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Love and Loathing in North Texas Amid Child Refugee Crisis

A Dallas judge and area charities are striving to house and provide social services to thousands of refugee children.

A group of 22 migrants, mostly women and children from Honduras and Guatemala, in custody just after crossing the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas, on June 18, 2014.

The ultimate outcome of the Obama administration’s request for more than $3.7 billion in emergency supplemental funding to address a recent influx of tens of thousands of unaccompanied, undocumented Central American refugee children crossing the southern border daily to escape increased violence and poverty rests with Congress, but it’s clear action is necessary.

Senate Democrats remain split on the issue of expediting the deportation process for thousands of refugee children, who, under a 2008 human trafficking law signed by former President Bush, are entitled to full due-process rights and consideration for asylum. House Republicans are seeking to tie any increase in funding to changes in the 2008 law that would speed up the deportation process. The White House has also sought to water down the due process protections provided under the human-trafficking law in recent days.

Additional funding is sorely needed to provide humanitarian relief in the form of social services, humane housing and legal representation for thousands of unaccompanied children currently suffering through overcrowded, inhumane conditions at migrant jails at the border. (Since October, more than 52,000 unaccompanied children and families fleeing mainly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been detained by border agents, and federal agents predict that between 60,000 and 90,000 refugee children will travel to the United States just this year.)

However, if Obama’s supplemental spending request is passed, much of that funding would be dedicated to increased border security measures designed to greet many migrants who are already willingly giving themselves up to border agents when they enter the country.

The part of the president’s plan focusing on giving more authority to the Department of Homeland Security to fast-track deportations of unaccompanied children who may not be eligible to remain in the United States has drawn the attention of refugee advocates, who say this part of the proposal could violate due process rights and international law.

While Senate Democrats continue to debate the issue, deportations for some of these children have already begun. On Monday, July 14, the United States deported a small group of Honduran children, in the very first flight since President Obama has promised action on the issue.

As federal officials continue to move on the issue, Texas state officials and lawmakers are also moving, mirroring federal plans for expedited deportations with their own proposals at the state level. Texas Sen. John Cornyn is planning to file a bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo), to hasten deportations of refugee children and rewrite the 2008 Bush law governing unaccompanied children arriving from non-contiguous countries.

Other local leaders in Texas are taking matters into their own hands by passing reactionary policies amid the refugee crisis. The city council of League, Texas, passed a resolution early this month outright banning all undocumented children from entering city limits. Militia groups are also calling on members to take up arms to “secure the border.”

At a meeting with President Obama earlier this month, Gov. Rick Perry proposed plans for the further militarization of the southern border, calling for National Guard troops and an increased number of Border Patrol agents and Predator drones to patrol border airspace.

But Dallas-area faith leaders and one Dallas County judge who attended the meeting with the president have different ideas for how to greet the children.

Love: North Texas Leaders Push for Housing

As protests over so-called amnesty for refugee children are planned in many North Texas cities including Dallas, Fort Worth, Arlington, Corinth, Plano and Waco in the coming weeks, other leaders and community organizers in North Texas are taking a different approach: humanitarian aid.

Judge Jenkins, who was elected in 2010 and is a Democrat, is spearheading an effort in Dallas County to provide temporary housing for up to 2,000 unaccompanied children who are expected to arrive in North Texas in the coming weeks.

Three local buildings have been identified as humanitarian shelters: The D.A. Hulcy Middle School in Dallas, the Lamar Alternative Education Center in Grand Prairie and a warehouse owned by the Parkland Health and Hospital System in Dallas. Federal officials are in the process of inspecting the buildings in preparation for renovation, which is expected to begin soon. The facilities are expected to remain open for at least 120 days once renovated, with most children staying an average of about 35 days while pending an immigration hearing.

The shelters will stand in stark contrast to the overcrowded and inhumane conditions many Central American children are suffering while detained at migrant jails near the southern border. Social services will be offered to the children, including legal assistance and education.

Jenkins began pushing for the plan shortly after visiting one of the migrant jails at the border where he saw hundreds of children living cramped together in squalid conditions. After knocking on doors in the neighborhood adjacent to the D.A. Hulcy Middle School, he told Truthout he received overwhelming support for his plan from the neighboring community.

“I knocked on every door, … and every person supported helping these children and wanted to know how they can help,” Jenkins told Truthout. “I’m very proud of the response. I can’t even return all the calls from faith groups and people trying to help.”

