Unaccompanied migrant children pose local challenge

Cathi Tillman, executive director of La Puerta Abierta, views a documentary about the youths fleeing Central America.
Cathi Tillman, executive director of La Puerta Abierta, views a documentary about the youths fleeing Central America. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 26, 2014

His mother sells empanadas from their home in Honduras. He shines shoes - $5 a day. Add to their woes the constant threats: Join or be killed by deadly gangs.

Now, gap-toothed Kevin, 14, is atop a speeding Mexican train called "the Beast," aiming to cross the U.S. border illegally, to face new uncertainties amid the "big towers" and "great cities" he sees on TV.

Officials say tens of thousands of children like him are fleeing Central America, primarily Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Since 2013, their number has more than doubled.

Using Kevin's story from the documentary Which Way Home as an opening vignette, experts said Thursday the humanitarian crisis on America's southern border is a local challenge, too.

"While most of these children are not refugees, they have similar needs," said Peter Gottemoller, a program director with Lutheran Children and Family Service, and one of the panelists assembled by the Philadelphia Bar Association for a roundtable discussion.

Pennsylvania welfare officials said this week that about 500 migrant children are being housed in temporary centers, and with relatives and in foster placements.

Cathi Tillman, a social worker, is the founder and director of La Puerta Abierta ("The Open Door"), a Philadelphia nonprofit that provides counseling for Latino families and individuals. She said the placement of unaccompanied immigrant children in Pennsylvania poses special challenges for their health and educational needs because many are deeply scarred psychologically.

She likened their experiences to "the Lost Boys," child soldiers from Somalia and Sudan.

Treating them is not simple, she said, because "without a Social Security number, plain and simple, it is almost impossible to get mental health services."

Rates of killings in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador are among the top five in the world, Nicole Boehner, with the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told the audience of about 100 immigration lawyers and social service providers at the meeting in a Center City office tower.

Steven Larin, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, who decades ago fled that country's civil war, said there is a greater threat of death and violence in El Salvador now than in the war years.

These issues are "personal," said Larin, who directs legal services for the Nationalities Service Center, a nonprofit resettlement agency in the city.

Judi Bernstein Baker of HIAS Pennsylvania, which provides legal and social services for immigrants and refugees, urged attendees to oppose a bill pending in Congress that would roll back the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a 2008 law that provides some legal protections for unaccompanied minors from Central America.

Wendy Hess, who chairs the bar association's immigration committee, said the flood of children poses an important test.

"The world is a mess," she said, citing Thursday's crash of an Air Algerie plane, and the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine. "Today we have an opportunity to do something. Many of these children are 3 years old, 5 years old, 10 years old."


215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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