Children caught up in an Unresponsive Laws

Stepping through the door of this nondescript building which houses young immigrant children awaiting their court dates, I am struck by its diametrically different feel. Whereas the purpose of adult detention centers (euphemistically called “processing centers”) is to keep those inside from getting out, the intent of these children’s homes is to protect children and keep people from getting in. Some of these children are government informants against human traffickers, and others owe thousands of dollars to smugglers who exploited them and their families. Additionally, these children are the most vulnerable people within our borders today – it is good to see the government realize that and do their best to ensure their safety.

Only 5 children were present at the Lutheran Social Services (LSS) children’s home when we arrived at 10:00. These children were going through picture dictionaries, the staff offering them one-on-one assistance as they try to teach some basic literacy during their short stays (averaging 36 days). The other children were on a tour of the Immigration Court in the El Paso Federal Building downtown. LSS makes it a point to introduce the kids to the court room and Judge Hough, so they’re not terrified when they are called to respond to the government’s pleadings against them.

Most of these 5-12 year-old kids leave LSS after 36 days, usually because they are reunified with some family or sponsor. Some are deported prior to that, however. All these kids are placed in temporary foster homes, where they are welcomed into loving Spanish-speaking homes. The foster parents even go so far as to stop serving the traditional Chihuahua fare of tortillas de harina for corn tortillas.

Even after kids are reunified, however, they can still be deported. It is hard to think of children like this being sent back to Guatemala or El Salvador. It is even harder to think of them coming up by themselves, with an aunt, with a younger brother.

LSS does a good job by these kids, and they are excitedly awaiting the time in a few weeks when they can finally move into a bigger facility. There are no signs on the outside of this small building, but they do manage to evaluate children’s academic levels and send progress reports home. The children don’t seem to mind the cramped quarters at all. When we say Adios to the children at LSS, all of us wish them this in its truest sense.

Since children were banned from being detained with adults and their care was transferred from DHS (which contains ICE, the department which has enthusiastically raided workplaces, patrolled streets, and hunted immigrants down the last few years) to human services, these children’s care has improved tremendously. Rather than the drab walls of a prison cell, they are allowed to decorate the walls with their schoolwork and drawings. Instead of waiting impatiently, educational services have been provided to these children so that their detainment time isn’t totally wasted.

After visiting LSS on Friday, Sister Phyllis then took us to Canutillo to visit the Southwest Key children’s home there. This facility got its name because it attempts to be a key in the Southwest to a better life for immigrant children. The Canutillo establishment is much bigger, with capacity for 94, and their children are from 13-17. One of the saddest days in the home is an 18th birthday; on that day, the child is transferred from this warm welcoming environment to the adult detention center down the road.

Since Reno v. Flores established some basic guidelines for the detainment of children (such as their right not just to liberty but also custody), facilities like Southwest Keys have risen to the challenge to nurture the lives of these children for as long as they’re in the United States. The site offers English literacy and math classes, but it also offers some highly-popular vocational classes. I have never seen a cake decorated as nice as the penguin cake the kids decorated just last month, and the murals on every wall in the building showcase that these kids have true talent.

Additionally, this facility has on-site counselors and social workers, to ensure that all their needs are met. Some children come in with chemical dependency, or horror stories from their home country or their long journey north. The staff was incredible at welcoming the children and helping them begin to heal. Looking at them, I am reminded of my own high-school students. Only a paper distinguishes these kids from any others.

Louie, the executive director, finished our tour by reminding us that with the increased militarization of the US border policy, along with the violence of the escalating drug wars in Latin America, more and more kids are stranded in Juarez without access to such facilities as LSS and Southwest Keys. My heart goes out, realizing that a half-mile away kids are wandering the streets wondering about their family back home (if they have any) and hoping for a new life just on the other side of the river. I pray they may find a home somewhere.

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