Some children fleeing Central American violence may be headed to Michigan

Jul 5, 2014

Credit via Center for American Progress

Michigan will probably receive some refugee children from Central America—but not an “overwhelming number” of them, according to one immigrant rights advocate.

About 50,000 unaccompanied minors, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, have overwhelmed the southern border in recent months. Most say they’re fleeing mounting gang violence, chronic poverty, and social breakdown in those countries.

The federal government is looking nationwide for places to house the kids while they’re being processed.

One possible location: a “secure facility” in Vassar, a small community in Michigan’s Thumb area.

Wolverine Human Services, the agency that runs the facility, says it doesn’t have a deal with the federal government at present.

And the US Department of Homeland Security has said it doesn’t release location details about those facilities for safety reasons.

Susan Reed, supervising attorney for the Michigan Center for Immigrant Rights, says there’s actually a good reason for that.

“It’s important to remember there are traffickers out there,” Reed says. “Incredibly dangerous people who may be trying to track down kids, try to get them released to them, or whatever the case may be. That’s why there has to be a certain amount of protection.”

Some national and state leaders aren’t happy about the prospect of housing refugee children while their cases are handled in the immigration court system.

Michigan Congresswoman Candice Miller, a Macomb County Republican, issued a statement this week blaming the recent surge on President Obama’s “poorly thought out” immigration policies.

“In addition, it is imperative that the people being apprehended at the border not be released from custody because if they are, it is very unlikely they will ever return for immigration hearings on their status, and they will disappear into society,” Miller said.

“In order to send the message to Central America and Mexico that our border has meaning, we must send these people back to the nations they came from, and we must do it immediately.  If this requires changes to federal law, then we must immediately get about the work of changing the law.”

Reed says undocumented minors (from countries other than Mexico) detained at the border are entitled to more rights and extensive legal process than adults.

The children stay in federal custody while the government initiates deportation proceedings. Some are housed in a detention facility or group home setting, while others are released to relatives or the foster care system.

Reed says two Michigan social service agencies, Bethany Christian Services and Lutheran Social Services, actually have longstanding federal contracts to help re-settle refugee kids.

“I think we can expect to see some expansion of those programs, just given the numbers,” Reed says. While some children will likely be released to sponsors in Michigan, Reed doesn't think there will be “a tremendously large number” because of the state’s relatively small Central American community.

While the minors are entitled to deportation proceedings, they’re not entitled to legal counsel.

And while many of the children will likely try to claim political asylum, Reed says proving refugee status might be difficult.

“The whole question of the degree to which extremely violent street gangs in Central America are targeting young men for recruitment, and persecuting young men who resist recruitment…that’s a difficult legal standard that could potentially be the basis of asylum,” Reed says.

Reed says that while young men flee gang recruitment or retaliation, young women are usually trying to escape sexual violence, usually from gang or family members.

She recalls representing one young girl from Guatemala, who was being raped continually by a man aligned with the police. Her parents felt they had no choice but to pay to have her smuggled to the US, where she did eventually win asylum.

Reed notes many kids are also trying to re-unite with parents who may have left home years ago to work in the US.

As for simply returning the children without legal process, “We have international law obligations to people who are fleeing their country out of fear—that’s the definition of a refugee,” Reed says. “Some of these kids do fit this definition that’s codified in US law.”