The stories are heartbreaking. A 14-year-old boy crossed into the United States to avoid joining cartel gangs back home in El Salvador. A 15-year-old Guatemalan boy came to reunite with his parents. And a 15-year-old Salvadoran girl just wanted to live free from violence.
I met these young people when I visited an emergency resource center in South Texas run by an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)grantee. These teens are part of an unprecedented influx of children being referred to ORR by the Department of Homeland Security. This referral process came into being under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, when Congress transferred the care and custody of these minors to Health and Human Services from the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, in an effort to move toward a child welfare-based-model of care and away from the adult detention model.
Typically, ORR provides services to 7,000 to 8,000 kids a year. However, within the first eight months of fiscal year 2012, ORR’s Division of Children’s Services has already accepted 8,000 children into its program. Five emergency response centers (ERCs) were opened in Texas this spring to help accommodate this influx.
As I walked through two of these centers in April, the rooms reminded me of a cross between a childcare facility and a shelter after a natural disaster. Orderly rows of cots with one pillow and one blanket on each lined rooms decorated with crayon, pencil and watercolor artwork by children who occupy these makeshift dormitories.
To date, the ERCs have housed over 2,000 youth since they first opened. Staff at these temporary sites work hard to transfer a child to a state licensed shelter, or reunite the child with a family member directly from the ERC.
The last of these ERCs will close next week, as several hundred additional licensed beds have come into the ORR network of care.
Although the youth I met look like they belong in middle school, 83 percent are between the ages of 14 and 17. The majority are quite thin since they had little access to food during what was, for many, a 1,200-mile trek from Central America. Of the children in the program, 36 percent are from Guatemala, 25 percent are from El Salvador, and 20 percent are from Honduras, while 12 percent are from Mexico, 3 percent are from Ecuador and 4 percent are from other nations.
Boys’ dormitories outnumber girls’ sleeping quarters since 77 percent of program youth are male. There is a reason for this lopsided number. Although the journey north is difficult for any child or adult, the trip is especially brutal for young girls. Coyotes, the term used for smugglers, often sexually abuse these girls before they reach America.
Because of the unhealthy conditions these children endure at the hands of smugglers, ORR shelters provide mental and medical health services. Once they enter ORR custody, all children receive complete medical screenings and immunizations, and are provided information about their legal rights.
Bilingual caregivers watch over children 24 hours a day/ 7 days a week and provide them with their own bed, three meals a day and two snacks. Children also have access to showers and clean clothes, classroom education, phones to call family members, recreation, family reunification services and case management.
These services help provide some normalcy to children who often have faced traumatic incidents. I was amazed by their smiles and eagerness to engage me while I went from room to room. An afternoon of boys’ soccer play and girls’ socializing during an arts and crafts session shows their ability to adapt thousands of miles away from home.
Most of all, ORR and its grantee staff provide these children some human dignity and protection. Not only have they been separated from their family, but these youth are also vulnerable to human trafficking, exploitation and abuse.
The best part of ORR’s work is when staff is able to reunite families; 88 percent of the children that come into ORR’s custody are reunited with family members. Children who are released from ORR custody to family must attend immigration court. The decision by the court will ultimately determine if they will remain in the United States or return to their home country.
But for this brief period--after they come into contact with Border Patrol and before they are re-united with their families—this unique ACF program keeps them safe from harm.