The U.S. Border Patrol Station in Nogales, Arizona, appears to be meeting the basic needs of the hundreds of unaccompanied minors — mostly teenagers — who have been crossing the U.S. border in droves from Central America.
On June 11, Jesuit Father Sean Carroll, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, toured the Arizona facility and said he saw rows of refrigerators, shelves of plastic bags containing the children’s belongings, portable toilets and a makeshift dining room. A section had been set up for the youths to receive vaccinations or other needed medical treatment. In another area, telephones had been installed for the minors to call their consulates or relatives in the United States.
“Physically, they looked OK, but what’s less clear to me is how much access they may have to psychological or spiritual support,” said Father Carroll, who told Our Sunday Visitor that he had not been granted permission to speak to the youths.
“We know the critical spiritual needs migrants have. I still have a concern about whether the pastoral needs of these children are adequately being met,” Father Carroll added.
The scene in Arizona somewhat resembles the refugee camps seen in war-torn regions in the Middle East and Africa. Immigration advocates say the youths — many of them from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — are being displaced from their homes and families as drug cartels and violent criminal gangs battle for turf and control of lucrative drug routes into the United States.
“There seems to be more competition now for who is controlling the routes, for what gang controls the neighborhood,” said Richard Jones, Catholic Relief Services’ deputy regional director for Global Solidarity and Justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Jones has spent the past 24 years in El Salvador and said the violence in the region has reached epidemic proportions in recent years.
In the past month alone, Jones said, four young boys — one as young as 6 years old — were killed and dismembered in Honduras for refusing to be recruited into the cartels.
“The facts on the ground show people are leaving here out of desperation, not because somehow they think they’re gonna get major favors when they get to the United States,” Jones said, adding that between 100 to 200 minors are returned to El Salvador each week after they are caught by authorities in Mexico. “The numbers are staggering.”
‘Very poor condition’
President Barack Obama declared the flood of minors crossing the border to be a “humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response.” Obama’s critics blame his policies for the crisis, including the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a 2012 directive that federal authorities show prosecutorial discretion for individuals who migrated to the United States as children without legal permission.
Either way, young immigrants are crossing the border in record numbers, and that is prompting a humanitarian response from many Catholic relief agencies and volunteers.
In McAllen, Texas, which is located on the Rio Grande, Sacred Heart Catholic Church has opened its parish hall as a temporary Catholic Charities shelter for migrant mothers of young children and unaccompanied minors. Officials drop the migrants off at a bus station two blocks away from the church.
“They are usually in very poor condition. They need help to eat, to rest, to wash up, to get clothes and provisions,” said Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.
Sister Norma told OSV that her agency is helping up to 200 migrant families a day, and added that volunteers are helping round up donations to meet the migrants’ physical needs. The unaccompanied minors, Sister Norma said, are often traumatized and scared after a harrowing trip alone through Central America and Mexico.
“We just saw some children today that were crying their eyes out. They just want their mommy,” Sister Norma said. “They’re so frightened. Their journey here has not been an easy one. Many of them of have had a difficult time finding something to eat or a place to rest. We don’t even know the amount of abuse that they endured on their trip north.”
“It’s not uncommon to have a girl, maybe 13 or 14, who has been the victim of sexual assault by gang members back home. The sexual assault prompts her to come to the United States, and then through that journey, she might get raped twice. Then when she’s here, we need a ton of caseworkers to help this little girl overcome the trauma she’s been through,” said Michelle Mendez, an attorney for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Washington.
Several Catholic Charities agencies across the country are helping provide the unaccompanied minors with legal representation. While their cases are pending, the minors may be staying with relatives in the United States or at the temporary shelters.
The minors may seek asylum based on fears that they will be killed by gangs in their native countries, but Mendez told OSV that the courts do not tend to approve asylum on those grounds.
“These children are indeed fleeing for their lives and must be looked at through a protection lens, not through an enforcement lens,” said Bishop Eusebio Elizondo, auxiliary bishop of Seattle and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration. “We must not send them back if they have valid protection claims. It would be akin to sending them back into a burning house.”
Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, head of the Diocese of Tucson, Arizona, told OSV that the “humanitarian crisis” surrounding the unaccompanied minors reminds him of how countries in the Middle East are working to assist “enormous numbers of people” crossing their borders to flee the horrendous conditions caused by the civil war in Syria.
“Nobody wants these millions of people to be coming into the country,” Bishop Kicanas said. “Obviously, we have to work to resolve the crises in those countries, but on a humanitarian level, we can’t just turn these people away. We have to provide them with a safe environment.”
Kevin Appleby, the director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs, told OSV that the crisis is as much a foreign policy issue as it is an immigration matter.
“The United States has ignored Central America for too long,” Appleby said. “This is sort of the proverbial chickens coming home to roost.”
‘Straining our system’
For decades, Central American children have migrated without parents or adults. Before 2011, about 6,000 to 8,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border every year. But the numbers have spiked over the last two years. Since October 2013, more than 52,000 child immigrants, traveling alone, have been caught at the border in south Texas along the Rio Grande Valley. The minors sometimes travel in large groups with other youths, and they are overwhelming the region’s Border Patrol stations.
“We’re seeing hundreds a day. We’re seeing some kids, some as young as 4 or 6, traveling alone, or a 15-year-old with a 5-year-old,” said Chris Cabrera, a Border Patrol agent in McAllen, Texas, who told OSV that the young migrants often sleep on the Border Patrol station’s concrete floors for three days before they are transferred to larger federal detention facilities in Texas, Arizona, California and Oklahoma.
The Border Patrol is supposed to process the unaccompanied minors within 72 hours and hand them over to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which then links the children with welfare specialists and determines if they have relatives or sponsors in the United States. However, officials said the overwhelming numbers of young migrants are creating a “bottleneck” that results in them staying weeks in Border Patrol stations, which often lack adequate food, beds and sanitary facilities.
“It’s straining our system,” Cabrera said. “At one Border Patrol facility, we’re at four to five times capacity. Our stations are not designed for young kids or mothers with kids. They’re built to be more of a jail than a day care.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.