Since Jenkins met with Governor Perry and the president, generating a flurry of media appearances and talking about his proposal, faith leaders and residents in cities and counties as far away as Houston and Arizona have since reached out to him wanting to replicate his plan. Jenkins has also reached out to the National Association of County Officials to offer his support in helping county leaders set up temporary housing in their communities.

Faith groups are also providing support for Jenkins’ plan in a big way. The Catholic Charities of Dallas has teamed up with Jenkins to provide legal support for the children once they are sheltered, with case workers going into the three facilities to provide legal orientations and assessments for the children and determine if they can be reunited with any family members in the U.S., according to Vanna Slaughter who is director of Catholic Charities’s Immigration and Legal Services.

If the children are reunited with family members, Slaughter says Catholic Charities’s legal services staffers — some of whom were part of the faith contingent which met with Governor Perry and the president earlier this month — will be in touch with the families and agencies in their cities to provide legal assistance for their inevitable immigration hearing. Jenkins and Catholic Charities are working together organize and provide additional volunteer and pro bono attorneys, reaching out to the Dallas Bar Association and other Dallas-area legal organizations to help represent some of the children in immigration court.

Jenkins described his meeting with Governor Perry and President Obama as solutions-oriented, but marked by brief periods of tension.

“If we just focus on this as human beings, and see these children as children, not as ‘alien’ or ‘others,’ then we can come to a solution. That’s why [the meeting] wasn’t much more tense than people thought it would be,” Jenkins told Truthout.

However brief any contention may have been, it reflects the larger conflict in the state between those responding to the refugee crisis with compassion and humanitarian aid and those protesting refugees’ right to seek asylum by pushing for rapid deportation.

Jenkins supports President Obama’s plan to deal with the border crisis and called on House Republicans to approve his supplemental appropriations bill.

“I think we can all agree that when children are here; they’re children made in the image of God like your children and my children. They need our help, and we need to help them. There’s no reason why the Texas delegation can’t stand up in a bipartisan fashion, lead this country and pass that appropriation next week and give the federal government the tools that they need to end this humanitarian crisis,” Jenkins said.

He expressed concerns about House Republicans who want to see additional funding only for increased security measures at the border.

“This is baffling to me, but many Republicans in Congress say, … ‘We only need the $1.6 billion to put troops on the border,’ and I just would ask that they all go down and look at the overcrowded and terrifying conditions that these children … are in holding cells that are with nine adults, six adults, with 25 to 30 children in it, and they have to go to the bathroom in front of all of their cellmates,” he said.

While President Obama’s push for changes to existing immigration law and plans for due process under the appropriations bill have come under fire from migrant children’s advocates, Jenkins expressed confidence in the president’s plan. He told Truthout the president spent about 10 minutes discussing due process issues under his emergency spending bill. He indicated in the meeting, according to Jenkins, that children who are sent back to Central America would be sent into a “safe and acceptable situation.”

“I am satisfied after talking with high-level people at the White House that once the supplemental appropriations bill is finalized, not the original, not the first draft, but the one that will be finalized, that that’s not occurring,” Jenkins said.

But while Judge Jenkins remains convinced that due process for child refugees will be ensured, many others — including social workers at non-governmental refugee organizations and even his own allies at Dallas-area charities — are expressing doubts about the changes the White House and House Republicans are seeking to existing immigration law in regard to due process for refugees from non-contiguous countries.

Loathing: Due Process Problems

Slaughter, who directs the Catholic Charities’s immigration and Legal Services, expressed doubt that the amount of money dedicated to the administrative costs of immigration court under President Obama’s appropriations bill would actually help in a significant way. She told Truthout that much more money should be allocated to hiring judges and attorneys to adequately handle these cases.

“The amount of money for the immigration judges, given this enormous, enormous new work load that they are going to have to face, I can’t see that it will be making the big difference that it needs to make because I don’t think that $45 million … is going to make a dent in what the work load will look like,” she told Truthout. That’s why [Catholic Charities] is organizing volunteer and pro bono lawyers to the extent that it can, she says.

The legal process for some of the children Catholic Charities is already assisting in the Dallas area is a lengthy one. Children are meant to be moved from a migrant jail to a temporary shelter within 72 hours, but in most cases, children are staying in the holding cells much longer. Once they are released to a shelter, the children undergo health screenings, vaccinations and case workers step in to ascertain if they can be reunited with a family member, who must go through a background check and sign a contract before leaving with the child.

Slaughter said Catholic Charities legal services has released about 1,000 children to family members in the Dallas area and is actively providing legal assistance to about 392 of them.

