Last week, people around the world watched twin girls running from tear gas at the U.S. border. They became, at least for one news cycle, the face of immigrant children, but they are not the only children suffering from U.S. immigration enforcement. Almost six million U.S. citizen children live in fear that an immigrant parent will be picked up by ICE and deported. Thousands of children remain in immigration detention centers in the United States. Some wait for court hearings, others for placement with a family member—and many wait for months and months. .
The tent city in Tornillo, Texas is the largest juvenile immigration jail, holding about 2,300 young immigrants, and building capacity to hold even more. They have no school, little contact with the outside, and no one on the inside is allowed to talk about what goes on in the tent city jail.
No one can get in to see the children either. Residents of the small town of Tornillo tried, early on, bringing toys and watermelon. The guards at the gate turned them away.
Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services, known locally as DMRS, is authorized to give legal advice to the children, but their contract with the federal government says they cannot say anything about what goes on in the tent city jail. If they speak out, they risk leaving the children with no legal representation at all.
Texas state Rep. Mary González went to immigration court in mid-October to observe:
“The kids walk in, they’re asked their name and age, they’re told how important this hearing is,” she recalled. “They’re told, ‘We advise you to get a lawyer.’ ”
“González said there was an attorney from Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services present – but only to give advice as a “friend of the court,” not to represent the children. Instead, she said, they were given a list of pro bono legal resources – in English only – which includes DMRS and five other groups, one of which won’t take clients who are in detention.
“It was clear, González said, that children weren’t getting the help they needed. Most were making their first court appearance and asked the judge for later court dates to prepare their asylum claims.
“One of the minors was a 12-year-old boy from Guatemala, González said. It was his fourth court hearing, but the first in which he had access to a translator who spoke his indigenous language. Rather than seek asylum, she said, the boy agreed to be sent back to Guatemala.”
Thousands of other migrant children are held in “shelters” run by Southwest Key, the largest agency providing “shelter” services for migrant children. A New York Times report revealed huge profits raked in byf the non-profit agency.
“Mr. Sanchez has built an empire on the back of a crisis. His organization, Southwest Key Programs, now houses more migrant children than any other in the nation. Casting himself as a social-justice warrior, he calls himself El Presidente, a title inscribed outside his office and on the government contracts that helped make him rich.
“Southwest Key has collected $1.7 billion in federal grants in the past decade, including $626 million in the past year alone. But as it has grown, tripling its revenue in three years, the organization has left a record of sloppy management and possible financial improprieties, according to dozens of interviews and an examination of documents. It has stockpiled tens of millions of taxpayer dollars with little government oversight and possibly engaged in self-dealing with top executives….
“Though Southwest Key is, on paper, a charity, no one has benefited more than Mr. Sanchez, now 71. Serving as chief executive, he was paid $1.5 million last year — more than twice what his counterpart at the far larger American Red Cross made.”
Meanwhlle, migrant children continue to flee violence. Teen Vogue told the stories of seven young people in the migrant caravan in a photo essay. The Washington Post followed three young mothers of toddlers as they tried to escape the squalid conditions of the refugee camp in Tijuana and cross the border to what they hoped would be safety in the United States.
“When it was her turn to slip through the border fence, Cindy Romero dropped her son’s stuffed panda on the ground and looked through the barbed wire, toward the distant lights of San Diego.
“A few feet away, the Pacific Ocean crashed into the metal pylons that divide the United States from Mexico. Romero, 24, and her son, Jason, 2, were small enough to fit between them. So were the two other women, each with her own toddler, who huddled next to them….
“Let’s go,” Romero said.”
They didn’t make it.
Ruben Rosario interviewed a former immigration judge, Susan Castro, and recorded her dismay at the current immigration policies.
Immigration judges cry. We cry. We can leave the court and go cry and go back and carry on – Susan Castro.
Like many folks, Susan Castro has seen news coverage of the caravan of Central American migrants amassing at the U.S. Mexico border, the rock throwing, and the decision to use tear gas to disperse mobs trying to cross the border.
“I can’t believe this is America,” the widowed mother of two from Oakdale shared during a recent chat.
“I really can’t,” she added. “Other countries deal with influxes of people fleeing their own country. They set up refugee camps, the United Nations works with them. The camps may not be the best places but it’s a way to get organized and process. I don’t know why we don’t have that.”
That’s a question we should all be asking.