PLEASANT HILL -- The shelters that house child migrants fleeing their violent homelands are so hidden that it took a long time before Jim Lorenz realized he saw one every day, across a wood fence and a row of Italian cypress trees.

"They just look like normal kids," said Lorenz, pastor of the Pleasant Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church. "You would hardly know they were there, it's that low key of a presence."

Few of its suburban neighbors take notice of the unmarked 30-bed youth shelter where Central American teenagers sleep in bunk beds and learn English in brightly decorated common rooms. A half-hour north, the boys who mingle in the courtyard of a Fairfield group home are invisible to outsiders, except when they take chaperoned outings to a soccer field.

Alma Cardenas, right, holds a candle during a candlelight vigil after the inter-faith prayer session for the refugee children at the US-Mexico border
Alma Cardenas, right, holds a candle during a candlelight vigil after the inter-faith prayer session for the refugee children at the US-Mexico border outside the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, July 10, 2014. (Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)

But the secrecy is shifting to curiosity, sympathy, anger and fierce political debate as President Barack Obama asks Congress for $3.7 billion to respond to a humanitarian crisis, one affecting Bay Area schools and straining San Francisco's immigration court. More than 57,000 unaccompanied children since October left their homes in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, traveled through Mexico and crossed the southwest U.S. border, looking for refuge.

They are following the footsteps of children who came before, but their rising numbers -- more than 300 arriving monthly to the Bay Area alone -- have overwhelmed the system built to protect them.

"People are starting to feel it in the Bay Area," said Lisa Frydman, managing attorney for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at UC Hastings School of Law.

Bracing for an influx

The number of Honduran immigrant children attending San Francisco schools more than doubled in the past year. Dozens of newly arrived Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Honduran students also enrolled in Oakland schools in recent months. More are expected in the fall. Both cities have large Central American communities the children are joining.

Organizations from San Jose to Richmond are gearing up to help, though where the children are landing is not always clear.

For years, border agents have caught Central American children smuggled into the country as they sought to escape from gang warfare, cartel recruitment or poverty, or simply tried to reunite with long-lost relatives in the United States. Unlike Mexican children turned back at the border, Central American children get a chance in court to seek asylum or other protection. They are placed in the custody of federal health authorities, who send some to shelters and release many more, at least temporarily, to the care of family members.

"Most are placed with relatives. Some are placed with family friends or people that they don't really know. Those are the ones we're most concerned about," said Nate Dunstan, who works with refugee and asylee students at the Oakland Unified School District. "A lot of kids have experienced trauma getting here."

Shelter patchwork

Other children haven't appeared in local schools because federal officials send them to shelters, including sites in Pleasant Hill and Fairfield, or more secure facilities such as a juvenile detention center north of Davis.

They live there for a month, sometimes as long as a year, as immigration judges decide if they have good reason to stay permanently or must be deported.

"The children we serve in these facilities, like the one in Fairfield, are generally very grateful," said Krista Piferrer of BCFS Health and Human Services, a Texas-based Baptist organization that runs the Fairfield shelter. "They're well-behaved and happy to be in a safe place."

The agency that manages and funds the shelters -- the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement -- has banned visits by reporters and most others, citing the safety and privacy of the children.

But public understanding of how the group homes are run and the children are treated could be increasingly important as the Obama administration seeks $3.7 billion -- about half of it to care for the migrants and expand the patchwork of shelters housing them, and the rest to stem their tide and send many back.

Who monitors care?

Public records obtained by this newspaper offer a glimpse of how the existing homes are run and what happens when state regulators suspect problems.

California regulators from the Department of Social Services fought to close the Fairfield facility in 2010, arguing that the shelter's practices of reading mail, monitoring phone calls and hindering movement violated state laws protecting the rights and privacy of children in group homes.

The home took the case to court, arguing it was merely following the rules imposed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. A judge allowed the facility to stay open, letting it work around some of the rules California youth shelters must follow.

The Pleasant Hill facility, run by another Texas group, Southwest Key Program, passed its most recent state inspection in February. It has been touted as a model facility, fielding VIP visits from high-ranking federal officials and Sweden's Princess Madeleine. But its record is not spotless.

The state dinged the shelter in 2011 for abandoning a child inside a van and in 2009 for several safety violations, including medicine left too accessible to children.In 2008, a girl accused an employee of kissing her. Staff members adamantly denied that it happened, and state investigators deemed the case "inconclusive" and closed it for lack of evidence.

Painful memories

For some Bay Area immigrants, the nightly TV news scenes of packed border facilities jog painful memories of their own flight to the United States.

"I went through this exact same situation 10 years ago," said Mirna Henriquez, who was 15 when an aunt sent her traveling 1,400 miles alone with her brother Danilo, 6, on a harrowing trip from El Salvador to Texas.

"I still can't explain how terrifying it was," said Henriquez, a student at San Jose State University. "I had an awful lot of fear on the road -- fear that someone would hurt, kill or take my little brother."

Like many children today, the siblings were put into a detention center near the border, finger-printed, photographed and registered. But when an immigration court allowed them to stay, they rejoined their mother, who had come to the country two years earlier.

"That kept me going," Henriquez said. "I kept thinking, over and over, 'I'm going to see my mama.'"

Staff writers David E. Early and Theresa Harrington contributed to this report.