DES MOINES — State officials are organizing a meeting of social services agencies, not-for-profits and community leaders next month to discuss possible options for connecting unaccompanied children being detained at the southern U.S. border with family members or sponsors in Iowa who could take care of them, at least on a temporary basis.
Jeannette Brown, chairwoman of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs within the state Department of Human Rights, said the commission is working to establish a task force with community partners around the state to support Iowa sponsors in the process.
But the panel’s members oppose any effort to open what they consider would be “detention centers” for the displaced refugee children in Iowa, she said.
Instead of resorting to detention centers, foster care and youth homes, the commission issued a statement indicating it would like to see Iowa “come together to support Iowa’s sponsors in the process of reuniting with their detained children.” But, the commission noted, it likely would be “a long and daunting process of filling out many government forms, proving relationship to the children, getting fingerprinted and more.”
The meeting is set for Aug. 20.
The impetus for the commission’s statement apparently followed a proposal from Lutheran Services of Iowa in connection with its national partner, which advocates for refugees and immigrants seeking to find better alternatives to caring for unaccompanied migrant youth in federal care who don’t have identifiable sponsors who can claim them.
Officials within 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.
Nicholas Wuertz, Lutheran Services of Iowa director of refugee services, said his agency was interested in working with foster parents to provide family-based, temporary care “for the shortest time as possible, until sponsors — which are typically family members — can be identified within the country” to provide traditional care or to partner in smaller, group-based settings.
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But Lutheran Services of Iowa spokeswoman Bethany Kohoutek said the organization since has put the topic on hold, currently does not have any active proposals that it is pursuing and was surprised by the characterization of what her agency was seeking to coordinate with state officials.
“We’re opposed outright to any policy that separates children from their parents or that put children in unsafe situations,” said Kohoutek. She added that Lutheran Services of Iowa is “horrified with what’s happening at the border and, as an agency with a long legacy of assisting refugees and immigrants, we want to be part of any solution developed by the community to kind of help with the situation.”
Sonia Reyes-Snyder, the commission’s executive officer, said the Lutheran Services of Iowa proposal included setting up youth shelters in Ames and Waverly, which commission members were concerned would become “detention centers.”
The commission was 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.
Commission members “don’t want Iowa to be part of the system that already is traumatizing children,” Reyes-Snyder said.
She said the task force the commission wants to create would “help sponsors that are here that have children detained at the border so they can be released as soon as possible instead of being held or transferred to centers.”
She said representatives from 45 organizations around Iowa have indicated they plan to attend next month’s meeting.
Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said she witnessed the situation at the southern border first hand when she visited border areas of Texas last weekend.
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“It is uncomfortable for those migrants. They are receiving three hot meals a day. Many of those are being catered in from various restaurants — but still an uncomfortable situation to be in,” Ernst said during her weekly conference call with Iowa reporters.
She said Customs and Border Patrol officers are doing what they can to take care of the migrants, but there need to be changes.
Brown, of the Iowa Commission on Latino Affairs, said the Iowa commission has taken a position that “no children need to be detained because these children did not do anything wrong. It’s unfortunate the situation that they’re living in and they do not need to be detained.
“They did not make the decision to come to the United States. They’re minors, so why not come up with a plan to send these children back to their country of origin or release them to family members here in the United States. I think that that would be better for the children as well as anybody else.”
Commission members do not want to see makeshift arrangements not in the best interest of the children that eventually could institutionalize the status quo and take pressure off federal officials to resolve problems with a system that “is just turning into a circus,” Brown said in an interview.
“Placing children that have been separated from their relatives in youth homes, foster care or in shelters that become detention centers are not only inhumane and costly practices, but they are also cruel,” the commission said in a statement issued earlier this week.
“Iowa doesn’t have enough bilingual and bicultural professionals to provide the needed services that traumatized detained children need if they were to be moved to this state. We know that family detention is harmful; it has in fact resulted in the deaths of several children. There are also recent reports of unsafe environments where children lack access to medical care and other basic needs while being detained for long periods of time. This results in physical harm and long-term trauma.
“As a governor-appointed commission, our No. 1 fundamental objective is to protect families; the practices and services that are in place right now do not do that, and we urge the state of Iowa and its residents to reject such measures in order to protect the lives of all families,” the commission said in its statement.
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