Foster program for immigrants criticized
BROWNSVILLE, Texas ” The strip mall storefront of International Educational Services opens up into cheery offices and classrooms decorated with American flags. Open a classroom door, and dozens of smiling children look up from their workbooks for a heavily accented group “good morning.”
The children are illegal immigrants, and all but one are from Central America. In the afternoon, they will go to foster homes, where they will live until they can be united with a “sponsor” ” a parent, relative or family friend within the United States.
It’s a better scenario than they would have faced in the past, when children caught crossing the border were locked up like adults. But critics say the majority will eventually fade into the nation’s illegal immigrant subculture, easily becoming lost in a maze of homeland security and social service agencies.
In fact, 68 percent of the juveniles never appear in court, according to a 2004 analysis by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Carl Rusnok said it was up to the sponsor to bring children to their proceedings.
“This is fraud-prone and this is an inducement to illegal immigration,” said Don Barnett, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. “There’s no question that smugglers are totally aware of this program and know how to use it.”
Barnett found that some children are being turned over to non-relatives because their blood relatives are illegal immigrants who fear being deported if they present themselves.
Smugglers are telling parents to separate from the children once they cross the Rio Grande, he said. Even if they are caught by the Border Patrol the children are all but guaranteed to be in a safe, comfortable home within a day or so and placed with a relative or friend within a few weeks or months.
The parents can meanwhile seek “voluntary departure,” which means they can leave without a deportation order on their record ” which would prohibit them from entering the United States within the next 10 years and subject them to jail time if they are caught. They can then try to qualify for a visa or attempt to sneak in again.
If they were caught together, the entire family would be detained at one of the federal government’s new family facilities, such as the T. Don Hutto facility in Taylor that has been criticized for prison-like conditions. There would be no chance of avoiding removal proceedings.
Sandra De La Garza, lead case manager at the International Educational Services foster program, said she had heard of families purposely breaking up to avoid Hutto. And staffers said there was no doubt the smugglers and immigrant families knew about their agency.
Children at the Brownsville facility seemed upbeat about the whole process, saying they were happy at their temporary homes.
One, a 13-year-old from Honduras, said she thought the journey was fun.
The foster care programs emerged from the 1997 settlement of Flores vs. Reno, a class-action lawsuit against the former Immigration and Naturalization Service. The suit argued it was wrong for children caught by the Border Patrol to be treated punitively like the adults.
Under the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which abolished INS and created the Department of Homeland Security, the care and placement of illegal immigrant children was transferred to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Children would fall under the purview of social service and not federal law enforcement officials.
“The government felt DHS was doing it from a legal authority perspective,” said Teresa Brooks, an Office of Refugee Resettlement official responsible for overseeing immigrant foster care programs in the Rio Grande Valley. “They’re law enforcement, and that’s the way they are.”
International Educational Services, which is a nonprofit agency, is one of more than 30 under contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
Since January, the agency has received $5 million in federal money for two foster programs and the detention center where teens are housed a few miles away in Los Fresnos.
Foster parents are reimbursed for costs of feeding their charges and ensuring they experience “environment” ” which can mean trips to parks and malls. All homes are equipped with cribs for the many teenage girls arriving with babies or in advanced pregnancy. Eventually the children will be on their way to a relative or family friend’s home ” somewhere on the felt map of the United States that hangs in the agency’s hallway.
“We don’t have contact with them after that,” Brooks said. “It’s up to the sponsors to see that they attend court sessions to see if they can stay or not.”
Kathleen Walker, a longtime immigration lawyer based in El Paso, said such programs should be embraced for treating children like children rather than prisoners.
She said the government had records of every sponsor and should have no problem following up on cases.
“In this case you have citizens and legal permanent residents providing you with all kinds of information about where they are and where the person is going to be. So if there’s a problem it’s not like ICE can’t go and do something,” she said.
“I think what we’re trying to do is be humane,” she said. “Is the objection here that we want to make sure that children are behind bars and behind concertina wires?”