Planning March 2015

Immigrants Welcome?

Making a place for undocumented immigrant children.

By Rene Romo

When it comes to immigrants seeking refuge in the U.S., burdens, like beauty, appear to be in the eye of the beholder. In the spring and summer of 2014, the nation's attention was captured by an unprecedented influx of young undocumented immigrants — "unaccompanied alien children," in the parlance of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That wave has subsided, though the influx continues.

The number of unaccompanied children apprehended along the Southwest border ranged from between 15,000 and 20,000 for three years; then, the number jumped to 24,120 in fiscal 2012 and 38,045 in fiscal 2013, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. In fiscal 2014, which ended September 30, the volume of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the border, mostly in the lower Rio Grande Valley near McAllen, Texas, had spiked to more than 67,000 — more than double the total just two years before — and was labeled a "humanitarian crisis" by President Barack Obama.

Three-fourths of the children came from the strife-torn Central American countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Due to a 2008 federal law concerned with human trafficking, children from Central American countries, unlike minors from Mexico and Canada, must receive a full court hearing to determine their eligibility for asylum, so housing the children became an immediate challenge.

In addition, the number of individuals in a family group, usually a mother traveling with children, apprehended along the Southwest border surged to 68,445 last fiscal year, nearly five times the previous year's number.

These Honduran and Guatemalan women and children were detained near McAllen, Texas, last June

Where will they go?

What to do with all these children who, under federal law, are entitled to certain protections to ensure they are not immediately returned to dangerous conditions in their home country? And where to house not only those children but the families that are also sweeping across the border?

Answering those questions is not simply a matter of locating available space to convert into housing. Because immigration reform is such a divisive issue in the U.S., it is not surprising that some communities resisted the prospect of hosting undocumented immigrants, children or not, while others were more accommodating. A key factor in deciding where to shelter foreign children was the community's willingness to do so, several observers said.

"My sense is this isn't about social service agencies being overrun or people running out of money to provide services," says Claudia Isaac, associate professor in the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. "It seems to be much more about the idea of a threat, that children will put a strain on social networks. In some cases, the response is very generous: 'Yes, there's a strain, let's get more resources.' In other cases, it's a reaction of hostility."

Last June, as the wave of unaccompanied minors crossing the border was cresting — more than 10,600 arrived in the U.S. in that month alone — an estimated 1,000 Brunswick County, Virginia, residents packed a high school auditorium in Lawrenceville. During a three-hour-long public meeting, they voiced their fears and complaints to federal officials about a recently disclosed plan to convert part of the shuttered St. Paul's College campus into shelter for up to 500 immigrant or refugee children.

One man said he was concerned about exposure to "foreign diseases." A woman, captured on footage posted on, said that children, indoctrinated into gang life "get to rape and kill and steal and take whatever they want. I mean, they are just beyond ever being healed to their original state. ... They are dangerous." Another man, who identified himself as a Marine veteran, told officials that the way the housing lease was developed between the government and the college, with little community input, was "an atrocity."

The next day, according to a federal housing discrimination complaint, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services abandoned the plan.

Open arms

Meanwhile, in San Benito, Texas, which has a population of 24,300 and is largely Hispanic, the surge of unaccompanied children barely caused a ripple, says Martha McClain, the city's public affairs coordinator. "Honestly, we haven't felt much of an impact from it."

The town was already home to two shelters, operated by Southwest Key, which runs 13 shelters for unaccompanied immigrant children across Texas. In June Southwest Key received state permission to add another 114 beds to the two facilities, bringing the total combined capacity in San Benito up to 474 spaces. Were there any local protests? "Not at all," McClain says.

The national divide over illegal immigration was illustrated by a publicity-seeking convoy traveling from California to south Texas last summer in protest of the human surge. After reportedly receiving threats, the convoy, organized by the editor of a conservative news site, abandoned plans for an August rally in El Paso, Texas. El Paso is located in a county that is 80 percent Hispanic. Residents in the region, where many families have close personal or economic ties to Ciudad Juarez just across the Rio Grande, had extended hands to the immigrant families.

According to Ruben Garcia, executive director of Annunciation House, an immigrant shelter in El Paso, Homeland Security routed more than 2,500 undocumented families through El Paso and Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Catholic Charities and volunteers provided aid and assistance connecting immigrants with relatives in the U.S. No municipal or state resources were involved, and there were no public protests against immigrants. Instead, a local human rights group organized a protest against the Obama administration's effort to beef up its enforcement and deportation capability.

"Just the general idea of immigrants coming to the city is something that doesn't even register with us, quite frankly," says Carlos Gallinar, AICP, the city's deputy planning director. "El Paso has always been an immigrant community, so the influx of immigrants is a story that we've all lived with."

