SALT LAKE CITY — There are eight children in Catholic Community Services of Utah's foster care program who crossed the U.S.-Mexican border unaccompanied.
They are teenagers who fled Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to escape impoverished, gang-infested countries with corrupt governments. Some of the children also left to escape abusive and neglectful parents.
These youths entered the United States more than a year ago when the influx of children from Central America was a trickle compared with the 52,000 unaccompanied minors now at the border. Each of the children in Catholic Community Services' care had their day in court, and a judge determined it was unsafe for them to be returned home.
Julianna Potter, refugee foster care program manager for Catholic Community Services, said she has deep concerns about legislation introduced by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, that would place all unaccompanied minors in "expedited removal proceedings."
"The point of having the court hearing is so we can prevent children from having to go back to dangerous places and dangerous homes," Potter said. "Taking away that opportunity for them when they've already been through so much in their home countries and also so much in getting across the border with whatever means they had, it’s a pretty cruel fate for these kids, I think."
The goal of the legislation is to return unaccompanied children to their home countries "almost immediately" unless they have a legitimate credible fear of persecution, according to a news release from Chaffetz and co-sponsor Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Potter, who previously worked in Texas' child welfare system, said each child deserves careful review of his or her circumstances.
"They just want to be safe and have shelter and not have to worry that their family is going to be murdered. That’s all they want when they come here," she said.
Zach Bale, who spent two years in Honduras as a Peace Corps volunteer a decade ago, said the dangers that Honduran children face are unfathomable to most Americans.
"Parents are sending their kids north so they don't die, so they don't get raped or pulled into gangs," Bale said. "I don't think we have any frame of reference to even fathom why. The kids alone should be evidence of what's going on down there."
When Bale was in Honduras from 2001 to 2003, the Peace Corps did not allow volunteers to enter certain cities such as San Pedro Sula.
"When I was there, it was bad. A couple of my friends have been back since and it's 50 times worse," he said, explaining that the Peace Corps no longer sends volunteers there.
Bale, too, has grave concerns about Chaffetz's Asylum Reform and Border Protection Act.
"Any bill that seeks to send them back is sending them back to be pulled into gangs and to be killed," he said. "Maybe it's easier to talk about adults when they have entered the county illegally, but these are kids."
Chaffetz says the bill would make long overdue changes to the asylum process.
"Too many are finding ways to game the system. By strengthening standards for those who claim ‘credible fear,’ we can expedite the removal process. We must deal with this crisis in both a humane and realistic manner. This legislation does both,” he said in a news release.
The issues surrounding the influx of unaccompanied children and families from Central America are complex, Potter said.
“I think what we need to keep in mind as we make decisions, first and foremost, is compassion for these children and recognizing what they’ve been through. I think it would be very wise of the U.S. to be as open and welcoming to these children as we have been to refugees from other parts of the world," she said.
The eight unaccompanied minors in Catholic Community Services' care are considered "special immigrant juveniles." They receive some of the same benefits as unaccompanied refugee children in Catholic Community Services' foster care program. The program presently serves 68 children, Potter said.
Bale said public policymakers must also acknowledge that prisons of Los Angeles were the breeding ground of two major gangs in Central America — Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. According to a recent report published in the International Business Times, the two gangs are responsible for giving Central America's northern triangle countries the highest murder rates in the world.
The gangs proliferated after passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which allowed federal authorities to deport people who had aggravated felony sentences of one year or more. Previously, only people sentenced five years or more for aggravated felonies could be deported from the United States.
"The new law opened the floodgates for criminal deportations to Central America: In 1995, 513 criminals were deported to Guatemala, and in 2013, that number was 13,459.
"Honduras, the source of about half of the recent wave of child migrants in the U.S., saw more than 40,000 criminals flown into its territory in the decade between 2000 and 2010. Gang members took advantage of weak institutions and police corruption to thrive and take over large swathes of cities. Both the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 recruit young children, with violent consequences if they resist, and engage in gunfights that regularly catch innocents in the crossfire," according to the International Business Times.
Chaffetz and Goodlatte's legislation, according to their news release, would render "members of violent criminal gangs inadmissible to the United States and ineligible for asylum so that unaccompanied alien minor gang members can be more easily removed."
Bale said parents in Central America are caught in a terrible dilemma as gangs overwhelm their cities and law enforcement has little power to push back. If their sons refuse to join gangs, their lives are in danger. Their daughters' risk of experiencing sexual violence is extremely high.
While they know sending their children "north" has other perils, they see no other future for them, Bale said.
"I think the families are doing it to keep their kids safe," he said.
The child murder rate in Honduras is the highest in the world other than countries experiencing war. Some 90 children are killed each month.
"Almost all of it is gang related," Potter said.
Central Americans perceive the United States as a haven from rampant gang violence and drugs, Bale said. He imagines parents telling their children, "You're going off to this incredibly safe place. If you make it, it will be a lot better than here."
Potter said there are no government systems in place to assist children when they are returned to their home countries.
"In Honduras right now, there's no child welfare system at all. It was disbanded a year or so ago, and they haven't gotten it back up and going," she said. "It's not like there's some other child welfare system in some of these places that is going to swoop in and help these children. This is kind of their only chance."
As she works with the children in Catholic Community Services' care, Potter is moved by their resiliency and hope for better lives.
"They made this long journey on their own with so much self-determination and resilience," she said. "What is more American than that, to get here on your own two feet, with your own passion? It's because you think there might be some kind of life for you here when there's no life for you back home."
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Catholic Community Services of Utah is seeking adults to serve as foster parents for its Refugee Foster Care Program. Adults who speak other languages or share similar religious or cultural backgrounds with the youths being served are encouraged to apply. For more information, contact Stephanie Curtiss at scurtiss@CCSutah.org or call 724-954-8848.
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