The first thing I witnessed upon entering the U.S. Border Patrol’s Temporary Housing Facility for unaccompanied minors in McAllen, Texas, was a three-year old boy, about the age of my own son, holding the hand of a border patrol agent as they walked through the chain-linked corridor of the warehouse-like building.
I would later learn that this boy was not alone—he was here with his four-year old brother, and that was all. Whoever they crossed the border with the day before were not their parents or legal guardians, so the two toddlers would be entering the next phases of their journey in the U.S. together, but alone.
I toured the facility for two hours along with twenty other representatives of the United Methodist Church, including five Bishops and others who serve immigrants daily. The center was constructed quickly in June to accommodate the thousands of minors crossing into the U.S. through the Rio Grande Valley. The building had previously been a seatbelt factory, which I found ironic since, like seatbelts, the current purpose was to restrain the kids while keeping them safe. The facility had a prison feel, with lights on twenty-four hours a day and fenced pens for the children.
The forty children there that day were watching movies, throwing balls, and playing board games with volunteers from Americorps who stayed with them twelve hours a day. The border agents, who were numerous and fully-uniformed (they had a gun holster but no gun) were kind and open, but they clearly had not signed on to this career so that they could take care of children.
I tried to imagine what this little boy’s journey had been like. It was 100 degrees outside, with thirty mile per hour wind gusts. I was sweaty after five minutes without air conditioning, and quickly chugged two bottles of water. The exodus of these children from Honduras (highest murder rate in the world), Guatemala (4th highest murder rate in world), and El Salvador (5th highest murder rate in world), often lasted several weeks. I would not find out whether this 3-year old was seeking to unite with a parent already here, or was fleeing violence back home, or both. I did learn a bit about what lay ahead for him on the journey.
The children stay in this center for one or two days until they get placed with a shelter run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), like those in San Antonio, where our JFON attorneys around the country have conducted intake and screenings of children over the past month. The children remain in these ORR shelters for weeks until they are typically placed with family in the U.S. or with foster care, where they await their hearing before an immigration judge, often scheduled 18 months out.
After they leave these ORR shelters, the assistance the children receive, at least from a legal perspective, wanes dramatically. A study by Syracuse University found that although they are entitled to legal representation, most of the kids are unable to access any. The study also found that over the past ten years, children who have legal representation are nearly five times more likely to be granted permission to remain in the safety of the U.S. That’s why the legal services of JFON can be so critical to children once they are living in our communities here.
The National JFON office and I will continue to work in the weeks and months ahead to identify ways that our network can take on more of these difficult, time-consuming, and life-changing cases for the children. We will partner with the United Methodist Church and other agencies, seek out funding opportunities, and examine new and creative ways to do our work.
But first, I’m coming home to hug my kids. Very tightly.
Written by Rob Rutland-Brown, Executive Director of NJFON