Oklahoma Town Divided on Influx of Immigrant Kids to Army base

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It was noon on Sunday when Jose Luis, a 38-year-old construction worker who stopped for lunch at Aranda’s Mexican Grill, finished his menudo, a traditional Mexican stew of beef tripe in a red chili pepper broth. Mexican music blared from a corner jukebox. Jose Luis, an undocumented immigrant who declined to provide his last name, said he first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas, when he was 19. He has since crossed more times than he can remember.

On those treks to the U.S., he said, he often saw unaccompanied children trying to cross the border — children like the 1,158 that are currently being housed in short-term shelter just a few miles away at Fort Sill. 

While Jose Luis doesn’t know much about the children at the Army base, he knows their journey was treacherous. “The process is ugly, scary and sad,” he said.

Fort Sill is one of three short-term shelters opened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in June to address the influx of children under 18 found crossing into the United States from Mexico. The other two facilities are Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in California.

Fort Sill, an artillery backbone for the Army, now houses 13-to-17-year-olds in a three-story, 200,000-square-foot building with separate living quarters for boys and girls. Because of staffing issues, a representative said, reporters have not been allowed to tour the facility.

The mass arrival of immigrant kids has created a humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed existing facilities and sparked political fury over the divisive issue of illegal immigration.

Since October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have intercepted nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children, three-quarters of whom come from Central America — primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and are believed to be fleeing violence in their home countries. The vast majority were picked up in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. They range from 18-year-olds to infants born en route.

The United States isn’t the only nation affected by the refugee crisis. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, asylum requests from Honduran, El Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals increased 712 percent in neighboring nations such as Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico since 2009.

However in Oklahoma and elsewhere, politicians jumped at the opportunity to blame the increase on the failed immigration policies of Barack Obama’s administration. The surge, they said, is further evidence of weak security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be an endless cycle of illegal immigration, temporary housing and eventual amnesty for those who have broken our laws,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement in early June, shortly after learning Fort Sill was being considered as a temporary facility.

In the deep red state of Oklahoma, many leading politicians don’t consider the surge of children over U.S. borders a humanitarian issue.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose district includes Fort Sill, joined in blaming the president for the predicament.  

“This is not a humanitarian crisis,” Cole said, speaking to an audience of journalists and publishers on June 14. “This is a policy failure.”

Yet many of those now decrying the system actually approved of its elements only a few years ago, when their votes helped reauthorize key procedures for dealing with unaccompanied immigrant children. Fallin, then a member of the U.S. House, and Cole both voted for the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which President George W. Bush signed into law. While intended primarily to help human-trafficking victims, the measure had provisions for unaccompanied illegal immigrants 18 or younger.

Today the sentiment among most Oklahoma politicians and their voting base is that it would be better to quickly return the children to their home countries than spend taxpayer money on their food, housing and transportation needs.

Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Kennedy, who lives in San Salvador, El Salvador, has researched the experiences of Central American migrants, focusing on unaccompanied children, since 2011. She said sending the kids back to where they came from is neither responsible nor humane.

“These are not people we can consider less than human,” she said. “In fact, they’re desperate, and they want a chance to survive past childhood and adolescence.”

Kennedy has interviewed 400 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador. She said about 60 percent of the children cited fear for their life as a reason for illegally crossing the U.S. border.

In May, El Salvador, a nation of just 6 million, had more than 400 murders — part of a surge in violence in the region. Drug activity in Mexico has splintered, moving into Central America and the Caribbean. Rival gangs MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang are behind most cartel activity in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Kennedy said.

Some of the children she interviewed said their parents were murdered by cartel affiliates. Others, who quit school for fear of violence, gave reports of school directors and teachers who recruited for the gangs. Nearly a quarter said they had been given an ultimatum: Join a gang or be killed.

The children had very little knowledge of U.S. immigration policy. She bristled at the popular demand that unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody be quickly deported, pointing to regular news reports from El Salvador of recent deportees being murdered.

“When the first child is killed, that blood will be on our hands,” she said.

After immigrant children are apprehended, what happens to them depends on where they’re from. [...]

 

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