2015 apprehensions of immigrant children and families

Along the border

The presence of millions of undocumented immigrants, mainly Hispanic, and related concerns about the porousness of the Southwest border have been sources of debate for 15 years. That is the backdrop to the varied reactions to the recent influx of unaccompanied children.

Border Patrol apprehensions along the Southwest border hit an all-time high of more than 1.6 million people in 2000. How many undocumented immigrants manage to avoid apprehension by the Border Patrol is unclear, but a November 2014 estimate by the Pew Hispanic Center places the total undocumented population of the U.S. at 11.2 million.

In response to widespread complaints about the porous border, particularly in Arizona, where traffic was heaviest, and concerns about national security following the 2001 terrorist attacks, Border Patrol staffing along the Southwest border skyrocketed from 8,600 in 2000 to 18,600 by the end of 2013. There are now more than 600 miles of fences and vehicle barriers along the 2,000-mile Southwest border, and the Border Patrol employs nearly 13,000 ground surveillance systems and nine unmanned aircraft systems. Apprehensions along the Southwest border dropped to 414,000 in 2013, a quarter of their 2000 level.

But Congress has moved no closer to a package of comprehensive immigration reforms. Senate legislation in 2013 that would have provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. was never voted on in the House. A measure aimed at providing a path to legal status for immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children was killed in the Senate in 2010.

The question of how to handle child immigrants has been a particular concern of immigrant advocates. In 2012 President Obama issued an executive order launching a new program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which temporarily shields from deportation anyone brought to the U.S. when they were under the age of 16 and arrived before January 2010.

Last November, the president issued another executive order initiating a plan, Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, that allows undocumented adults who have resided in the U.S. since before 2010 and now have children born here to apply for administrative relief from deportation and a work visa. But neither measure provides those immigrants legal status, and both measures can be repealed by the next administration.

Sensitive issue

The arrival of children without parents or guardians presents an especially sensitive issue, both for politicians and ordinary Americans. No one, least of all politicians, wants to appear callous or unresponsive to the needs of children. In his testimony to the House Judiciary Committee last June, Bishop Mark Seitz, head of the Diocese of El Paso, noted that child protection is particularly important to the Catholic Church and reminded his audience that "one of Jesus' first experiences as an infant was to flee for his life from King Herod with his family to Egypt." Seitz led a delegation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in November 2013 to study the causes behind the child migration wave.

The 2013 USCCB delegation concluded that several factors, including a lack of economic and educational opportunities, along with the desire to reconnect with family in the U.S., partly fueled the migratory wave. But the biggest factor cited was violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador and the breakdown of the rule of law.

Fleeing children and adults are subjected to threats, extortion, kidnapping, and recruitment by transnational criminal organizations. The report noted that gangs or low-level imitators, capitalizing on the fearsome reputations of organized gangs, demand payments, or "rent," from families and businesses in exchange for "protection" from violence.

Arguing that violence, not the purportedly lax immigration policies cited by administration critics, led to the influx of unaccompanied children, Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, noted last year that asylum applications from Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans in neighboring countries — Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Belize, in particular — had increased more than 700 percent from 2008 to 2013.

The response

In response to the unprecedented swell of migrant children, the Department of Health and Human Services, working with the Department of Defense, last May opened three temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and Naval Base Ventura County in California. By the summer of 2014, defense facilities were housing 2,500 children.

At the same time, HHS expanded bed space at a network of privately run children's shelters around the country under contract to the agency. A spokesman for HHS's Administration for Children and Families did not respond to requests seeking details about bed space at privately run shelters. However, according to a June memo from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement worked with the federal General Services Administration to evaluate 43 sites across the country that, when developed, could expand the agency's sheltering capacity by 10,000 beds. According to an ACF spokesman, there were 2,662 unaccompanied minors in the program as of December 15.

Homeland Security also opened a temporary housing facility for adults with children at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, a complex dedicated to the training of Border Patrol agents and other federal officers, in Artesia, New Mexico. Families were housed, too, at facilities in Karnes County, Texas, and Berks County, Pennsylvania.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of Homeland Security, also modified what is known as an intergovernmental service agreement with the town of Eloy, Arizona, so that a private prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America, could build and operate a 2,400-bed detention center for mothers and their children at a former oilfield workers camp in Dilley, Texas. The detention center opened in December.

According to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, federal officials work to ensure that youth shelters have a minimal impact on local communities. Operated as group homes by nonprofit organizations, the shelters typically house fewer than 50 children at a time, although some can house more than 200.

The ORR covers the cost of all the services provided for the youthful residents, including meals, clothing, education, and medical services. After children are released to the custody of a vetted relative or guardian, the youngsters will enter local schools, where states and school districts will shoulder the cost of expanded enrollment.

