Most children are fleeing gang recruitment and escalating violence from powerful drug cartels in countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
“Central America has descended into absolute chaos,” said Ryan Bates, director of the non-profit civil rights organization Michigan United. “These kids are coming from horrible situations where they’re trying to escape gangs or they’ve seen their families killed.”
The Department of Homeland Security reports that about 52,000 children have been apprehended at the southwest border by agents since October — almost double the amount from the previous year.
So long as they are not Mexican or Canadian, unaccompanied children who enter the U.S. illegally can be held in custody by the federal government for up to 72 hours. After that, they are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are then placed in temporary shelters where they await foster care, a family member or a relative who can “claim” them or deportation.
Michigan houses two of the nation’s 22 shelter programs for unaccompanied refugee minors: Lutheran Social Services in Lansing and Bethany Christian Services in Grand Rapids.
Bates said that because Michigan plays a large role in offering shelter programs, the influx of children at the nation’s southwest border will be felt here as well.
“A crisis like this strips resources from social services,” he said. How much Michigan will be affected, however, is unknown — officials have been guarded at best in discussing the matter.
On Friday, Michigan United and Michigan Immigrant Right Center hosted an emergency conference call to coordinate an advocacy response about “the emerging issues for immigrant children,” but it was closed to the media.
Representatives from Lutheran Social Services of Michigan and Bethany Christian Services said they were unable to release data on unaccompanied minor children they house or comment on the Central American surge of children without authorization.
“The federal government has asked us to not talk about the increase in numbers or the humanitarian crisis at the border,” said Diane Baird, program manager of Lutheran Social Services.
While she could not comment on the potential effects on resources the Central American surge may have, Baird did say that refugee populations in general have a natural “ebb and flow” which don’t necessarily constitute a long-term strain.
“We had a large number of Southern Sudanese who came in 2000 and 2001, then we had a wave of Burmese children,” she said. “Now we’ve got referrals from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It fluctuates.”
Susan Reed, supervising attorney at Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said one of the biggest needs for immigrant children is legal counsel.
As soon as they are in U.S. custody, unaccompanied minors are under removal proceedings. They are not offered or provided legal counsel, so their only access to representation to fight their deportation is via nonprofit organizations and pro bono work.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there — a lot of buzz that we don’t deport unaccompanied minors,” Reed said.
If children successfully fight pending deportations to obtain refugee status, the fight for resources doesn’t stop there. Among other things, they need cultural guidance, access to English tutoring and counseling to cope with the psychological issues of fleeing unspeakable violence and assimilating into a new country.
“Can you imagine the trauma that’s induced for those kids after traveling 2,000 miles — the nightmares?” said Jane White, director of Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. “Even if they get to foster care safely the story’s not over.”
If these children’s stories cross through Michigan, Baird said, the area’s history of diversity and accepting refugee populations should at least steer them toward a good ending.
“Historically, Lansing and the mid- Michigan area have been very welcoming,” she said.