The family member or guardian must agree to take the child to her or his immigration court hearing, as well as to school. With the amount of cases stacking up in the North Texas area, it’s typical that the children will wait for three to six months for a hearing. In many of these cases, the children do not have any representation whatsoever. In those cases, family members or guardians must agree to answer the immigration judge’s questions.

A judge may then determine if the child is eligible for asylum and various forms of legal relief, or the judge may decide to deport the child. Slaughter concurred with many refugee advocates that streamlining this legal process in any way would be very damaging to ensuring real and thorough due process rights.

“You have to really spend time. You have to get their stories. It’s a very laborious process. You just can’t sit down with them in five minutes and make that determination,” she said, referring to making a determination of asylum.

She wants to see the due process rights guaranteed under the 2008 human-trafficking law kept intact. “We are going to be very watchful and weigh in when those discussions come about because we just can’t roll that back,” she said.

Refugee policy and legal experts seem to mostly agree with Slaughter’s assessment, and believe President Obama’s funding request largely misses the point by emphasizing harsh deterrence and increased security measures rather than providing much-needed funding for humanitarian aid and addressing the root causes of the current influx.

According to Leslie Vélez, a senior protection officer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) office in Washington, D.C., the UNHCR has conducted interviews with hundreds of the children fleeing Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and determined that more than 60 percent of the children have legitimate claims to asylum and international protections.

During a press call, Michelle Brané, who is director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Programs at the Women’s Refugee Commission, praised certain aspects of President Obama’s appropriations bill, such as the funding allocated to the Department of Health and Human Services, while criticizing funding allocated to detention, removal and deterrence measures.

“We’re concerned that the administration has emphasized the use of detention as a deterrent, and [President Obama] has made very clear the intention to open new family detention facilities with the intention and objective of deterring them from coming to the United States,” Brané said. “While there are many aspects of the president’s request that are indeed necessary, the emphasis on detention as a deterrent is very problematic.”

Brané, along with other refugee policy experts on the call, pointed to alternatives to detention, such as case management and community support for refugees.

Love: North Texans Provide Foster Care

In addition to their efforts to house refugee children and assist in providing legal services, Catholic Charities are also involved in facilitating international foster care programs.

According to staffers at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, whose caseloads include unaccompanied refugee children, most of whom are between the ages of 15 and 17, with cases involving young children referred to Catholic Charities only when the younger child is paired with an older sibling. The children referred to the program qualify for legal relief and are eligible because they have fled from violence in their home countries and can’t be reunited with family members in the United States.

Foster parents receive a reimbursement of $40 a day as well as support from Catholic Charities in the form of counseling services. Foster parents are discouraged from adopting their foster children in many cases because of the complexities of the legal issues involved with immigration court. Most children remain in the foster care program until they’re 18 and can continue to receive assistance and resources from Catholic Charities until they’re 21.

An informational session for potential foster care parents held at Catholic Charities headquarters in Fort Worth this month was flooded with more than 200 attendees from the North Texas area who expressed interest in caring for unaccompanied refugee children. Staffers handed out every single application they had for the foster care program during the session.

Amber and Wes Bernard, a married couple from Roanoke, attended the session after seeing accounts of the ongoing refugee child crisis in the news. They said they were planning to fill out their application to become foster parents.

“We got the second-to-last application. They ran out super fast,” Amber Bernard told Truthout. “Whether or not you’re for or against the children coming here the way that they came, we’re at a point now where they’re here, and they’re children, and they need to be taken care of.”

Loathing: Border Security Takes Precedence

State officials such as Governor Perry will continue to push as hard as they can for a National Guard presence and additional Border Patrol agents at the southern border.

While Judge Jenkins is moving forward with his proposal for housing, he said he wasn’t opposed to increased border security measures, only to the strain that sending National Guardsmen to the southern border would put on Guard families.

“Nobody is philosophically opposed to putting eyes in the sky. Nobody’s philosophically opposed to Guard troops. I’m opposed from a military-family perspective of doing the federal government’s job on a long-term basis,” Jenkins told Truthout.

Catholic Charities’s Slaughter, however, does not agree that additional security measures will stop refugees from trying to come back to the United States again.

“When you’re living in the deplorable, heinous, difficult, dangerous circumstances that these people are living in, they’re going to try everything they can to get here, to get out of that. It’s just human nature,” she said. “I am not hopeful that added enforcement is going to make that big of a difference, and I think we’re deluding ourselves. We need to do something that treats the root causes of this.”

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