By Janelle Stecklein CNHI Statehouse Reporter
The Ada News
Few consequences for children caught sneaking over the U.S. border could help explain an influx of undocumented teenagers now pouring into makeshift shelters throughout the country, according to an immigration group.
“Word has gotten back that there are no consequences for being caught. When you make it here, you will be sheltered and be allowed to stay for the foreseeable future,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-partisan group in Washington D.C.
Immigrant children caught in this country without proper documentation — and without parents — are held in special facilities until they can be reunited with an adult. And their number has skyrocketed, from about 6,700 in 2003 to the 60,000 expected by federal immigration officials this year, according to data provided by the federal Administration for Children and Families.
Last weekend Gov. Mary Fallin's office announced the federal government's plans to open a new facility with 1,400 temporary beds at Fort Sill, the U.S. Army base in Lawton. Federal officials have opened similar facilities at military installations in San Antonio and Ventura County, California.
Because such large shelters for immigrant children are rare, little is known about the conditions inside them and the youths’ experiences.
“It looks like not very many people are going to have access to these bases to see how they’re going to be run,” said Vaughan, noting that is a concern for advocacy groups.
“You do have a bunch of teenagers together with little supervision," she said. "It kind of reminds me of college a little bit. Imagine what could go wrong."
Kenneth Wolfe, a spokesman for the Administration for Children and Families, which will run the federal program at Fort Sill, said children will receive services including education. That will be provided by a contractor, he said, not the state’s public schools.
Sonny Wilkinson, senior director of mission advancement for Catholic Charities in Oklahoma City, said his group has reached out to see if there are any needs that need to be met.
“This is such a unique situation,” said Wilkinson. “It’s more than people. It’s kids. I think we all need to remember that. These are children that came here alone. We’ll work with them as best we can to respect their dignity and bring a little sunshine, hopefully.”
This influx of immigrant children — most in their teens, and most male — is not the first. Nor is this the first time the U.S. government has opened a facility like the one at Fort Sill.
In 2011, as President Barack Obama announced support for the DREAM Act, which would have provided limited amnesty to younger immigrants, Vaughan said the country experienced an influx of youth. The government then opened a facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Vaughan said.
The facilities are designed to keep children out of border detention units that typically house grown men, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities that house people with criminal records, she said.
Fort Sill will also allow the government “to buy time” to find family, friends or places to put the teens on a permanent basis in the United States, she said.
Little is known about youth in these facilities, she said, including their ages or where their family is. The program seeks to connect children with a guardian or sponsor.
Little is also known about the success of the program, which requires youth to attend immigration court proceedings while in the care of their sponsors. Some successfully rejoin families. Others join gangs, she said.
A 2012 study by the VERA Institute of Justice, which contracted with the federal government to provide services to undocumented youth immigrants, found that nearly two-thirds of more than 14,000 children in the program between October 2008 and September 2010 were allowed to remain in the country.
Another 17.4 percent were returned to their country, 10 percent became adults during the proceedings, and another 1 percent ran away.
The study noted the government system is “complex" and "disjointed."
“The difficulty of navigating this system is greatest for the children themselves," it reported. "They often interact with a daunting number of government agencies, and each one has its own policy goals and objectives. As described in this report, children often move from one city or state to another, sometimes unfamiliar with anything in the country beyond the grounds of a federally contracted detention facility.”
Federal officials said nearly 88 percent of the youth detained in fiscal year 2012 were from Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras.
Most fled their homes to escape violence, find family already in the United States or seek a better life. Some were brought into this country by human traffickers.
Vaughan said the number of children crossing the border continues to grow.
“The one thing that is really missing is a plan to stop the surge and prevent them from making it onto American soil to begin with,” she said. “… The border patrol is basically scooping them up when they arrive and moving the bodies around. They’re not trying to stem the flow. They’re just dealing with them when they there."