Official: ETX organization could shelter border children if crisis worsens


POSTED: Tuesday, July 1, 2014 - 6:07pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 8:44am

Since October of 2013 the Federal Government reports more than 47,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the border into the United States. "A lot of agencies have been doing this sort of thing, just not in these numbers,” Nell Lawrence, the Executive Director of the U.S. Catholic Charities of East Texas – Tyler Diocese tells KETK news many organizations have helped provide resources and shelter for the thousands of unaccompanied children, their organization is one of them.

Lawrence describes the border situation as a “disaster” saying it a “tragedy on so many different levels.” Lawrence says, "A lot of the children have just been dropped off at bus stations, with no resources."

The U.S. Catholic Charities Organization is actively involved with providing shelter and resources for these children. The diocese of Dallas most recently took in approximately 2,000 unaccompanied minors.

Lawrence tells KETK News, currently no children are coming to East Texas because they don’t have the approved facilities or manpower to help, but that may change."There may come a time…if the flood of children doesn't subside that we may be approached and asked to participate." Right now the East Texas are working with FEMA and soliciting bi-lingual volunteer for other locations. "Yeah we may be using tax dollars, but what is the alternative?" Lawrence says.

While some East Texans blame the current administration. "What we have right now is a humanitarian crisis caused by our government,” Jim Harper from Tyler tells KETK. Others see the crisis from the eyes of the children. "We've got a tough issue on our hands, because no one wants to turn children away,” another East Texan says. But everyone is waiting for a solution, that right now hangs in the balance.
"There are no easy answers, and there are no easy solutions, I think we just have to deal with the situation we have in front of us,” Lawrence says.


Brief Overview:

Since October 2013, more than 47,000 Unaccompanied Children have crossed into the border of the United States, primarily from the countries of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Less than 1% of this population is from Nicaragua or other countries (ie: Cuba, Panama, etc). Unaccompanied Mexican children are also crossing the border, however, the Mexican immigrant population is handled separately by US Customs and Border Patrol and is not included as part of the current conversations relevant to the Unaccompanied Children Immigration Crisis. The US Customs and Border Patrol office estimates that more than 90,000 Unaccompanied Children will cross into the United States in 2014.

Current facilities, designed as detention centers for criminals, are not equipped to manage the influx of unaccompanied children. This was evident in the McAllen, Texas facility where myself and Sr. Norma Pimentel (Executive Director of Catholic Charities Rio Grand Valley) had the opportunity to tour. The McAllen TX US Customs and Border Patrol facility is housing 1,400 unaccompanied children, and mothers with children. The numbers do change daily. Within the facility there are currently 10 detention cells housing unaccompanied children and mothers with children. As many as 100 children are placed in one detention cell, while another 4 00 are kept on the floor in a garage facility and in the hallway. The conditions are very poor. Many detention cells have variant temperature controls – some are very cold, while others are very very hot with little air circulation. There are no cots. Unaccompanied Children and mothers with children are sleeping on concrete floors, including the garage. Many mothers are pregnant, some are at full term.

Like any jail cell, their bathroom facilities are in the same cell where they sleep. US Customs and Border Patrol indicates every person is receiving showers, meals, and medical care. They even state there is an area for them to play soccer and basketball. Unfortunately, this was not something we saw or heard. Instead, crying children and mothers with small children indicated they had been locked in the cell for as long as 9 days.

As of Tuesday, June 24, 2014, there were 4,700 children being housed in US Customs and Border Patrol Facilities in the State of Texas alone.

The US Customs and Border Patrol Process:

When discussing the Unaccompanied Children Immigration Crisis, we must also include the discussion on families migrating with children. Families are identified as Mothers with Child(ren) or Mother, Father and Child(ren.) The process for each is different as follows: (There is an underlying policy that no minor child under the age of 18 is deported to their country of origin.)

