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Shelter from the Storm
As thousands of children flee Central America for asylum in the U.S., Catholic Charities is preparing temporary housing for hundreds in Milwaukee.
As many as 300 children from Central America could soon be coming to Milwaukee to stay in temporary shelters through a collaborative effort between the federal government and Catholic Charities of Milwaukee.

The reason Milwaukee is a potential location is because of the city’s close proximity to the Chicago Immigration Court, which now has an exceptionally long backlog of cases.

Plans are being put in place to address the flood of unaccompanied minors who have been crossing the border in increasing numbers. Within the past three weeks, Catholic Charities has worked with FEMA to identify three facilities – two vacant schools and one office building – to be used as temporary shelters.

On Monday, Executive Director Father David Bergner will be on a call with U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Regional Director Kathleen Falk, County Executive Chris Abele, and Mayor Tom Barrett for an update on the situation. Any of these plans being put into action is contingent on Congressional funding. Congress leaves for its annual five week summer recess at the end of next week, and reports are indicating the crisis won’t be addressed before then.

What’s happening with the current crisis, says Fr. Bergner, is “a dynamic that is somewhat incomprehensible to us.”

“This area where the kids are coming from is called the “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras,” says Fr. Bergner. “Researchers have cited this area as one of the most violent places in the world. The homicide rate in Honduras is 90.4 per 100,000 people. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it’s less than a third of that – 28.3 per 100,000. To give you a measure of comparison, the homicide rate in the United States is 4.8 per 100,000 people. You can see where young people and families are literally running away from that environment in search for a better life.”

Some 57,000 unaccompanied minors have entered the U.S. since Oct. 1 of last year and that number will grow to an estimated 90,000 by the end of the year, says Fr. Bergner. While this has driven the national conversation surrounding the issue in recent months, Catholic Charities of Milwaukee’s work with immigrants has been going on long before President Barack Obama called what’s been happening a “humanitarian crisis.”

“This is not a brand new phenomenon,” says Barbara Graham, director of the Legal Services for Immigration Program (LSI) at Catholic Charities of Milwaukee. “It’s been gradually growing, but it’s been going on for a few years.”

Graham has been doing immigration law work at Catholic Charities for more than 14 years, leading the LSI program for the duration of its existence in Milwaukee. Along with two other attorneys, she helps people – many of them children – navigate the complicated maze of immigration law.

“I think they have maybe over 2,000 open cases that they’re handling right now,” says Fr. Bergner.

Many of these cases are with children from Latin America, but as of yet, none of those cases involve unaccompanied minors. The children now in Milwaukee who are working with Catholic Charities are those who have family members in the area.

Applying for asylum or Special Immigrant Juvenile Status are the two most common legal pathways Graham and fellow attorneys navigate in immigration cases with children.

These claims are a “boatload of work,” she says. “The files weigh more than the kids.”

Both paths, while extremely complex, are part of the existing legal framework of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

“There’s a legal mechanism that’s in place to deal with this and we’re just trying to make sure that these kids all go through it,” says Kevin Layde, staff attorney. “We’re not trying to say, ‘We need to make this collective act of generosity,’ it’s just, follow the law that’s on the books. Go through it completely. Some kids may be able to stay here; some kids may not,” and could possibly be returned to the Northern Triangle.

Through these legal mechanisms, says Graham, “40 percent of these kids will find some viable form of relief at the immigration court, which is huge.”

Under current law, says Fr. Bergner, these unaccompanied minors “need to have their day in court.”

Part of the challenge brought on by the current crisis, however, is that “border states aren’t prepared to handle these kids on their own by themselves,” says Fr. Bergner.

Part of the goal with moving groups of unaccompanied minors to various locations such as Milwaukee is to expedite the legal process, utilizing courts beyond those that are overburdened in places like Texas.

“If there wasn’t a court in Chicago, we wouldn’t be considered,” says Fr. Bergner. “I think the master plan is to use all the resources of the immigration courts to help process these children in an expeditious way. So that if they have a case for asylum, it can be granted. If there is a possibility for family reunification, that can be done. Or, in the case of probably a lot of them, they would have to be repatriated back to the countries of origin in a way that makes sense.”

Immigration courts in Chicago, however, are already booked for years, says Graham.

“The court is so backlogged, I’ve got hearings into 2019,” she said. “For some of those kids, they’re going to be here for five years before they get to see a judge.”

Yet another legal issue is that of representation.

“These kids aren’t entitled to counsel right now,” says Layde. “They’re getting a lot of pro bono representation, but the way it’s set up right now, there are a lot of 10-year-old kids trying to argue their own case in immigration court.”

While these legal challenges are great, it’s important to remember that this is sometimes quite literally a fight for survival.

“These kids just want to live,” says Graham. “They don’t even want a better life, they just want a life. They just want to be alive when it’s all over.”

Parents in the Northern Triangle can be forced to make gutwrenching decisions, sometimes choosing to have their children leave their home countries on their own. 

“It’s hard for those parents to separate themselves from those kids,” says Graham. “It’s not that they don’t love their kids, it’s that they just want them to be alive.

Graham says in addition to legal services, mental health services will be especially important for these children.

“A lot of these kids have seen some really awful things,” says Graham. “You read the stories of conscription into the gangs and if you say no, you open up the door one morning there’s dead animals on your front door with your name in blood. It’s not shock value storytelling. It happens to people. They’ve seen those things and you need to get those people some competent mental health, otherwise, where are they going to go?”

Milwaukee is one of many Catholic Charities branches across the country set to act if and when a decision is made by Congress. The temporary shelters, were they to open, would have a 120-day limitation and would house between 100 and 300 children, says Bergner. FEMA and HHS, along with Catholic Charities and other volunteers, would staff the shelter. But many things are still in flux.

“I’ve been spinning as fast as I can, trying to figure out what to do, trying to prepare,” says Graham.





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