Sue Ogrocki / AP

Oklahoma town divided on influx of immigrant kids to Army base

Local politicians blame failed Obama policy while Lawton residents seek a humanitarian response

LAWTON, Okla. — It was noon on Sunday when Jose Luis, a 38-year-old construction worker who stopped for lunch at Aranda’s Mexican Grill, finished his menudo, a traditional Mexican stew of beef tripe in a red chili pepper broth. Mexican music blared from a corner jukebox. Jose Luis, an undocumented immigrant who declined to provide his last name, said he first crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas, when he was 19. He has since crossed more times than he can remember.

On those treks to the U.S., he said, he often saw unaccompanied children trying to cross the border — children like the 1,158 that are currently being housed in short-term shelter just a few miles away at Fort Sill. 

While Jose Luis doesn’t know much about the children at the Army base, he knows their journey was treacherous. “The process is ugly, scary and sad,” he said.

Fort Sill is one of three short-term shelters opened by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in June to address the influx of children under 18 found crossing into the United States from Mexico. The other two facilities are Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and Naval Base Ventura County in California.

At Fort Sill, up to 1,200 unaccompanied children, mostly from Central America, are divided among 20 sleeping bays that hold 60 beds each. The building was last occupied by soldiers in April.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Fort Sill, an artillery backbone for the Army, now houses 13-to-17-year-olds in a three-story, 200,000-square-foot building with separate living quarters for boys and girls. Because of staffing issues, a representative said, reporters have not been allowed to tour the facility.

The mass arrival of immigrant kids has created a humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed existing facilities and sparked political fury over the divisive issue of illegal immigration.

Since October, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have intercepted nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children, three-quarters of whom come from Central America — primarily Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — and are believed to be fleeing violence in their home countries. The vast majority were picked up in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas. They range from 18-year-olds to infants born en route.

The United States isn’t the only nation affected by the refugee crisis. According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, asylum requests from Honduran, El Salvadoran and Guatemalan nationals increased 712 percent in neighboring nations such as Belize, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panama and Mexico since 2009.

However in Oklahoma and elsewhere, politicians jumped at the opportunity to blame the increase on the failed immigration policies of Barack Obama’s administration. The surge, they said, is further evidence of weak security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I am dismayed by what appears to be an endless cycle of illegal immigration, temporary housing and eventual amnesty for those who have broken our laws,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said in a statement in early June, shortly after learning Fort Sill was being considered as a temporary facility.

In the deep red state of Oklahoma, many leading politicians don’t consider the surge of children over U.S. borders a humanitarian issue.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., whose district includes Fort Sill, joined in blaming the president for the predicament.  

“This is not a humanitarian crisis,” Cole said, speaking to an audience of journalists and publishers on June 14. “This is a policy failure.”

Yet many of those now decrying the system actually approved of its elements only a few years ago, when their votes helped reauthorize key procedures for dealing with unaccompanied immigrant children. Fallin, then a member of the U.S. House, and Cole both voted for the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which President George W. Bush signed into law. While intended primarily to help human-trafficking victims, the measure had provisions for unaccompanied illegal immigrants 18 or younger.

Today the sentiment among most Oklahoma politicians and their voting base is that it would be better to quickly return the children to their home countries than spend taxpayer money on their food, housing and transportation needs.

Fulbright scholar Elizabeth Kennedy, who lives in San Salvador, El Salvador, has researched the experiences of Central American migrants, focusing on unaccompanied children, since 2011. She said sending the kids back to where they came from is neither responsible nor humane.

“These are not people we can consider less than human,” she said. “In fact, they’re desperate, and they want a chance to survive past childhood and adolescence.”

When the first child is killed, that blood will be on our hands, and I, as a U.S. citizen, do not want to be responsible for that.

Elizabeth Kennedy

opposes immediately deporting unaccompanied minors

Kennedy has interviewed 400 unaccompanied minors from El Salvador. She said about 60 percent of the children cited fear for their life as a reason for illegally crossing the U.S. border.

In May, El Salvador, a nation of just 6 million, had more than 400 murders — part of a surge in violence in the region. Drug activity in Mexico has splintered, moving into Central America and the Caribbean. Rival gangs MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang are behind most cartel activity in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Kennedy said.

Some of the children she interviewed said their parents were murdered by cartel affiliates. Others, who quit school for fear of violence, gave reports of school directors and teachers who recruited for the gangs. Nearly a quarter said they had been given an ultimatum: Join a gang or be killed.

The children had very little knowledge of U.S. immigration policy. She bristled at the popular demand that unaccompanied minors in U.S. custody be quickly deported, pointing to regular news reports from El Salvador of recent deportees being murdered.

“When the first child is killed, that blood will be on our hands,” she said.

After immigrant children are apprehended, what happens to them depends on where they’re from.

Under current law and agreements between the U.S. and Mexico, if Mexican children are found to be victims of or at risk for trafficking or express a fear of going home, they are sent into the care of the HHS. If the children don’t indicate those scenarios and seem capable of making their own decisions, they are deported.

It’s a different story for children from Central America, said Megan McKenna, communications and advocacy director for Kids in Need of Defense, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that helps find pro bono attorneys for unaccompanied children who have illegally crossed into the U.S. As long as they are alone, they are transferred to the HHS and housed in the temporary shelters.

The typical stay at a facility is 35 days, after which most of the children are sent to live with a relative or sponsor already in the U.S. while they await deportation proceedings. About 10 percent of the children have no contacts and end up in foster care until their immigration cases are resolved, she said.

In June alone, more than 3,400 children were released from the temporary shelters and into the custody of a family friend or relative in the U.S., according to a spokesman for the HHS Administration for Children and Families.

Because of the backlog of cases, deportation proceedings can take anywhere from nine to 18 months, McKenna said. If deported, Central American children are flown back to their home countries, typically to the capital.

She said that while not all children are eligible for protection under current U.S. law, every child should have fair access to the immigration system and a fair chance to make a claim for protection.

She said a short-term solution might be to set up in-country U.S. immigration processing in countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

“Then they wouldn’t have to make a dangerous journey,” she said. “As long as the proper pieces were in place, they could access our system.”

A longer-term idea is to help countries undergoing a mass exodus of children build child protection and welfare systems, thus preventing the urge to flee the country to stay alive.

“They don’t all stay, but we need to look at the root causes,” McKenna said. 

Lawton resident Aurelia Aguilar, left, sympathizes with the children at the Army base.
Juliana Keeping

Back at Aranda’s Mexican Grill, a blond, blue-eyed woman dressed for church sits at a table with two elementary-age children and her mother. All are in their Sunday best, out for lunch after service.

The woman declined to give her name but said she’s a 41-year-old Army wife who lives in Lawton. She said she disagrees with her friends, most of whom disapprove of the town’s young arrivals at Fort Sill. “We all have to be humanitarians,” she said.  

That humanitarian support could be a long-term need. The Obama administration predicted the influx will reach 130,000 children in 2015, costing taxpayers an estimated $2 billion.

Also having Sunday lunch with her family was Aurelia Aguilar, 59, who was born in Mexico but has lived in Lawton, where she runs a cleaning business, for the last eight years. She said she feels bad for the children at the Army base.

“A lot of people are coming here to improve their lot and look for opportunities,” she said. “In reality, the Latinos are the ones helping to rebuild this country and lift it up.”

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