Photo courtesy of Tim Whitaker and Mighty Writers.

July 4, 2018; Philadelphia Inquirer

One underreported effect of the Trump administration separation of asylum-seeking parents from their children along the US border has been its negative impact on young immigrants already in the country, especially those who know enough to worry about their own families being torn apart. So, when a nonprofit literacy group that works with a young Latinx population tried to do something positive for child detainees caught up in the “zero tolerance” nightmare, it ought to have been a win-win situation.

Instead, both the adults and the children involved in the project have been left scratching their heads, wondering why their simple, generous act has been thwarted.

Mighty Writers is a Philadelphia nonprofit whose mission is “to teach Philadelphia kids ages 7 to 17 to think and write with clarity so they can achieve success at school, at work, and in life.” The organization has five centers (with more planned). One is El Futuro, opened specifically to serve the growing Latinx population in South Philadelphia. NPQ previously covered work done with these children to address their own immigration stories and their fears about deportation for themselves or family members.

Because many El Futuro kids know what it’s like to come from somewhere else, they wanted to help the kids they’ve been hearing about in the news who already are far from home and have been separated from their parents. El Futuro is located in a storefront in Philadelphia’s iconic Italian Market neighborhood and is “dedicated to the [Latinx] immigrant community that has blossomed in a neighborhood long known for, and strengthened by, its immigrant population. Proof against all of our president’s fearmongering about what immigrants do when they come here: They thrive. They contribute. They help others.”

So, the Mighty Writers staff hatched a plan to donate Spanish-language books to children at a detention center in Berks County. As first reported by Mike Newall in the Philadelphia Inquirer in late June, Mighty Writers received a grant from Team First Book Philadelphia, a local chapter of a national organization that works to provide books—to be taken home and kept—to children who might not have them otherwise. First Book has long been a Mighty Writers partner, and they approved $3,000 to purchase 700 Spanish-language books to be given to children in a number of detention centers, beginning with the Berks County Residential Center, 75 miles from Philadelphia. About 20 families are currently being detained there—parents and children under the same roof because, as Newall notes, “that’s where we are now—looking for more ways to lock up parents and children.”

In addition to books, children at the center were also to receive bookmarks handmade by the kids at El Futuro—a way to involve them in the project and send youthful messages of hope to the young detainees.

Initially, the Berks facility agreed to accept 100 books and bookmarks, which were supposed to be delivered—with no press or fanfare—last Tuesday. The night before, Mighty Writers got a call saying thanks but no thanks, with not much explanation offered, except that they already had a library and didn’t need more books. As Newall wrote in his July 3rd article:

But the books weren’t meant for the library. They were meant as gifts for jailed children so they could have something of their own. These were new books, graphic novels where the characters spoke and looked like the kids in the detention center. Books that they could take home, to start their own libraries.

An ICE official told Newall the center already had an overabundance of books. Pennsylvania State Representative Chris Rabb toured the facility this week and saw only two bookshelves and few books in Spanish.

The El Futuro kids now have to deal with the disappointment of having their gifts turned down. Alma, a sixth grader, said, “I was very sad about it. I felt like they would know someone really cared about them.”

Mighty Writers executive director Tim Whitaker said, “I’m frustrated, angered, and saddened for the kids. It’s just miserable that it has come to this kind of end. Unfortunately, it’s what you would expect at this point from people detaining kids.”

A report in Generocity notes that Mighty Writers has not given up on getting books to the children in Berks County and has an additional 600 books to distribute to children detained elsewhere. Whitaker said, “We’re going to keep the pressure on Berks and look to other detention centers at the same time.” He also noted that Mighty Writers is working on raising funds and “establishing an infrastructure that will allow us to go wider with this.”—Eileen Cunniffe