Four Honduran teenage boys are missing after they ran away from a federally funded shelter in Tucson this month, sparking concern among both conservative and liberal critics of the system for housing immigrant youths.
Both sides say the program needs more oversight and transparency.
“They have been very, very secretive in terms of allowing elected officials, the public, the media in to see the conditions under which the kids are being kept,” Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik said. “What I am concerned about, given the kids’ escape, is they are escaping from something. They have language barriers; they’re runaway youth in the city now.”
Shelter officials immediately notified police, who have yet to find the teens, according to Tucson police spokesman Christopher Goins. “From what they told us about these juveniles, they were no danger to themselves or others,” Goins said, so they were not listed on the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s Web page.
As of this month, 5,900 unaccompanied immigrant youths were held at shelters nationwide, which are less restrictive than detention centers.
The shelter system drew national attention last year after more than 68,500 mostly Central American children arrived without parents at the Texas border. There are more than 100 other facilities in a dozen states with 8,000 beds, most along the Southwest border.
After the Border Patrol apprehends the unaccompanied youths, the agency is required by law to turn them over within 72 hours to the Department of Health and Human Services, which places them at shelters overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and then, if possible, with parents or other sponsors.
“The safety and security of each unaccompanied child in our care is our primary concern,” said Mark Weber, a department spokesman, noting that at the shelters, “a very small number of children run away.”
Of 34,000 immigrant youths placed at shelters this fiscal year, 76 left without permission from 43 shelters, five more than last year, Weber said.
After a runaway is reported, federal officials work with the shelters to “review and address safety and security measures,” Weber said, and in some cases stops placing youths at the shelter until the review is completed.
Weber said the department and shelters “may take additional steps to prevent recurrence” such as counseling other children at the shelter “about the risks of harm that can occur when a child leaves without permission,” increasing supervision or security.
“The Tucson facility in question is adding security cameras, increasing staffing and installing additional security doors to close off the path two of the teenagers used to leave,” Weber said.
The shelter, a brown and tan ranch-style building formerly used as off-campus student housing for a college, has an internal courtyard, pool and nursery, surrounded by lawns and palm trees and is run by Southwest Key Programs, an Austin, Texas-based nonprofit that operates almost two dozen shelters in Arizona, California and Texas housing thousands of youths.
The four Honduran teens ran away from the shelter in stages, according to police: two 16-year-olds on Oct. 6, a 17-year-old the next day and another 16-year-old three days after that.
Cindy Casares, a spokeswoman for Southwest Key, said the organization’s 23 unaccompanied minor shelters are “highly regulated by every level of government” and licensed by state child-care authorities.
But Casares also noted that “our shelters are not secure facilities.”
“The kids are not in a detention center. These are child-friendly shelters. The children staying there are all under age 18 and are awaiting reunification with a parent or guardian, as is permitted by law,” she said, adding that, “of the thousands of children we have served over the years, less than a fraction of 1% have absconded from our shelters.”
“That the overwhelming majority of children do not run is a testament to the good work we are doing there,” Casares said.
So far this calendar year, of 12,337 youths at Southwest Key shelters, only 16 ran away, she said.
After the Tucson shelter opened in early July with room for more than 250, Vice Mayor Karin Uhlich visited and was impressed.
“They just continue to run I believe because they are afraid of being deported back to very dangerous circumstances,” Uhlich said of youths at the shelter. “My concern is, as a federal government, are we appropriately and rapidly processing applications for asylum and threats to young people who are being deported back to Central America? They are running I believe because they think the risks are less than to claim asylum.”
Some immigrant advocates agreed, noting that immigrant youths including those at shelters are not guaranteed attorneys. (Casares said she didn’t know whether the four who fled had attorneys, and the director of a legal program that serves the shelter said she couldn’t comment without the youths’ permission.)
If children feel hopeless in these facilities, “9 times out of 10 it’s because they don’t understand what’s going to happen to them” or have legal help, said Jonathan Ryan, executive director of San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which represents immigrant families and children, including those at some Texas shelters.
Conservative opponents of the shelters, who lobbied last year to block new ones from opening in Texas and other Western states, worry that runaways pose a risk to surrounding communities.
Last year, two Guatemalan teens fled a nonprofit Heartland Alliance shelter in the Chicago suburb of Des Plaines, headed for California and carjacked two people — a woman and a 91-year-old veteran — before they were caught and charged.
Weber said placements at the shelter were on hold for a short time, until they took corrective action. A Heartland Alliance spokesman said that their shelters are not locked to maintain a “home-like setting” and that they had only three runaways last year, one so far this year, out of 5,994 youths served.
“It calls into question how well this whole program has been managed. There are very legitimate questions that these service providers have failed in many ways and the federal government has failed in its oversight,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.
“This is a very predictable problem given the experience we have with this group of illegal immigrants,” including youths with gang affiliations or who are vulnerable to gang recruitment, she said. “The expectation that this kind of a shelter is going to be appropriate for all of them is mistaken from the get-go.”
Kozachik, the Tucson councilman, said Southwest Key and federal supervisors need to respond to the latest runaway reports with more transparency.
“They need to open the doors up and let the community see what’s going on inside there. This is taxpayer-funded and it’s a vulnerable population,” he said. “We need to have a conversation with [federal officials] about why these kids are running away, get them reconnected with families, re-integrated with society so they’re not just warehoused youth.”
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