Influx of undocumented kids stirs local debate

Border Patrol rescues an immigrant girl stranded on banks of Rio Grande.

As the issue of how to respond to a recent “surge” of undocumented immigrant children from Mexico and Central America continues to be an issue of hot debate between Congress and White House officials, thousands of immigrants continue to arrive in Texas from Mexico and Central America, in particular the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, fleeing violence and chasing amnesty.

Why are these children, many unaccompanied by adults, taking flight across our borders?

According to a recent report by the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) — Angelina Jolie and the Microsoft Corporation’s combined effort to protect and legally represent unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. immigration system — 60,000 or more unaccompanied children could enter the United States in 2014 to escape severe abuse, abandonment, exploitation, deep deprivation, forced marriage or female genital cutting. Others are trafficked to the United States for sexual or labor exploitation.

In response to the immigration crisis, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stated in the past week that they have been in communication with Central American leaders to discuss the issue, and that neither children nor anyone else arriving at the border now is eligible for federal programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program allowing certain undocumented youth to stay in the country.

The issue has directly affected Texas, with Texas Department of Public Safety statistics showing the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol has captured more than 160,000 illegal immigrants in the Rio Grande Valley this federal fiscal year, already surpassing last year’s fiscal year total of 154,483 with more than half of these individuals originating from countries other than Mexico. Of the individuals apprehended this year, 37,000 are unaccompanied alien children, a figure that also has already surpassed last year’s total.

“The staggering rise in the number of individuals crossing the U.S. border illegally represents a profound and major threat to the safety and security of our state and our country,” Gov. Rick Perry said. “The federal government needs to act decisively and quickly to end this influx, and ease this suffering.”

Amidst the political debate, Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas CEO Carol Fernandez said that the nonprofit isn’t taking sides in the issue, but is rather looking for ways to help these migrant children. Fernandez said between October 2013 and May 2014, there has been an influx of 47,000 children, ranging in age from infants to 17-year-olds.

“We’re concerned about the well-being of the children,” Fernandez said, “and we just want to make sure we can do what we can to make sure they are treated with great care, dignity and compassion.”

Fernandez said Catholic Charities spoke to FEMA regarding possible sites in Southeast Texas to temporarily house unaccompanied, undocumented children.

“FEMA has some guidelines in regards to physical space … because they are looking for places to shelter 200 to 300 children,” she said. “Not only does it need to be 40,000 square feet but it needs to be vacant. I spoke to Bishop Curtis Guillory to see if there were any properties that the Diocese had that met those criteria and that we could use.”

But there were none, Fernandez said. That’s when the nonprofit decided to approach Jefferson County for help. The decision came in a Catholic Charities board meeting.

“One of the board members suggested the Al Price (Juvenile Corrections) Center,” Fernandez said. “Because it was vacant and it had recently been returned to the county by the state, he just thought that might be a good place.”

Fernandez said Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick allowed Catholic Charities to tour the facility,  which was returned to the county by the state and is currently vacant.

“It just seemed like the ideal place,” she said. “It could shelter probably more than 300 children because there’s 14 different buildings and just acres of land.”

Fernandez said if given the opportunity, Catholic Charities USA and its network of agencies would supply the staff to operate the shelter. The Office of Migration and Refugee Services would also be involved, she said.

“We would certainly have a role in the oversight of the facility,” Fernandez said regarding Catholic Charities of Southeast Texas’ involvement.

Following the nonprofit meeting with Jefferson County, Branick said the Al Price Juvenile Corrections Center probably would not be an option for the purpose of housing migrant children due to the county’s prior plans for the facility. The county has two requests for proposal (RFP) to use the facility as a charter school.

“Prior to being approached last week (by Catholic Charities), the county had issued requests for proposals for individuals that would open a charter school to educate U.S. citizens,” Branick said. “RFP responses came back in last week and an evaluation committee is going to be looking at those responses.”

Fernandez said Branick told Catholic Charities the county would prefer a long-term commitment rather than short-term.

“The question is, does the timeline for proposals conflict with the timeline needed for the shelter,” she said. “If there is no conflict, then FEMA still has to send in their team to assess the facility to prepare it for the children.”

Branick said that Jefferson County could not commit the facility to FEMA for the time it needs.

“FEMA wants a 120-day commitment to use the facility,” he said. “We can’t commit to that because we plan on leasing it to a charter school that would start in September. Based on the previous proposals on this facility, I don’t even see the undocumented immigrants using the facility as being on the horizon.” 

Branick said the idea has also received substantial opposition from the community.

“I’ve received numerous calls from members of the public who do not want such housing to be in our county,” he said. “They believe the children could foster an outbreak of diseases that are currently under control in our country,  like tuberculosis.”

Other members of the community opined that undocumented immigrants should not be given aid at all, Branick said.

“Behavior that is rewarded is repeated,” Branick said the opposition declaimed. “They don’t believe that people who break the law should be rewarded by being housed in a country they came into illegally.”

Branick said he was unaware of any other possible facilities that might be considered to house the migrant children.

Fernandez was disappointed to hear Branick’s comments. She said while she understands the county honoring prior RFPs, she believes concerns about the immigrants spreading diseases are not valid.

“I would hate that the only reason (the county decides not to allow it) is because there have been some people who have called with those concerns,” she said. “The whole point of having a discussion now is to help address fears about diseases. The children receive medical care before they are released. They get all of their immunizations before they are released from the government to go to the emergency shelters. One of the things actually creating a bottleneck and overcrowding the border patrol facilities is that they cannot release the children at least 72 hours after they’ve received their immunizations. They can’t just move them to the shelter. They have to give them the immunizations.”

The Al Price facility is actually a perfectly suited facility to treat children who have contracted some kind of disease, Fernandez said.

“One of the beautiful things about the Al Price center is that there is an infirmary on the campus,” she said. “And there is an education building on the campus there. It’s not like the children would have to leave those grounds to go out to local doctors’ offices or hospitals. There is enough for them to be self-contained, so those people who don’t want to be around them don’t have to.”

Fernandez encourages those who are in favor of the county allowing FEMA to use the Al Price Juvenile Corrections Center to help the migrant children to contact Jefferson County.

“I have encouraged board members of Catholic Charities to … start making some calls of their own so that we have some positive voices contacting the judge and commissioners as well, so they can hear from people that are in favor and are wanting to help with the cause,” Fernandez said. “I do think that there are a number of people who are in favor of it, and they just need to have their voices heard as well. They need to contact Judge Branick and the commissioners. Judge Branick hasn’t called me yet, so I’m holding out hoping to hear positive response. I’m prayerful that it will work out.”

To let Jefferson County know where you stand on the issue, call (409) 835-8466.