Up close and personal with migrant children in Dade school

This year, on the first day of the academic calendar, I kicked off the day at Francis Tucker Elementary in Coconut Grove donating book bags and supplies to excited kindergartners in this historic and economically fragile neighborhood of the City of Miami.

A few hours later, in sharp contrast, the atmosphere was quiet and somber as I visited another group of children to check on their school setting. The place, Boys Town, in South Dade, is one of two centers in our area where unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border are processed.

It was well kept, clean and resembled a school. But something was off, and I soon realized that the issue was the silence. As we toured the dormitories of perfectly aligned bunk beds with two drawers each, identical burgundy bed sheets and comforters and Ikea wall stickers that sought to make it inviting, it became clear that despite the effort to decorate, the uniformity confirmed that this was a transitory place.

The caseworkers smiled and answered our questions about the process. “What would you like people to know about this place?” I asked.

“That we have been here a long time, that these children have been coming for a long time. It’s just that now everyone is talking about it, but there is nothing new about this place or this process,” a caseworker responded.

And while that is true, it’s the number of children currently being processed at centers like this throughout the country that has people talking, wondering, asking questions about the cost, about the future. Just a few days earlier, the federal agency in charge of the care of these children in these Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities had provided some relevant data.

“The minors in HHS facilities do not come in contact with the [surrounding] community. They are schooled at the location where they are being held. All costs associated with the [unaccompanied children] are incurred by HHS . . .  Education, medical etc. [are] all done on site. Typically they are at the facility for an average of 35 days. Once the children are united with their sponsor, they are registered for school in the district where the sponsor resides. Currently, HHS does not have accurate information of a breakdown on where the children are living with sponsors.”

At Boys Town we learned that many of the sponsors are the children’s undocumented parents and/or relatives, and that most have family in the United States who claim them and promise to abide by the immigration process involving the minors.

And while 3,181 minors were processed in Florida between Jan. 1, 2014 and July 1, 2014, 3,298 are currently residing in Florida. The breakdown provided by HHS: Miami-Dade, 1,127; Palm Beach, 785; Broward, 356; Lee, 232; Orange County, 216; Collier, 160; Hillsborough, 142; Duval, 140; Marathon, 81; and 59 in Manatee County.

The layout of the classrooms I saw that day was the same as the many adult educations centers that I have visited at Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Side-by-side instruction separated by thin partitions, these classes could have been in any adult facility, but instead they were at Boys Town, filled with young children who rarely spoke above a whisper.

It was evident that these children, while childlike in stature and appearance, had lost their innocence and endured all kinds of abuse prior to residing here. “How many of these minors have been sexually abused?” we asked.

“Almost all of them . . . the coyotes who smuggle them into the country believe that they have the right to abuse these children; that part of the price of being smuggled is being sexual violated and beaten,” the case worker responded.

As we walked outside we caught a glimpse of the field. “They love to play outside” one of the caseworkers interrupted, “especially soccer. We have a coach from the YMCA that comes to train them; they look forward to it all day.” I immediately thought of my 9-year-old son who spends all day looking forward to afterschool sports and of the 10-year-old from El Salvador I had just met. As the black iron gate closed behind us, I thought about the lottery of birth that had made their lives and their first day of school so very different.

In a few days, Congress will return from the summer recess. Now that we have more information on the location and conditions surrounding these minors, I hope that amid the rhetoric for or against comprehensive immigration reform more leaders will take the time, as I did, to review the data and get up close and personal with these minors prior to voting on their fate. Because prior to the start of session, 24 new beds will be filled at Boys Town in South Dade.

Raquel Regalado represents District 6 on the School Board of Miami-Dade County.