Central American children crossing the U.S.-Mexican border—often after traveling hundreds of miles unaccompanied by adults—are called "immigrants." But their escape from harrowing violence is not an "immigration" issue. It is a "refugee" issue, said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) at a congressional briefing March 23.
Lofgren and a panel of children's, immigrant and legal aid advocates urged Congress to address the devastating issues impacting unaccompanied children seeking refuge in the United States. AFT Vice President and Texas AFT President Louis Malfaro figured prominently in the discussion, sharing the viewpoint of AFT members who teach undocumented and often traumatized students every day.
The briefing was prompted by a recent increase in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids on children and families from Central America. Recent home raids have involved as many as a dozen agents routing mothers and children out of their beds and leading them away in pajamas, said Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Other agents, sometimes in plain clothes, are detaining children on their way to school. As a result, some students are afraid to go to school at all; they are afraid to answer the door or leave the house, for fear they or members of their family will be deported on the spot.
Meanwhile, hundreds of newly arrived children are placed in detention centers where they may languish for months before being reunited with a family member or sponsoring adult. "It is incomprehensible to me why we are imprisoning mothers and children who are not a threat to our national security," said Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
Detention centers pack children into cells where they sleep on cement floors, she said, with no access to schools or adequate health services. Sometimes they are assigned to live with poorly vetted sponsors and wind up as victims of human trafficking and abuse. When they finally are assigned an immigration hearing, they are not guaranteed counsel, so children as young as 2 and 3 years old "represent themselves" before judges whose hands are tied by federal policy regarding immigration standards.
"We have to stop the inhumane treatment of these children and their families," said Hincapie.
Members of the panel called for several policy changes to address the issue:
- Develop foreign policy to address the root causes of the migration: organized crime, violence, human trafficking, gangs, poverty and persecution.
- Close the failing detention facilities.
- End rocket dockets (accelerated hearings) and deportations of children enrolled in school.
- Pass the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act, introduced by Lofgren and Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and a companion bill introduced by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), to ensure access to counsel and other services for children and others in immigration proceedings. (Sign a petition in support of the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act.)
- Produce better data on where unaccompanied children are settling so advocates can better address their needs.
- Coordinate with multistate agencies and diverse stakeholders to create safe learning environments and communities.
From a place of violence
The crisis begins in Central America, said Hincapie. Imagine yourself at age 12, she suggested to the people who packed the hearing room on Capitol Hill. What would move you to embark on a perilous journey of more than a thousand miles, risking rape, abuse and abduction? What would move a mother to risk such a journey for her child?
The answer: escalating violence at home. Honduras is considered "the murder capital of the world," she said, and "El Salvador has the highest level of violence and murder of any country that's not at war," said Lofgren. Just like the iconic photograph of the Syrian refugee child washed up on a beach, "We have drowning children washing up on our beach every day," said Malfaro. "This is a child refugee humanitarian crisis, and we need to respond with compassion and in accordance with our American values."
Malfaro said community schools would be far better at serving traumatized refugees than the deplorable detention centers, which will "never" be child care centers or public schools. The AFT wants to "double down" on bilingual teachers, increase the number of school counselors and boost early childhood education to address the crisis. Existing programs designed for migrant workers could pivot to serve the refugees, said Malfaro, and teachers could get more training to help children cope.
Malfaro also called on Education Secretary John King to sit down with Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and demand that he immediately stop ICE raids on children, who are terrified of being detained.
"My friend Kimberly never got a real chance to prove her case in court," said Kelsey Rivas, a classmate of Kimberly Chavez, who was detained by ICE agents in Atlanta. "She's been locked up in a detention center for over 30 days. I'm here because I want justice for my friend."
"Teachers want to help in any way we can," said Malfaro. Aside from advocating for policy change, at least two affiliates, Education Austin and the New Mexico Federation of Teachers, have reached out directly to donate food, diapers, toys, books and clothing to the detention centers near them.
"Doing nothing is unacceptable," said Malfaro. Treating the crisis as an enforcement issue is "shameful," said Hincapie. "We need to make sure that this administration is rising to the challenge and seeing this as a humanitarian crisis."
Besides Malfaro, Lofgren, Sanchez, Hincapie and Rivas, the panel included Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges; Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense; and Nancy Navarro, a member of the county council in Montgomery County, Md., who is deeply involved in immigration issues in local schools.