In the wake of Gov. Rick Scott’s sign-off on in-state tuition for undocumented students, Florida is facing a new immigration issue: the arrival of unaccompanied immigrant children from detention shelters. Unlike border states including Arizona and Texas, the South Florida region has not been the first U.S. stop for many of the children crossing the border from Mexico and Central America. Instead, the children are being transferred to Miami after being held in out-of-state detention centers.
Currently, there are only two children’s shelters in Miami — Boys Town, and His House Children’s Home — with a third shelter under construction only a few miles outside of Miami. Because of the limited spaces in border shelters, many of the children in the shelters have been transferred to Miami and other locations around the country.
While these children are waiting to hear whether they will be deported or moved somewhere else within the United States, local organizations, such as Americans for Immigrant Justice (AI Justice), are facing the challenges to protect these children’s legal rights. AI Justice is a legal nonprofit, working concurrently to advocate for the children’s legal rights and educate them about their rights.
AI Justice is one of five of legal assistance groups that filed a complaint last week to the Department of Homeland Security accusing U.S. border officials of human rights violations. When detained by U.S. border officials in Texas or Arizona, nearly all of the unaccompanied children are sent to facilities, known as “hieleras” — or “iceboxes,” in English — where temperatures in the facilities are “unbearably low.” AI Justice has also argued in March that the Customs and Border Protection’s denial of adequate food and shelter violated the children’s human rights.
A report issued by U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops illustrated the number of unaccompanied children detained by border officials averaged fewer than 7,000 per year between 2004 and 2011; however, this number increased to 13,000 in 2012, and to more than 24,000 in 2013. Last year, AI Justice served approximately 1,600 children locally, and the attorneys are confident that this population will increase.
Although they only serve a fraction of the total population of unaccompanied children, AI Justice and similar organizations in Miami still face the overwhelming challenge of accommodating the increasing number of children in the next year or so. This inevitable strain signals a need for human rights organizations, city officials and policymakers to create and implement sustainable solutions and long-term plans to serve the detained children.
A majority of the children in the shelters do not reside in South Florida for very long because their sponsors reside across the country. In fact, some of the children choose to return to their homelands willingly. Despite the turnover, Miami’s children shelters are preparing for the arrival of more children. Within the past month, 98 children’s beds have been added in the shelters in Miami. The construction of the third shelter in Miami aims to also provide a relief to the other shelters.
Attorneys at AI Justice predict that the number of unaccompanied children in South Florida will rise due to the increase in violence in the children’s homelands. In addition, many of the children are targets in their family’s home, where they face physical and mental abuse or neglect, and are unable to receive the appropriate treatments and services in their countries. Without many options, many of the children seize the opportunity to endure physical and mental exhaustion to travel to the United States to seek distant relatives or other protection.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has responded to the crisis by releasing letters to Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, and ambassadors from Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, saying “this catastrophe seems to have caught the Administration off guard and without an adequate mitigation plan.”
Within Rubio’s dramatic proclamation, there is a valid point, which is all agencies and organizations must alleviate this “humanitarian crisis” with a feasible plan. It is essential for South Florida to design, and facilitate the construction of more shelters, resources for more legal assistance, and protection mechanisms for the unaccompanied children. Miami has always been directly involved with the implementation of national immigrant, refugee and asylum policies. Miami needs to continue its legacy to provide a safe haven for these vulnerable children.
Sothir Khem is a recent graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is currently based in Miami, where she is an Ameri-Corps member in the Overtown neighborhood. She is a volunteer for Florida Immigrant Coalition and Americans for Immigrant Justice. She can be reached at [email protected].
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