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Community steps up for unaccompanied minors

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Posted: Tuesday, June 10, 2014 12:00 am

As unaccompanied migrant children from Central America continue to arrive at an impromptu Border Patrol way station in Nogales, local residents are reaching out to help.

On Monday, people from throughout Santa Cruz County stopped by City Hall to drop off garments in support of a clothes drive organized by Mayor Arturo Garino and the Santa Cruz Board of Realtors.

“I had some stuff put aside to give to whoever, and when I heard about this I thought it would be a good one,” said a woman from Rio Rico who came by with a bag of shirts, plus a pair of jeans and pants, after hearing about the donation effort in a newsletter she received from Wisdom’s Café in Tumacacori.

Asked why this particular situation inspired her, the woman, who preferred to remain an anonymous donor, said: “People in need – young people in need.”

“I feel very sorry for them. And if I can help, it’s a small thing and I’m happy to do it,” she said.

Tables in the council chamber at City Hall were piled high with items including kids-sized shoes and sandals; used jeans and T-shirts neatly separated into heaps for boys and girls; hair elastics; and packages of new underwear. A toy drum poked out of the top of one box.

Garino said he wasn’t sure if the Border Patrol would accept the donations, but even if they don’t, “We made the effort… We as a city and the residents of Nogales were very happy to do this.”

(Update: Following a tour of the Border Patrol station Monday afternoon, Garino told reporters that the agency had agreed to take the donated items.)

As of Monday, there were 751 children held at a Nogales Border Patrol Station warehouse – a former processing station originally designed to expediently deport Mexican nationals and not for taking care of minors for lengthy stays, said Jose Joaquin Chacon, El Salvadoran consul in Tucson.

Since last week, the Department of Homeland Security, facing overcrowded processing centers in South Texas, has been transferring children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to Nogales after they were apprehended trying to cross the border illegally. The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border – mostly from Central America – boomed since last year, creating what President Barack Obama recently called an “urgent humanitarian situation.”

State Rep. Rosanna Gabaldon (D-Sahuarita), who represents Nogales and Santa Cruz County as part of Legislative District 2, toured the Border Patrol station on Sunday. And while she did not visit the dormitory areas where the minors have been sleeping on cots, Gabaldon said, she did see about 100 juveniles as they were coming out to eat. Most were males, approximately 12 to 16 years old, but others were females, some of whom had infants and toddlers with them.

Temperatures inside the warehouse are moderated by a “swamp cooler,” Gabaldon said, and while there is running water, the Border Patrol has had to bring in portable toilets and showers.

“I commend the Border Patrol for doing what they’re needing to do at this time, but I have to say that it is a very sad situation,” Gabaldon said.

In a letter sent Monday to President Obama, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who represents Nogales in Congress, expressed concern over reports that the warehouse at the Border Patrol Station “is not in a suitable condition to hold the unaccompanied children.” He asked that his office be “immediately” provided with written details on any improvements planned or underway to bring the facility up to par.

Grijalva also noted that there “are numerous humanitarian groups across the southwest border offering their support to assure these children receive humane treatment,” and asked that they be allowed to do so.

“They are invested in the well-being of these children who, by no fault of their own, are suffering the consequences of violence and extreme poverty in their home countries,” he wrote.

Chacon, the Salvadoran consul, said he saw volunteers at the Border Patrol Station helping to take care of the minors during the weekend, including playing with them. He praised the volunteers for their efforts.

Medical calls

Area medical service providers have been on standby since last week, and Nogales Fire Department emergency crews have already transported three youths from the Border Patrol station to Carondelet Holy Cross Hospital, according to Gerry Castro, the EMS chief.

One of the youths was a 17-year-old girl who was 32 weeks pregnant when she was taken to the hospital last Thursday after complaining of labor pains. The following day, paramedics brought a 16-year-old male to the hospital for treatment of an “active cough,” and an 18-year-old male was hospitalized with seizures on Sunday, Castro said. He added that the teen suffering seizures had been off his medication for as many as 15 days.

Dina Sanchez, administrator at Carondelet Holy Cross Hospital, said she could not comment on the status of the patients because they were under federal custody. She referred questions to a Border Patrol official, who said he would refer the question to an agency spokesman, who did not respond by press time.

The Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have offered little information on the situation in Nogales, but Gabaldon said she was told Sunday that a news conference is planned for sometime this week.

Gabaldon said the agent who led her tour Sunday, George Allen, assistant chief of the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, said the plan is to keep the minors in Nogales for no more than 72 hours before sending them to centers operated by the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services.

According to Cronkite News, White House officials said during a telephone briefing with reporters Monday that facilities at military bases in Texas and California have been opened to accommodate migrant children. Meanwhile, preparations are under way to open third facility in Oklahoma.

‘For the children’

Gus Benavides, operations administrator at the Nogales Crossroads Mission, said the mission, which offers lodging and hot meals to people in transition, has a contingency plan in case federal authorities need overflow housing, or if any minors are released into the local community.

“I personally doubt that they’ll release anybody here in Nogales. They’re in federal custody, they’re minors, I don’t think they want them out in the street,” Benavides said. “But just in case. You know, the mayor came on television and he said the city would offer any and all assistance that would be needed, if needed, so we just offered up our facility to the Mayor’s Office.”

The Crossroads Mission could handle no more than 50 or 60 of the minors, Benavides said, “but if it came to that, we’d be more than willing to assist.”

Kathi Campana, president of the Santa Cruz Board of Realtors, said there has been a good response to the clothing drive organized by her group and the Mayor’s Office, but added that more is needed.

“One of our members is married to a Border Patrolman and was told by her husband that all of these kids were dumped in Nogales and all they had basically was the clothes on their backs,” Campana said.

At City Hall, Cathy Garino, the mayor’s wife, sorted donated jeans, T-shirts and underwear in cardboard boxes by clothing sizes, as some people brought in clothing in dark, large plastic bags. The mayor said the response shows that Nogales has come together during this humanitarian effort, responding quickly to a call he put out Saturday on his Facebook page.

At noon Monday, a young woman in her 20s who asked not to be identified, stopped by City Hall with a bag full of clothing. She happily gave it to Cathy Garino.

“I do this for the children,” she said, smiling.

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