More than a decade ago I spent a day in a Guatemalan border town. I was reporting a story about migration out of Central America and I watched from a bridge as groups of people crowded onto flimsy rafts and inner tubes attempted to cross a muddy river into Mexico.
Twelve years later those rafts are just one of the ways that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America — mainly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are making their way to the United States. Many are fleeing violence and poverty, others are escaping abuse and neglect and some are seeking to reunite with family members.
This week photos have circulated from along the southern border showing horrifying scenes of children some younger than 10 years old in chain link cages and overcrowded cells. Once intercepted by Border Patrol these children are placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which works with agencies across the country to find more humane shelters.
The Seattle area has emerged as an important link in that system especially because we offer special — though increasingly strained — services to this vulnerable population.
“Seattle is unique in that it has almost all of the different kinds of facilities that ORR uses,” explains Elizabeth Dallam of Kids In Need Of Defense (KIND) whose Seattle office is working to provide legal aid to unaccompanied minors in our region.
She’s referring to shelters that specialize in caring for children who have experienced trauma, facilities that serve youth with behavior problems and long and short-term foster care programs.
In addition to housing, legal services are an important part of providing care for these kids, says Dallam. KIND is especially concerned with doing legal assessments of these minors — specifically determining if they could make any legitimate claims for refugee status or special visas for abused or trafficked children before they enter immigration processing and face potential deportation.
Edixon Velasquez, 22, says he doesn’t want to imagine how his life might have turned out if he’d been deported back to Honduras five years ago when he arrived as an unaccompanied minor in the United States.
“I would have just ended up on the street using drugs and all of that stuff,” says Velasquez, who says he rode on the crowded roofs of 17 different trains on his way to the U.S. border, in an attempt to escape poverty and drugs back home.
Once in the U.S. illegally he says he “was forced into some bad stuff,” arrested, and eventually granted a special visa for victims of human trafficking.
After hooking up with Lutheran Community Services (LCS) in Seattle—a nonprofit that provides long-term foster care to refugee youth, Velasquez is now studying mechanical engineering at Seattle Central Community College and working for a concrete company.
“We’re trying to gear up ourselves and recruit more foster families,” says Molly Dagget of LCS. She says they want to help find Seattle-area homes for Central American youth who may qualify to stay in the United States, but don’t have adult guardians here to care for them.
But in a country where immigration is one of the most divisive issues of our time, stories like Velasquez’s are as likely to inspire political debate as humanitarian concern.
“People [should] look past the rhetoric of lax enforcement and a porous border,” says Rich Stolz, Executive Director of OneAmerica, a Seattle-based immigrant rights advocacy organization. He describes an increasingly tense debate in D.C. among proponents and detractors of immigration reform over the root causes of the recent wave of unaccompanied minors.
But Stolz says these children should be considered refugees of gang and drug violence, not opportunists. A report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) confirmed that over half of the unaccompanied minors they interviewed would have viable claim to refugee protections under international law.
“These kids need to be taken care of,” says Stolz, “And it is our responsibility as a civilized nation to help do that.”
Thinking back to those rickety rafts and inner tubes, I hope we figure out how…and fast.