The Crisis of Immigrant Children: Nonprofits Can Help, but Cannot Solve It

Print Share on LinkedIn More


Ryan Rodrick Beiler /

July 12, 2014;Liberty Voice

The crisis of tens of thousands of immigrant children from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala being held in facilities in Texas, Arizona, and elsewhere in the Southwest is yet another human rights tragedy occurring within the borders of the United States. The reactions of various communities and politicians have shown the best and the worst of our nation.

There’s no need to recount the ugly protests in Murrieta, California that succeeded, so to speak, in getting U.S. Customs and Border Protection to cease sending busloads of children to San Diego for temporary accommodations and processing. These often-vicious nativists gathered to show kids from Central America the worst of the American spirit. It wasn’t a “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” moment.

Continuing the less than admirable treatment of these unaccompanied children, Fox News and Republican governors have been apoplectic that there might be a need to move some of these kids to facilities that are slightly more accommodating—in states beyond the Southwest. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Governor Dave Heineman (R-NB) issued complaints about these children being sent to facilities in their states, some managed by the nonprofit Heartland Alliance.

As has been unfortunately typical, the Obama administration seems to have mucked up some of the communication of these decisions, giving opponents yet another reason to be nuts—but that’s beside the point. The issue is not whether the Obama administration failed to predict the influx (which has been occurring for some years, with more than 30,000 children apprehended at the border for four of the five years between 2009 and 2013), whether it mishandled where and how to accommodate these kids, or if it has stumbled with its messaging.

No, the issue is one of being true to the principles we think America stands for. Governor Martin O’Malley (D-MD) said it best. “We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” he said at the National Governors Association meeting in Nashville. “It is contrary to everything we stand for as a people to try to summarily send children back to death…in a place where drug gangs are the greatest threat to stability, rule of law and democratic institutions in this hemisphere.”

As usual, it is nonprofits—not those protesting around the buses full of scared immigrant kids, but human services nonprofits and notably faith-based nonprofits—standing up and trying to help these children as they wait for what could be many months for their immigration hearings. In Texas, BCFS is trying to convert a hotel in Welasco into an intake facility with 600 beds, where the children would be given access to medical and mental health treatment, educational programs, recreational programs, and case management. Catholic Charities is trying to help these children in North Texas. In Arizona, the Florence Refugee and Immigrant Rights Project is providing free legal services to unaccompanied immigrant children. Neighborhood House of Calexico is providing charitable assistance to children who are released by the Border Patrol while they wait for their immigration hearings. 

The list of nonprofits stepping up to the plate is long and admirable, but not up to the task at hand. It won’t be solved by the president’s request for $3.7 billion to pay for more detention facilities and more judges who can speed up the process of hearings for these kids. What is really needed for the 52,000 or so unaccompanied children already here and the 140,000 more expected in the next fiscal year is comprehensive immigration reform—nothing more, nothing less. We don’t need to recount the sad history of both parties undermining the immigration reform package proposed by President George W. Bush and his partner in the legislation, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, nor the decision of the Obama administration not to pursue legislation in the two years in which Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate. Whatever political calculus existed then, tens of thousands of unaccompanied kids from Central America mean that past politics are no longer relevant.

Here’s the issue we don’t understand. When these unaccompanied minors are taken to their deportation hearings, if there isn’t a group like the Florence Refugee and Immigrant Rights Project, most stand in front of judges alone, without legal representation. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have responded with a class action suit protesting the federal government’s failure to provide these children with legal representation in their deportation hearings. Just recently, the Obama administration decided to respond—late, in this case, as in nearly every other element of this story—with a $2 million program through AmeriCorps to recruit 100 attorneys and paralegals to work on cases with unaccompanied minors from Central America.

So, as scary as American courts are for anyone, imagine you’re a 12-year-old kid from Central America in front of an immigration court judge, without legal counsel, trying to make your case. Let’s assume that you lose and the courts rule that you must be deported. (Conservatives are angry about how few children have been deported by the courts—only 3,525 in Fiscal Year 2013, according to the Wall Street Journal.)

Where does an unaccompanied minor get sent? Do the feds put the kid on a plane, dump him at the airport at Tegucigalpa, and say good luck and Godspeed? Do they return the child to the coyotes and smugglers who took him into the U.S. for a hefty price—and with much danger and abuse along the way? To those of us who remember how scared and confused we might have been as teenagers or adolescents: What do you think these kids must be feeling as they walk into immigration courts that will determine their futures?

We send thanks to the fabulous, admirable, courageous nonprofits that have stepped up to provide accommodations, healthcare, and legal assistance. Now it’s time to step up the pressure on the White House and Congress to move on comprehensive immigration reform, or today’s tragedy of 50,000 unaccompanied immigrant children will be doubled or tripled next year, with more suffering than anyone coming to the U.S. should have to bear.—Rick Cohen