Current US immigration policies require that Unaccompanied Children, arriving with no parent or guardian, must be processed by US Customs and Border Patrol within 72 hours and released to the US Office of Refugee Resettlement for family reunification and/or a deportation hearing. The system is challenged because of the recent influx and it is taking up to 9 days for this to occur. Current Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities are at their maximum capacity and are unable to house additional children. If a child achieves his 18th birthday while in custody, the child is handcuffed the morning of his/her birthday and deported to his/her country of origin immediately. The US Office of Refugee Resettlement, across the country, has only 100 available beds at the moment. Work is being done at the federal level to open new Office of Refugee and Resettlement facilities as quickly as possible.

Mothers and Child(ren):
If a mother travels with small children, any child older than age 6 is separated from their mother and placed in a separate holding cell with other children of the same age. They are reunited only when the mother is released to a sponsoring family member in the United States. There is no explanation given to these small children as to why they are separated from their mother so many remain scared and unsure of what is going on, obviously too small to comprehend US Customs and Border Patrol regulations. Some are not even aware their mother is being held in a separate holding cell. If the child traveling with the mother turns 18 while in custody, the child is handcuffed on their 18th birthday and deported immediately. If the mother is able to connect with a family member in the United States to be a sponsor, the mother and children are released to the custody of that sponsor with paperwork indicating a deportation/immigration hearing. They are allowed to purchase a bus ticket and are released to travel to the final destination of their family member in the United States.

Fathers, Mothers, and Children:
If a family travels as a family unit of Father, Mother, and Child(ren), the Father is taken into custody at the border and sent back to the country of origin. The mother and child(ren) are processed as listed above. Many families have now become keen to this process. As a result we are seeing families with multiple children split up. Mother travels with half of the children and father takes the other half and travels separately. Since the US immigration policy does not deport a child, both mother and father meet up again at the final destination of the sponsoring family in the US.

The above processes are the cause of a lot of uncertainty for children and families migrating to the US. Many are not told, or don’t understand the US Customs and Border Patrol process. Family migration journeys are 7 to 21 days, and the agony of having a child taken from their mother is cause for a great deal of emotional stress.

Finally, there is a segment of this population of growing concern. Recently, there are as many as 15 children a week who are under the age of 3 years old that are simply abandoned at the border. Little children, who cannot express, or are not aware of what country they came from, are arriving at the border in their own grouping. There is a theory that coyotes are bringing small children to the border and are telling these small ones to follow the adult to the other side of the bridge. When they arrive at the other side of the bridge they are met by a US Customs and Border Patrol officer who takes them into custody.

Depending on the capacity of the facility, Families and children may be held at the US Customs and Border Patrol offices right at the bridge crossing until room is made available at the detention center, which too, can be several days.

The Work of Catholic Charities
Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grand Valley are working together in a number of areas:

Catholic Charities USA:
Catholic Charities USA views this as a man-made disaster and a humanitarian crisis. As such, Catholic Charities USA’s Disaster Response Operations division has been fully engaged in activities at both the National and local levels:

• Working with the US Government to locate vacant facilities within the US Catholic Church structure that may be transformed into a facility for use by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, thus allowing additional beds to house Unaccompanied Children and begin the family reunification process.
• Identifying a cadre of cadre of professionals (immigration lawyers, physicians, case workers, and licensed mental health counselors) that can work in Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities as they come online.
• Collaboration with other US Catholic Church organizations to identify and work towards key solutions to the crisis. These include: US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Migration and Refugee Services, Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Health Association, Leadership Counsel of Women Religious, and St. Vincent DePaul
• On the ground (Rio Grand Valley) and National meetings with key leadership to draw attention to current realities towards finding short and long term solutions (US Vice President Joe Biden, US State Department, Mexican Government, Consulates of Guatemala and El Salvador, First Lady of Honduras, US Secretary of Homeland Security, Texas State and Local Leaders, US Customs and Border Patrol leadership)
• Providing on-the-ground support and technical guidance to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grand Valley in their daily assistance to Families released from US Customs and Border Patrol to a US sponsor.

