Fort Worth

June 19, 2014

Fort Worth shelter adds space for child refugees

Vice President Joe Biden is traveling to Guatemala on Friday to address the issue of unaccompanied children coming to the United States.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth is doubling its shelter space to help with the humanitarian crisis evolving as more children fleeing violence and abuse in Central America show up alone at the Texas border.

The organization, which partners with the federal government to offer temporary shelter to young migrants, will convert space to make room for 32 children, up from 16.

“With the rising influx of kids, we were called to expand capacity, and as of this week, we are doubling the number we take,” says a prepared statement. Office space at the agency’s Fort Worth children’s shelter will be converted into bedrooms.

The number of children fleeing Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador for the U.S. has increased dramatically in recent years. Thousands are arriving alone at the nation’s southwest border, creating what President Barack Obama called an “ urgent humanitarian situation.” Vice President Joe Biden is expected to address the issue with Central American leaders during a visit to Guatemala on Friday.

Before 2012, the government typically served 7,000-8,000 such children annually, according to the federal Administration for Children and Families. The number increased in 2011-12 to 13,625. During the 2013 fiscal year, the government worked on 24,668 cases. The projection for this fiscal year: 60,000.

In Fort Worth, about 100 youngsters had received temporary shelter through Catholic Charities Fort Worth between June 2013 and February of this year. The North Texas Catholic, a Catholic publication , recently reported that the number had increased to 198.

The federal government operates about 100 short-term shelters in the United States, including the one in Fort Worth. But because of the increase, temporary shelters were opened recently at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland, Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme in California and Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

A dangerous journey

Many of the refugees, some as young as 5 or 6, are fleeing violence in their home countries. For example, in Honduras the danger comes from gangs and organized crime, advocates said. That situation, coupled with poverty, makes a treacherous journey to a different country seem viable.

“Children arrive at the border hungry, thirsty and traumatized,” said Michelle Brane, director of migrant rights and justice for the Women’s Refugee Commission. Brane was among refugee experts and child advocates who participated in a telephone news conference Thursday aimed at finding solutions.

Many children are also fleeing to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize and Panama, said advocates.

In the United States, whether they are eligible for legal status must be determined on a case-by-case basis, and they must appear before an immigration court. Many advocates say the children could have valid claims for asylum or refugee status.

At the Catholic Charities assessment center, case managers try to connect children with any family members who might be in the United States. Children are housed and screened to determine whether they are victims of human trafficking.

Some argue that the United States should find ways to help improve conditions in Central America, including creation of educational and vocational programs.

Participants in Thursday’s news conference recommended that the United States look for a solution to the violence, so youngsters aren’t being sent back to the dangers they fled.

“It’s like returning kids to a battlefield,” said Juan Sheenan, a county representative in Honduras with Catholic Relief Services, who also participated in the news conference.

The child immigrant crisis comes at the same time Texas leaders are calling for more protection at the border. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus signed a plan to spend $1.3 million a week to begin “a surge” aimed at securing the Texas-Mexico border.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is among the lawmakers who have asked state leaders to bring the Legislature back to address the immigration problem.

He said protecting the children would be his top concern if a session were called.

“They are the real victims here," he said. “Our first priority should be making sure the kids are adequately taken care of while they are on our watch.”

Star-Telegram writer Anna Tinsley contributed to this report, which includes material from wire services.

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