hot warm shower is something to consider. Consider whether the children need to be enrolled in school,” Rios said.

Rios said that if the children are unaccompanied and you offer to house them, it’s essentially a foster care situation, and host families will need to take classes and agree to a background check.

“No one taking in a child should be on a public benefits. there needs to be income coming in from at least one person in that family,” he said.

Although the situation is complex, Ceja said for her, the decision is simple.

“I want to help those families. I want to help those children and let them know that we care, and I get it,” she said.

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