While the children live in the temporary housing, the ORR makes no attempt to integrate them into the surrounding community, according to the agency. Children are allowed to visit the community or local attractions only under the direct supervision of approved staff. The shelters, according to the ORR, "are consistently quiet and good neighbors in the communities where they are located."

Children generally spend less than 35 days in an approved shelter before they are released to sponsors. Last year, 53,518 children, out of 57,496 referred to ORR from DHS after they were picked up for crossing illegally into the U.S., were released to sponsors, usually family members. That equals a family placement rate of 93 percent.

Children who cannot be placed with a sponsor remain in the Administration for Children and Families' care and custody until the age of 18 or until the child obtains a lawful immigration status. If a child obtains that status before age 18, or is designated a victim of trafficking, he or she could be placed in a foster care setting.

Mixed reactions

Despite the government's assurances that shelters have little impact on surrounding communities, residents in various locations have expressed concerns, and sometimes outrage, about the arrival of children from the border. Residents in Lawrenceville, Virginia, were among the first.

The Lawrenceville town manager, Carl Dean, and Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts, who was named in a federal complaint filed by a fair housing advocacy group, Home Opportunities Made Equal, both declined to comment citing pending litigation. Recalling HHS's abandonment of the college housing plan in the face of opposition, Helen O'Beirne Hardiman, HOME director of fair housing, says that local residents were entitled to express their fears and concerns about the planned arrival of undocumented children. But, Hardiman adds, "It is illegal for anyone, including the federal government, to make housing unavailable to someone because of their national origin."

In early July, less than two weeks after Lawrenceville's outcry, residents in Riverside County, California, made national news when flag-waving protesters blocked a bus carrying undocumented children from entering the Murrieta Border Patrol facility for processing.

In FY 2014, the Office of Refugee Resettlement released more than 4,000 unaccompanied immigrant children to sponsors in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston — more than any other county in the nation.

In December, when the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security held a hearing on the community impact of unaccompanied immigrant children, Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies, a long-standing advocate for stricter immigration controls, repeatedly referenced the case of Lynn, Massachusetts. The town's mayor, Judith Flanagan Kennedy, had blamed the city's budget woes on the addition of about 250 children from Guatemala and Honduras to the 13,000-student school district.

A common complaint in many places centered on the brief advance notice that communities received when federal authorities considered expanding housing for unaccompanied children. Several bills filed in the House since last summer would require formal notification of local authorities and opportunities for community input.

But, while the influx of undocumented children generated concerns and criticisms, many other Americans stepped up to embrace the challenge. Last fall, the city commission of Bay City, Michigan, passed a resolution that formally welcomed the arrival of two dozen undocumented children from Central America to a local housing shelter.

In places like the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area, home to more than 1.5 million people of Central American origin following the first wave of refugees from violence in the 1980s, no such official welcome was necessary, says Salvador Sanabria, executive director of El Rescate, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides free legal services to Central American immigrants. El Rescate litigated more than 100 asylum cases for Central American minors last year, Sanabria says.

"This is the USA immigrant capital," says Sanabria, explaining why LA generally welcomes undocumented children. "Here in Los Angeles, it's like walking into a modern Ellis Island."

According to federal data, nearly 3,000 unaccompanied immigrant children were released to sponsors in Los Angeles County in fiscal 2014, second only to Harris County, Texas. The Los Angeles Unified School District, with roughly 650,000 students, says it enrolled 360 foreign students at a special newcomers school, while other students may have enrolled directly into other schools, says LAUSD spokesperson Ellen Morgan.

"We get students from all nations, but at this particular time, when the issue came up, we were certainly ready," Morgan says, adding that the influx did not have a significant impact on the district. Morgan points out that many of those 3,000 Central American children landed in the 80 other school districts across Los Angeles County.

Spokespeople for several other large school districts expressed a similar sentiment. Experience with substantial numbers of bilingual students, of undetermined legal status, left them well positioned to absorb the unaccompanied children they received last year.

"This isn't new to us. We've dealt with this for years," says Mariana Navarro, spokesperson for the 200,000-student Houston Independent School District. "Even though this is grabbing everyone's attention, because of the numbers of kids coming from Central America ... we have the resources to deal with the situation, and we never turn any kids away."

In Dilley, Texas, Ray Aranda, mayor pro-tem and a lifelong resident, has only positive things to say about the construction of the new 2,400-bed family detention center. City officials first heard about the project last September, and within one month plans were finalized. "I can't believe how fast this whole process has gone," says Aranda, who notes that the project will provide up to 600 jobs.