Catholic Charities Rio Grand Valley:
Catholic Charities of the Rio Grand Valley has been asked to assist the population of families that are released by US Customs and Border Patrol. Immigrant families have a bus ticket to a final destination and are sponsored by a family member in the United States. ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had previously been leaving families at the bus stop to fend for themselves. Immigrant families, unfamiliar with the process for purchasing bus tickets, were left vulnerable to kidnappings from drug cartels, gang members, and human trafficking. To this end, the city of McAllen Texas requested the assistance of Catholic Charities to provide guidance and support to travelling families.

On June 9th, Catholic Charities Rio Grand Valley opened a “Welcome Center” at Sacred Heart Church, located two blocks from the bus station. Traveling immigrant families are bussed by the city to the Catholic Charities facility where they receive the following services and care:

• Hot meals
• Medical Care and medications (Anyone with serious medical conditions is taken to the hospital for immediate treatment free of charge)
• Clothing for their journey (many arrive with tattered clothing and some children have no clothing)
• Shower Facilities
• Sheltering facilities for resting or if an overnight stay is required, we can shelter up to 100 in an air-conditioned tent with cots and blankets
• Crisis Counseling Child Care
• Legal guidance (offered by a local Immigration Law legal firm)
• Human Care and compassion (each family is accompanied by a volunteer to answer any questions or just to talk)
• Transportation and accompaniment returning to the bus station to ensure a safer journey

To date, the Catholic Charities facility has provided services to approximately 3,000 people. Catholic Charities receives an average of 200 people a day at the Welcome Center. Sheltering in the evening ranges from 5 individuals to 80 individuals who catch early morning buses. The facility operates with the assistance of approximately 200 volunteers daily. Wrap around services are completely supported by the city of McAllen Texas.

Catholic Charities Rio Grand Valley are opening similar facilities in Harlingen Texas and Brownsville Texas

In Summary:
Local officials in McAllen Texas indicate the influx of Unaccompanied Children and Migrating families will likely not decrease for an additional 9 months. Many families indicate the catalyst for their decision to migrate is rooted in local violence, gangs, drug cartels, and extreme poverty. They were aware of the dangers prior to their journey and found they had little choice to remain in their country of origin. Only a small percentage indicated their cause to migrate was due to (false) information they received that the United States has an asylum program. Everyone has a right to food, water, shelter, and safety and, as recently stated by Catholic Relief Services “everyone has a right to migrate, but everyone also has a right not to migrate.” Sr. Norma Pimentel has been very clear in her information to US Customs and Border Patrol, State and local authorities as follows:

• “In this humanitarian crisis, let us not forget that these migrants are human beings. They are children of God and must be treated with dignity and respect, care and compassion.”

• “While long term solutions must be addressed, immediate solutions cannot be overlooked. It is heartbreaking to see children in custody of the US Border Patrol kept locked up in great numbers; afraid and scared children without the space to lie down or rest properly and needed air to breath.”

• “No human person, especially a child, should endure inhuman conditions under any circumstances. “Acceptable” procedures need to be changed immediately.”


Bishop Mark Seitz, Bishop of El Paso Texas provided testimony to members of the US Congress addressing these 5 points:

• Address the issue of unaccompanied child migration as a humanitarian crisis requiring cooperation from all branches of the US government and appropriate the necessary funding to respond to the crisis in a holistic and child protection-focused manner;
• Adopt policies to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children receive appropriate child welfare services, legal assistance, and access to immigration protection where appropriate;
• Require that a best interest of the child standard be applied in immigration proceedings governing unaccompanied alien children;
• Examine root causes driving this forced migration situation, such as violence from non-state actors in countries of origin and a lack of citizen security and adequate child protection mechanisms; and
• Seek and support innovative home country and transit country solutions that would enable children to remain and develop safely in their home country.

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