Plight of unaccompanied minors in NC offers a chance to act

In early December, my students and I sat in the federal Immigration Court in Charlotte. Judge Barry Pettinato presided, and an attorney with a massive rolling file cart represented the government. I wanted my students to witness what is normally studied in the abstract: the phenomenon of Latin American immigration. I wanted to humanize a group of people and a contentious issue.

In roughly 30 minutes, we observed the judge rifle through seven cases, most of which were postponed until this month. Of the seven, five involved men, a sixth a mother and her three sons, and the seventh a 15-year-old unaccompanied child from El Salvador.

Most of the men stood before the judge because their immigration status had been discovered after being arrested or cited by the police. Most of the criminal complaints were dismissed. Nevertheless, they stood before Judge Pettinato because they were here without authorization.

I was most fascinated with the Salvadoran teenage girl. She sat before the judge, her mother standing behind her. I can only imagine what she experienced as she traveled from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the Texas border.

Sometime after the girl crossed, Customs and Border Patrol agents arrested her and placed her in a detention center until a sponsor (an aunt) was located in North Carolina. Beyond this, we learned little about this young person. If she had not experienced violence personally, she certainly had been surrounded by it throughout the journey. Stories of sexual assault and sex trafficking are rife, as are the stories of violence in El Salvador that prompted the emigration in the first place. I could not help but admire her bravery and strength.

This girl is just one of roughly 58,000 unaccompanied children who were released to a sponsor by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement between October 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014. She also represents the changing nature of this migratory stream – increasingly younger and female. In 2012, only 23 percent of unaccompanied minors were female and 17 percent were younger than 14. In 2014, females accounted for 34 percent of arrivals, and 27 percent were younger than 14.

Since this stream turned into a wave last summer, communities throughout the country have had to scramble to meet the needs of these young people.

North Carolina has received the ninth-largest group of unaccompanied minors in the United States. In the state, Mecklenburg County received the largest share of these migrants, numbering 683 by the end of fiscal year 2014 and measuring 13th largest in the country. Wake and Durham counties rank 44th and 53rd, respectively. Some of these children were as young as 5 years old. Others were as old as 16 and had a trade and a family. Approximately 140 of these kids are now students at Harding University High School in Charlotte.

Communities and civil society organizations have mobilized to serve these children. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools received federal Title III money to pay for programs serving immigrant children with limited English-language skills. In the process, CMS has partnered with Communities in Schools of Charlotte-Mecklenburg to develop and implement them. Catholic Charities of Charlotte continues its afterschool programs for refugee children. Several towns and cities have declared support for these children, as have some counties. Lawyers in Raleigh have joined with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants to host a free training event for attorneys interested in representing these children.

Yet this situation needs even greater public attention and involvement. These unaccompanied arrivals are in cities (Charlotte and Raleigh) and a state in which upward social mobility is stubbornly difficult for the working poor and those on the margins of society.

Whatever one’s views on immigration reform may be, compassion, empathy and frankly community self-interest should motivate people to support this most vulnerable of groups. These children are here and now a part of our communities. Indeed, we should embrace the call in Pope Francis’ Christmas message to “transform arms into ploughshares, destruction into creativity, hatred into love and tenderness.” Opportunities abound with faith-based associations, civil society groups and nongovernment organizations.

The challenge is surely great, but this is an opportunity for North Carolinians to meet and realize in practice what we perceive ourselves to be. Most importantly, it’s a chance to display the same determination and commitment that a young Salvadoran teenager sitting before a federal judge with her mother’s hand resting tenderly on her shoulder demonstrated.

Steven Hyland Jr. of Charlotte is an assistant professor in the Department of History and Political Science at Wingate University.