Northwest families open their homes to unaccompanied immigrant kids

Children at immigration reform protesters in front of the White House in July. (Photo from Center for Human Rights)
Children at immigration reform protesters in front of the White House in July. (Photo from Center for Human Rights)

A day with the Danson family would sound familiar to most Americans. Karla, an accounting clerk, leaves the house at dawn to drop her two teenagers at school, while her husband, Chris, a utility inspector, races home at 4:30 to bring them to their evening soccer practice. Later in the evening, the couple makes sure the boys are fed and have their homework done, trading off the dreaded math help.

But this family is a little different. Karla and Chris — fresh from practice raising four teenagers of their own — have become foster parents to two teenagers from Central America who crossed the border on their like thousands of other ‘unaccompanied minors.’ These boys arrived just over two years ago, but since the time of their crossing the numbers of youth arriving at the border looking for a place to call home has increased rapidly, peaking at over 10,000 this past June.

While the numbers of unsupervised youth crossing the border from Mexico and Central America has begun to wane in recent weeks, the challenges faced by those awaiting their fates in holding facilities along the border  are still very real.

As of the end of August 66,127 kids had showed up at the Southwest border without their parents so far this year, an 88% increase from 2013. But this isn’t a brand new problem this year — the numbers have been slowly climbing for the last decade, as political unrest — gangs, cartels, and military coups — have taken hold in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

All summer, droves of children made their way to detention facilities in Arizona and New Mexico, many with only their clothing and a piece of paper with the name or phone number of a family member in the United States. The strained facilities, unsure of how to deal with the influx (were they refugees? illegal aliens? asylum seekers?) released many minors to temporary homes and facilities, while rumors trickled back to Central America that chances of getting across were good. Even in the unrelenting summer heat, more came.

When photos leaked in June showing children, some as young as five, packed like sardines in detention facilities that were given only 48 hours of notice of their arrival, there was an uproar in the humanitarian community. Though President Obama had asked for $3.7 billion in supplemental funds to adequately deal with the crisis, Republicans responded with their own appropriations bill, aimed at stemming the flow and returning migrants to their home countries.

As the news turns to Ebola and ISIS, we’re left asking: what happens to these kids?

According to Peg Bowden, a board member of the Border Community Alliance, an organization that focuses on the cultural, economic and humanitarian issues of the Arizona borderlands, federal authorities have begun to transfer minors from detention centers in Arizona to a processing center in New Mexico.

There, she says, minors learn of their fate, sometimes still without due process or legal representation — despite efforts by the ACLU and groups like the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, who sent lawyers to the Southwest border earlier this summer. Much of the details of individual cases determining who stays and who goes, she says, are still under wraps.

Many Central Americans already living in the U.S. have sent for their children paying prices of anywhere from $4,000 – $7,000 to smugglers, as part of a process known as ‘stage migration’, where one family member immigrates and then works to save up enough money to bring the rest of the family. It can take years before a parent or two can save enough to send for their child to undergo the dangerous journey across the border. By that time, a child may have spent much of their young life without their parents.

A sign on the U.S.-Canada border at Point Roberts warns undocumented immigrants against crossing illegally. (Photo by Makaristos)
A sign on the U.S.-Canada border at Point Roberts warns undocumented immigrants against crossing illegally. (Photo by Makaristos)

Even for those lucky enough to be allowed to remain in the country, the journey doesn’t stop there — non-profits and city governments are scrambling to get them legal help, healthcare, and into schools.

Other young immigrants have arrived on their own accord with no known relatives, or with limited information on their families’ whereabouts. In these cases, youth who are not returned to Central America via a haphazard legal process, are placed with foster parents, like the Dansons. As of August 31st, 310 minors had been placed with sponsors in Washington state.

The Dansons, not yet ready to become empty nesters, were eager to take on a foster youth as the last of their four teenagers prepared to finish high school. Though they didn’t know much about the border issue before they became a part of the foster program with Lutheran Community Services Northwest, they began reading up on the news in order to advocate for the youth in conversations with other Americans.

Though their experience as new foster parents is certainly wrapped in a complex and controversial political context, mostly the Dansons are just trying to be what the kids who endured hell to cross the border need — family.

“We were really excited to open our home to these kids,” wrote Mrs. Danson in an e-mail, noting that their experience raising teenagers made them well prepared for welcoming boys in their late teens, both in need of permanent love and support but also struggling to establish their independence.

She describes their first days in their home as “awkward” as her and husband, armed with only their high school Spanish, relied on friends and Google translate to navigate language barriers. But the weeks that followed proved rewarding.

“At this point, it all feels like a success story,” she wrote. “Both boys have confidence and are capable of participating in American society. They now have the skills to be able to set and accomplish career goals and I expect that both of them will be successful as they move into the stages of adulthood.”

Within three months, both boys could communicate their needs, and seemed to fit in with the rotation the Dansons were already accustomed to — homework, soccer practice, and driver’s ed.

In recent months, the number of unaccompanied children have outnumbered the available beds in shelters, increasing a need to expedite foster placement that typically takes at least 90 days, according to Stephanie Lennon, Foster Home Recruiter with Lutheran Community Services Northwest. Following the summer’s media attention on the border crisis, a significant number of Northwest families have stepped up to provide foster care, she says. In June and July alone, there was a 300% increase in inquiries about immigrant youth at Lutheran Community Services.

Though the numbers of new minors arriving at the border are now dwindling as families back in Central America receive warnings that youth who arrive are being turned back due to concerns with security and a strain on resources, “the need hasn’t changed…it’s higher than it’s ever been,” says Lennon.

Indeed — the youth who are allowed to stay here aren’t out of the woods yet. Life in the U.S. is notoriously tough for immigrants from south of the border, even more so for those starting from scratch without a family or support network.

Even when there already is a family member in the U.S., Lennon explains, it can be expensive and difficult to track them down, and in some cases it’s nothing more than a young cousin or other distant relative, unable to care for a child on his or her own. In those cases the youth will often end up in foster care.

“They will suffer for a generation, for their children,” says Bowden, referring to the difficult life likely facing the first generation in the U.S. After a career as a public health nurse, Bowden authored a book about her experiences volunteering in shelters and facilities in Nogales, Arizona, just a handful of miles from the Mexican border.

“When I’m around people like that, it gives me hope,” she says optimistically. “These people are my heroes.”

Lennon calls them resilient survivors. But she reminds us that “they’re also all just kids.”