Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Where to put immigrant children?
Services Lacking at Shelters for Immigrant Kids Houston Chronicle By Susan Carroll JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND - The artwork hanging above row after row of tidy cots in an Air Force barracks offers only a hint of the children's stories, of their journeys from Central and South America. On a large piece of butcher paper, one youth had scrawled in Spanish: "Without grief, there is no triumph." Another, in uneven script, wrote: "God is love." Hundreds of children and youths caught crossing the border without their parents or legal guardians have been housed on the Air Force base in the makeshift emergency shelter - one of four now open in Texas - and served hot meals, allowed to play soccer and video games. But they are offered only one hour of education daily - not the six standard for government- contracted shelters, officials acknowledged. And they are not assigned mental health clinicians, which also is standard practice for those detained in regular shelters, though on-call mental health services are available, officials said. The sharp influx of undocumented children and teens - some 6,500 from October through the end of April - has forced federal officials to temporarily waive certain requirements outlined in a landmark 1997 legal agreement that has dictated the care of young illegal immigrants, including the amount of education services provided, according to Jesus Garcia, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "It's yet again another example of how the government is in triage mode," said Wendy Young, the executive director for Kids In Need of Defense, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that matches pro bono attorneys with immigrant children and youths. Some state officials have been sharply critical of the government's response to the influx of young illegal immigrants from Central and South America. They typically are held in the shelters while their immigration cases are pending, unless the government can locate a relative or adult custodian who can take custody of them. 'Should be exception' "This is an extremely concerning and dangerous situation: Thousands of unaccompanied minors are entering our country illegally, and the federal government does not have a plan to appropriately handle it - emergency shelters should be the exception, not the rule," said Allison Castle, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Perry. HHS referred questions on the governor's criticism to the Department of Homeland Security, which declined comment. Garcia said the children and teens taken to the temporary shelters generally are moved into more permanent facilities within 15 days. Federal officials said they will phase out use of the temporary shelters, which include Air Force barracks in San Antonio and the gymnasiums of other government-contracted facilities in Texas, later this summer. They plan to expand the number of beds available in permanent shelters. Garcia said HHS closed one of the temporary shelters in San Antonio this week. 6,581 in first 7 months Young, with Kids In Need of Defense, said the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the HHS agency responsible for the care of the children and teens, has made "significant progress" in improving education in recent years. Even so, the dearth of classroom time in temporary shelters is "certainly not ideal," she said. "Education is obviously so important to a child's development, but frankly it's also a way for these kids to get their mind off the fear and confusion they have faced by virtue of their voyages to the United States," Young said. The number of children and youths caught by the Border Patrol and transferred to the resettlement agency's care has soared this year, with more than 1,300 referred in both March and April. In the first seven months of this fiscal year, the agency took custody of 6,581 youths, compared with 6,560 in all of last year, government data shows.