The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This: Suffer the Little Children

Young Refugees are seeking protection, but some communities are afraid

By Amy Smith, July 25, 2014, News

Driving west on I-10 in El Paso many years ago, I saw a woman and young boy – he couldn't have been more than 6 – hop across the railing about 30 feet ahead of me and bolt across four lanes of interstate. The mother and child were clearly terrified, running for their lives. A border patrol agent chased them on foot across the freeway and was closing in on them just as I drove past. Luckily, it was midmorning and the only vehicles in this area were mine and a massive RV with an Ohio license plate.

Foot chases along the border aren't unusual, but the sickening, surreal image of an armed agent chasing a mother and child across a busy interstate has stayed with me all these years – perhaps because of the irony of the RV's traveling decor: The wheel cover on the rear bore a bright yellow smiley face and the message, "Have a Nice Day!"

More than 30 years later, women and children, and – more recently in greater numbers – unaccompanied minors from Central America are still risking their lives and entering the U.S. A common refrain heard lately is that these children aren't seeking a better life – they're seeking a life, period.

And depending on your perspective, the situation of late is either a humanitarian crisis, or the Obama administration's failure to secure the border.

Gov. Rick Perry, in an attempt to show his presidential chops, took matters into his own working-man's hands this week and deployed 1,000 National Guard troops to the border. (See "Governor Tough Guy Beats His Chest," Newsdesk.)

Maybe it's because City Council is out of pocket this month, but Austin-area elected officials have been somewhat slow to respond to the humanitarian call to help children detained in centers along the border or sheltered in facilities in Dallas and at the Lackland military base.

At Tuesday's meeting of Travis County Commissioners Court, County Judge Sam Biscoe had hoped to have a discussion with Austin Interfaith leaders, immigration lawyers from the Equal Justice Center, and other groups that would serve to provide information to the public on how and where to donate. But the discussion understandably veered off to a conversation about immigration policy and the violence that's causing children to flee Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. "Seventy-five percent of what I heard today really dealt with the core of the problem. It is a big problem – a whole lot bigger than we are," Biscoe said.

But he got some answers, too. Members of St. James' Episcopal Church, for example, leave Sunday to deliver donated items (which they are still accepting) to a McAllen faith group working with the children. Hooded sweatshirts are the newest request, said St. James' Rev. Lisa Saunders. "The children are extremely cold [in the shelters]. They are not used to central air conditioning." (See "Austin Responds to the Refugees," p.16, for donation sites.)

Fair Housing Complaint

Outside Austin's blue bubble there are grim reminders that we're still in Texas, where the GOP leadership is feeding fears about what the refugees represent to the Lone Star State: terrorism, crime, diseases. Several jurisdictions – Galveston and Brazoria counties, League City, and even Marble Falls – have passed resolutions in an attempt to prevent migrant children from being housed there. League City, outside of Houston, was among the first to adopt such a measure, which earned it a formal complaint accusing the city of violating the Fair Housing Act. Texas Appleseed and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the challenge Tuesday with the U.S. HUD office.

The red flag contained in League City's resolution is the direct order to deny federal requests to house the migrant children, explained Maddie Sloan, an attorney with Texas Appleseed. "It's not just expressing a sentiment that the city does not want these refugees." The measure leaves in question whether the resolution also applies to foster families or nonprofits which are providing temporary shelter for the children.

That Galveston County would formally turn its back on the children is somewhat surprising, given the federal aid the area needed to recover from the devastation of Hurricanes Ike and Dolly. And that brings to mind that the last fair housing complaint that Texas Appleseed made was waged on behalf of the Galveston region. The complaint was filed against the state over its proposed distribution of federal disaster funds received after the two hurricanes. The parties ultimately reached an agreement that's currently being implemented.

"Ironically, perhaps, one of the things that came out of the complaint ... was that the Houston-Galveston region, which had been underfunded in the initial distribution scheme, received an additional $225 million," Sloan said.

Could it be that Galveston County adopted the resolution because it's suffering from hurricane-recovery fatigue? Sloan is doubtful.

"The city of McAllen is in recovery from Hurricane Dolly, and they've been extraordinarily proactive and compassionate, and have really reached out to protect these children," she said.

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