The cost of infrastructure improvements to tie the facility into the city's water and sewer system will be borne not by the city but by the private operator, Corrections Corporation of America, Aranda says. "I don't see it impacting our city other than with jobs at this point," he adds. "The city is doing all we can to accommodate their needs, and . . . I can't complain about them."

In politically conservative southeast New Mexico, Artesia Mayor Phillip Burch says local residents initially expressed three concerns about its family detention center: whether gang members or drug dealers would be detained, the risk of communicable diseases, and the duration of the detention facility, which closed at the end of 2014. But the presence of mothers and children reduced safety concerns, and the detained families had "very little" impact on the community, primarily because they were inside a fenced facility and out of sight, he says. Nonetheless, he's outraged by the federal response to the border crisis.

In El Paso, a 200-mile drive from Artesia, Ruben Garcia of Annunciation House views his region's participation in this national issue with pride. Garcia calls the rapid mobilization last summer of thousands of west Texas and southern New Mexico volunteers and church members, who provided meals, clothing, medical attention, transportation, and logistical support to 2,500 families with children released by Homeland Security, to be "one of the most wonderful moments in the Las Cruces-El Paso history."

"Human beings are dependent on each other. We always have been — [from] the moment the human species appeared on this planet," Garcia says. "I may not want it, but that's the way it is. When human beings suffer in one place, they are dependent on people in other places."

Rene Romo is a freelance journalist in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and is currently pursuing a master's degree in social work. He covered southern New Mexico for the Albuquerque Journal for 17 years.


Image: These Honduran and Guatemalan women and children were detained near McAllen, Texas, last June. Photo by Jennifer Whitney/The New York Times.

Basics about undocumented children:

"Welcome Mat or Closed Door?" Fusion, August 13, 2014:

Department of Homeland Security's list of steps to accommodate undocumented children:

The Mariel Boatlift 35 Years Later

By Susannah Nesmith

Key West, a bohemian and somewhat dilapidated small town, was not what Ana Rabel was expecting when she arrived in the U.S. as a teenager, one of 130,000 Cubans to land in South Florida in the Mariel Boatlift in 1980.

"I thought the U.S. would be super modern. I had Star Trek images in my head," she says. "I love Key West now. It's relaxed and funky, but back then what I saw was gas stations that were older than Cuba's. I thought, 'Oh my God! They lied to me!'"

The reception Rabel and many of the other "Marielitos" got in this country was also unexpected. South Florida struggled to handle the sudden influx of penniless refugees, which cost local governments an estimated $130 million. The schools had to find room for an extra 15,000 students. Thousands were housed in Miami's Orange Bowl football stadium while immigration officials spent two months processing them.

"All of the sudden, tens of thousands of people arrived in Key West without any preparation for where they would sleep, how they would eat," says Gaurione Diaz, who was then president of the Cuban American Planning Council, a social services agency that coordinated services at the Orange Bowl. Local residents and businesses donated medicine, food, and clothing. "It was a massive, community-wide effort to absorb all those people."

And the Marielitos arrived at a fraught time, when Colombian drug lords were doing open battle on Miami streets and racial tensions between police and the black community led to riots just a month after the boatlift began. Many blamed the rise in crime on the Marielitos after Cuban dictator Fidel Castro said he was filling the boats with common criminals. In truth, studies done at the time found that only a few thousand Marielitos were criminals. Others, like Rabel's cousin, an architect in Cuba, got fake papers saying they were criminals in order to escape. Still, the term Marielito became an insult.

"There were some Marielitos who were doing terrible things here, but there were so many others who were just quietly working," says Rabel, now the owner of a popular Coral Gables cafe. "I was a teenager and you know, you're so self-aware at that time. It was hard to take."

Thirty-five years later, Mariel refugees are doctors and lawyers, artists and teachers; many, like Rabel, own their own businesses. Rabel and others now embrace the term Marielito. Alfredo Malagon, who was 10 when he arrived, considers it a badge of honor. His first memory of the U.S. is of watching U.S. Marines gently carry his mother, who had developed an infection at a camp in Cuba, off the boat when it landed in Key West. "They didn't ask who we were, how we got there, whether we had been in jail. They just wanted to get help for her," he says.

Today, Malagon runs his own business in the dental industry. "I have the best life in the world," he says. "If I had imagined what a great life would have looked like when I was in Cuba, I couldn't even have imagined my life now."

As they have grown up, some of the Marielitos who came as children have fanned out around the country. Etienne Hernandez-Medina was seven when he arrived. He now runs a successful public relations firm in Los Angeles. He said Mariel, and the sacrifices his mother made to bring him to the U.S., have colored his life.

"When you go through something like that, when the worst is behind you, how empowering is that?" he says. "My mother made one amazing move and that has paid off in spades. I thank her every day."

Susannah Nesmith is a freelance writer based in Miami.