State nonprofits aim to help young Central Americans

Published 8:44 am Friday, July 25, 2014

By Sasha Aslanian

MPR News, 90.1 FM

Some of the Central American children fleeing violence in their home countries have been released to relatives in Minnesota and state leaders and nonprofit groups are preparing for the possibility of more arrivals.

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The U.S. government estimates 90,000 children traveling alone will show up at the U.S.-Mexico border this year.

Thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are being housed in military bases in Texas, California and Oklahoma and the federal government has been looking for more temporary shelter space.

Minnesota doesn’t have any available facilities to house a wave of immigrant children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requires such facilities to be large, unoccupied, near a major airport or city and equipped to provide needed services.

But Minnesota citizens and nonprofits are providing housing, legal assistance and social services on an individual basis and state agencies are supportive of those efforts, said Matt Swenson, press secretary to Gov. Mark Dayton.

“Our state agencies will provide supportive services to those families and organizations, as requested,” Swenson said in a statement. “We believe that is the most effective way our state can provide assistance to refugees and to the national effort.”

Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota’s 5th District met with immigrant advocates to discuss ways to increase Minnesota’s response to the crisis.

Ellison said today on the MPR News program The Daily Circuit that he has spoken with Dayton about the lack of housing for the unaccompanied minors, and is not discouraged:

“I think the governor was just saying, we looked at available space and we can’t meet that particular need, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore other options as we look forward,” Ellison said.

In the first half of this year, 173 unaccompanied children have been released to sponsors in Minnesota, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Resettling children with relatives and family friends is a more typical pattern for a northern state like Minnesota, said John Keller, executive director of the Immigrant Law Center in St. Paul.

He said that is a better solution than adding detention facilities.

“About 85 percent of unaccompanied minors are ultimately resettled with a family member and that makes sense,” Keller said. “It keeps people out of state or federal custody, it gives them an alternative to being in detention that also is healthiest place for these kids to be. And we have already seen for the last several years as the numbers of minors have been increasing, that that trend will continue, we expect that is what will happen here with Minnesota as well.”

The International Institute of Minnesota, a nonprofit that has resettled refugees in Minnesota for decades, has reunited seven unaccompanied minors with relatives since last October. Those children have ranged from age six to seventeen.

Once the children find their family members or caretakers in Minnesota, their immigration cases are far from over.

There’s a misperception among the public that such children are home free, said, Michele Garnett McKenzie, director of advocacy for Advocates for Human Rights. The organization has taken on legal cases for 20 unaccompanied minors this summer.

Garnett McKenzie said people should understand the grave situation on the ground in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Since 2008, people from those countries have flooded into other Latin American countries, not just the United States.

“The reality is of course that the children are released to families and are in deportation proceedings and there is a strong message from the administration that they can and will be deported,” Garnett McKenzie said. “We think that’s an overstated message that is really unfortunate. The administration is trying to deter people from seeking asylum. Which is not right. If people need asylum, they should be able to seek and enjoy that asylum.”