What happens to migrant children held at refugee camps in Texas?

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by BYRON HARRIS / WFAA

WFAA

Posted on June 20, 2014 at 9:42 AM

DALLAS -- The pictures you've seen of unaccompanied kids from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala crammed into Border Patrol stations in Texas and Arizona are just the beginning of a lengthy process the children will go through before most of them are deported.

The children are supposed to be held at the border for only 72 hours before being dispersed to a shelter, like the one at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio that's now temporary home to about 1,000 kids. The children are supposed to be held at those shelters for about three weeks, while case workers decide where to send them next.

Meanwhile, the gears of the legal system are supposed to be moving.

Customs and Border Protection is supposed to present each child with a "Notice to Appear" in U.S. Immigration Court.

The Immigration Court for children in the Northern District of Texas, which includes Dallas and Fort Worth, is held three times a month and adjudicates about 75 cases, said Vanna Slaughter, director of Immigration and Legal Services at Catholic Charities of Dallas. As an attorney, she's specialized in immigration for more than a decade. Catholic Charities of Dallas is contracted by the Department of Justice to help in the legal process for unaccompanied children.

The problem is, after receiving a "Notice to Appear," a child may wait a year or more for a date in immigration court.

"There's a big time lag between the time [the children] are issued the 'Notice to Appear' document and the time that the court can schedule them," Slaughter said.

Other parts of the system - the Office of Refugee Resettlement of the Department of Health and Human Services - have to figure out what to do with the kids during that wait. The child may be assigned to a foster home or to a relative in the U.S., if they have one.

On average, Slaughter said, 60 percent of the children will be deported once they appear in court. The remaining 40 percent present thorny problems for the legal system.

A judge could decide they deserve political asylum or special status if the child has been abused, abandoned, or neglected. The child could be issued a "U" visa, granting them temporary or even permanent status to be in the country, if they've been a victim of serious crime in the United States. A very small category of kids are granted the right to stay for undefined special situations.

"As a country, we really need to arrive at how to handle this," Slaughter said. "What is our policy going to be? Because it will continue to spiral out of control, we all believe."

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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