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Friday, June 18, 2004

El Paso Times Online-Agencies struggle to handle flood of illegal alien children

El Paso Times Online
Agencies struggle to handle flood of immigrant children

Louie Gilot
El Paso Times

Mark Lambie / El Paso Times
Head cook Vicky Lopez, center, and James Alderman, left, serve two young undocumented immigrants who are being housed at a federal facility in the El Paso area. The exact site of the building and the children's faces and names are being protected for security reasons.


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To help



Las Americas needs pro bono lawyers and volunteers to care for the legal needs of the children and money to hire a second full-time lawyer.

Make donations to: Las Americas, 106 E. Yandell, El Paso, TX 79902.

Call to volunteer: 544-5126.
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The number of children detained in El Paso after sneaking alone into the United States suddenly doubled this month, and officials are stepping up to meet the demand.

The number jumped from the usual 50 children in custody to 105 since the end of May. Officials blamed a nationwide increase of minors caught by the Border Patrol this year, bringing the daily number of migrant children in custody in the United States to 800 from the normal 500.

"We have had an influx in cases," said Susana Ortiz, a special project officer for the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C. Ortiz was dispatched to El Paso to help expedite the reunification of the children, who are 10 to 17 years old, with their parents.

Ortiz's office, part of Health and Human Services, asked its private contractor to reopen a children's detention center in Downtown El Paso to house the 50 or so new children, who came mostly from Central America and were caught at different places along the border.

The children's basic needs are taken care of -- beds, food, English lessons and even field trips to the zoo -- but legal representation is now a problem, advocates said.

Las Americas, the only nonprofit group in El Paso that provides free legal representation to the children, is calling the situation a "crisis," saying the workload is too heavy for its only staff attorney.

"Fifty cases kept me busy 50 hours a week," said Micaela Guthrie, the sole lawyer for Las Americas. The group is asking El Paso lawyers to donate their services and the community to give money to pay for a second, full-time lawyer. Las Americas also needs more volunteers to interview the children in Spanish.

"We can seek political asylum for some of the children or a special immigrant juvenile visa for abused and abandoned children. But we have to spend time with them to find out about their situations," said Vicky Longoria, Las Americas program coordinator.

Las Americas has existed for 17 years and is funded by private donations, mostly from religious organizations, and grants.

Another nonprofit organization, Southwest Key Program Inc., is the government's contractor for running the children's detention facilities. Three weeks ago, the organization opened a new 54-bed center in Canutillo and closed the Downtown center, which did not have a back yard where the children to play outside. But soon, Southwest Key had to reopen the old center to take in the influx of new cases.

The arrangement is temporary, officials said, but will last as long as needed. The summer waves of undocumented immigrants usually thin out by September.

Officials asked that for the children's security, the exact locations of the shelters not be publicized.

In Canutillo, children -- 41 boys and 11 girls from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador -- are settling into the new lilac-painted center. They will spend an average of three months there before they are released to parents or sponsors in the United States, or deported.

They are encouraged to make the place homey. The boys have kept their rooms spartan, but the girls have started nesting. On one door, construction paper cutouts announce "Leidy" and "Paola." Inside, the girls pinned hand-painted Tweety Bird and Pooh posters on the walls, put a Bible on a neatly made bed and hair gel on the night table.

The children go to school inside the self-contained center.

Thursday, they studiously copied a sentence, "We study the moon," for their English-as-a-Second-Language class. One boy wrote a phonetic note to himself, "Wi stadi da mun."

Officials asked that the children not be interviewed, photographed or identified.

Guthrie, from Las Americas, described some scenarios her clients have gone through. They traveled by train, by buses and by foot from Central America, through Mexico, a trip that takes two to three months and can cost them $6,000 in smuggling fees. They come to be reunited with parents in the United States or to find jobs to send money back to their families, Guthrie said.

When the children arrive at Southwest Key after the Border Patrol catches them, "they are hungry, sometimes diseased. They don't trust. They don't understand what's happening," Velazquez said. "When they leave, they've gained weight. They have more self-esteem. We give them our business cards in case they ever need us."

Only two or three children a year try to leave the El Paso center without permission, Velazquez said.

The center is monitored by discreet surveillance cameras. The doors to the outside have a security system, and the children are almost always surrounded by the plain-clothed staff of 50 teachers, administrators, cooks and others. The center has an operating budget of $4 million a year.


Louie Gilot may be reached at lgilot@elpasotimes.com, 546-6131.

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