ALTOONA — Nearly 50 representatives from not-for-profits, faith-based, legal and other agencies familiar with immigration issues brainstormed Tuesday about setting up a statewide network to help connect and support unaccompanied children being detained at the southern U.S. border with their family members or sponsors in Iowa.
The meeting, which was organized by the Iowa Commission of Latino Affairs, focused on identifying resources, volunteers and advocates who could provide transportation, interpreters, clothing, therapy or help in filling out paperwork and navigating a confusing immigration system.
“We’re just trying to figure out how we as Iowans can come up with a common-sense solution that respects people’s dignity, cares for kids — things that Iowans have been good at in the past and the values that we kind of pride ourselves on,” said Erica Johnson, director of the Iowa immigrants’ rights program for the American Friends Service Committee. “I’m not sure that we have a clear idea of how to do that.”
Officials in the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement say a surge of migrants arriving at the Texas-Mexico border has pressured the country’s immigration system as new policies aimed at both undocumented immigrants and legal asylum-seekers have contributed to a humanitarian crisis.
Veronica Stafford, a bilingual caseworker for unaccompanied minors with Lutheran Services in Iowa, said federal records indicate 1,667 minors have been resettled in Iowa, with 98 percent of the sponsors being family members. With a large influx of migrants this year, she said, that number potentially could double or more.
“The numbers have been increasing and it’s been more visible,” Stafford said. “We just see that the need is greater than it has been in the last few years.”
Jeannette Brown, chairwoman of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs within the state Department of Human Rights, said the commission established the task force of community partners that met Tuesday in hopes of expediting the process by which sponsors in Iowa can get their children out of detention. She said the hope is to find alternatives to establishing facilities to detain the children, as other states have done.
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Stafford said Tuesday’s meeting was valuable in identifying agencies that already have funding and are doing similar work but aren’t connected in a way that makes better use of available resources.
“We know Iowans are already welcoming and have these resources,” she said. “I think we’re just looking to connect people rather than starting from scratch.”
Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz, a United Methodist Church pastor with Trinity Las Americas in Des Moines, said there is a lot of distrust, confusion and fear to overcome in streamlining and navigating the current immigration process of bringing sponsors and children together, given “there are many families of mixed status.”
He said one idea that came out of the meeting — to establish a 1-800 phone number as a “safe number to call” for potential sponsors seeking information — had merit as a workable tool.
The seven-member Commission on Latino Affairs requested the task force consider alternatives after a proposal surfaced that sought to establish youth shelters in Ames and Waverly, which the commission opposed. Members worried that children placed in shelters, foster homes or youth homes still would be classified as detained and would not be allowed to attend school.
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