Hoping for safety
By Elva K. Österreich
Thousands of children cross border to escape gang violence
Las Cruces Bulletin
They come in a variety of ways. They walk, climb on the top of freight trains and take busses. Somehow more than 20,000 unaccompanied children, ages 17 and under, have crossed the border from Mexico into the United States since Oct. 1, 2015. Some of those children are now finding themselves, via the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), at Alamogordo’s Holloman Air Force Base.
Most of those children come from Central American countries, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala where fear of gangs drives families and children to take desperate measures.
“It’s an arduous journey and not very safe,” said Megan McKenna, communications director for Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a national advocacy organization. “It can happen in a variety of ways. Often the children are targeted by gangs. In many cases the family will say, ‘You’ve got to go, we can’t protect you.’” But children sometimes go on their own too, McKenna said. “We have heard time and time again from the kids we work with that it’s the only choice they had,” she said. “It’s incredibly dangerous. Some parents are forced to put their children in the hands of smugglers because they are safer to risk that journey than to be raped or killed by gangs. It’s a very difficult choice.”
Most of the children, she said, are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security at the border or very close to it. They are seeking protection in the U.S. – not trying to hide.
McKenna said there is no straightforward route across Mexico for the children and it is hard to know what happens to them on the way. She said KIND regards the issue as not one of law enforcement but rather a child-protection issue.
“We need to send the message we need to protect these children,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to protect them.”
At Holloman, HHS is making an effort to do just that, although the children being housed at HAFB are just some of those who have identified relatives or sponsors in the United States and who are waiting to be placed with those individuals.
“The (HHS) shelters are overflowing with children,” said Michael Espiritu, Alamogordo Chamber of Commerce director and point of contact for the Holloman operation. “HHS partnered with DOD (Department of Defense) to find them a temporary shelter location. The goal is to give the kids a bed and reunite them with family members ASAP.” Currently there are about 250 children at Holloman, averaging stays of 32 days,” he said.
“They are moving through the process with case workers to identify friends and families to be reunited with,” Espiritu said. “They have hired a whole host of people for different types of jobs, doctors, nurses, counselors, behavior science folks, etc. So this shelter has hired several hundred people from the region. And there are still positions open.”
Comprehensive Health Services is the organization contracted by HHS to manage the employment opportunities at the facility, Espiritu said. Holloman is just the landlord, HHS is the managing agency and has its own contractors.
The shelter is planning for a 700-800 child capacity and chsmedical.com is the lead staffing agency, he said.
“We have received hundreds of calls from people volunteering to help and offering donations,” Espiritu said. “All the offers are appreciated but there is no need for all those things. HHS is taking care of it. I think the kids are very well taken of.” Toby Merkt, HHS spokesman said in 2014, HHS got referrals of 58,000 of these children who crossed the border without parent or legal guardian. In 2015 there were 34,000.
“So we have been watching the numbers very carefully and starting to see an uptick so we started enlarging facilities,” he said. “We run about 100 permanent facilities with 250 miles of borders to cover. We had 7,900 beds which increased to 8,400 in November. In the last few months we saw an increase in the number of kids coming in.”
The location at Holloman has been repurposed to accommodate the children and includes dorm rooms, with girls and boys in separate locations, rest rooms, dining room, kitchen and a full medical clinic on-site, Merkt said.
Children arriving there have already been processed by DOD, where they are not supposed to stay for more than 72 hours and have already been to HHS shelters where they received medical screenings, ID badges and initial contact with sponsors. When they arrive at the HAFB facility they receive another medical screening and have access to medical practitioners including doctors, nurses and mental health clinicians with whom they have weekly appointments.
At the Holloman shelter they have a ratio of one care worker for eight children during the day and one to 16 at night, Merkt said.
“All of our staff are bilingual,” he said. “We are preparing for up to 250 kids as we expand to a total of 700 – hiring more staff and making sure our ratios are good.”
The children, while they cannot be deported immediately because they are not from countries adjoining the United States, are still slated to face immigration hearings in front of immigration judges, but the system is currently so backlogged that process could take years. According to DOD press information, most of them eventually will be deported to their country of origin.