"A lot of people are pro life -- this is a pro-life issue." That's how St. Joseph Church parishioner Sylvia Villasenor framed the urgent issue of caring for Central American children who have been caught crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in record number, unaccompanied by an adult and without resources. And she's right.
Responding to the growing humanitarian crisis involving these vulnerable refugees, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors earlier this month directed county administrators to lay the groundwork for a "host family" program to provide safe temporary haven for a number of these children, who are now being warehoused near the border, awaiting immigration hearings.
Supervisor Joe Simitian told the Voice that the program, if approved by the supervisors in coming weeks, would help identify and connect some of the children with local host families "who have big enough hearts and big enough homes" to take them in.
The need for big hearts and homes to help alleviate this crisis is tremendous. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of unaccompanied children 12 and under crossing the border from Central America, and being caught in the border patrol net, has risen by 117 percent this fiscal year compared with the same period last year. The U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office estimates that more than 90,000 unaccompanied minors, including teens, will cross the border in 2014, which is nearly three times the agency's estimate of those crossing last year.
Most of these children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and they are fleeing levels of violence unseen in any other area of the world outside of war zones, according to a report on the crisis posted on the progressive think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research website.
The county's host family program is sure to draw intense criticism from U.S. citizens who oppose leniency for undocumented immigrants, but the supervisors' preliminary move toward helping to address a dire need is commendable, as is the willingness on the part of community organizations that are offering their help to make the program work.
County officials note that the host family program would be modeled on standard student-exchange programs. Volunteer families would be screened, and children would be placed in appropriate homes. There would be no draining of resources from the county's foster care program, and the county expects reimbursement from the federal government for its host family program. With the federal government spending millions on housing these children now, host families "could probably do the job more cost-effectively, and in a way that's better for the kids involved," Supervisor Simitian said.
County administrators will present a host family plan on Aug. 26 for possible approval by the supervisors, four of five of whom supported creating such a program at an Aug. 5 meeting. We hope they will stay on track and approve this program, which if crafted with care could be a model of compassion and effectiveness in public policy.