By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Educated in the principles of Catholic social teaching, Davenport Mayor Bill Gluba knew he had to do something to help children caught up in the humanitarian crisis spilling over the U.S. border with Mexico. Acting as an individual, not as mayor, he consulted with the Diocese of Davenport, which he knew had been deeply involved in resettlement of Vietnamese refugees in the late 20th century. The children fleeing Central America are not refugees, but classified as Unaccompanied Alien Children by the federal government.
Gluba called Bishop Martin Amos to ask permission to work with diocesan volunteers such as Nora Dvorak (who helped with refugee resettlement) on a plan of action to find housing for some of the unaccompanied children. Bishop Amos gave his blessing, but Gluba has taken criticism from several Davenport aldermen for moving ahead without consulting the city council. Davenport residents and outsiders have also weighed in, some supportive of the mayor’s efforts, called the Caring Cities Campaign, and others disparaging immigrants.
Gluba forged ahead, saying, “It’s a moral imperative.” Two meetings were held last week — one at diocesan headquarters — and a third meeting convened Monday, July 14, at the Davenport Public Library. Loxi Hopkins, another volunteer for the Davenport Diocese’s Social Action office, facilitated the July 14 meeting on Dvorak’s behalf.
“Davenport is a compassionate city,” Hopkins said. “We’re glad we have the opportunity to sit down and dialogue about this. I hope we can come to a solution.” Diocesan volunteer Glenn Leach shared research he’s gathered about the crisis involving the more than 57,000 children who have crossed the border alone since Oct. 1.
“The number of unaccompanied children seeking entry to the U.S. has been mounting for over two years. In response, last year the U.S. bishops sent a delegation to Central America to assess the conditions resulting in this exodus,” Leach said. The bishops cited conditions of extreme poverty and violence as significant and worsening factors. “They said the long-range answer is to work with the Central American nations to improve conditions there. Catholic Relief Services and others have been working along those lines, but we need a national strategy,” Leach added.
“This is an unprecedented event that requires unique approaches to temporarily house children until they can be discharged to a sponsor while awaiting judicial proceedings,” Emily Barson, a representative with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wrote in a July 8 email to Gluba.
Details about how many children, where and how long they might stay, remain sketchy. The federal government will cover costs pertaining to sheltering children, Leach said.
Le Anne Clausen de Montes, pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Clinton, shared information she said she had received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) concerning housing requirements for the children. Clausen de Montes is married to a refugee from El Salvador, one of the countries from which the Central American children are fleeing.
Clausen de Montes said temporary shelters should be at least 90,000 square feet, located in climate controlled, unoccupied buildings and available for a short-term lease of at least four months. The buildings must be within 50 miles of an airport, have access to social services and close to communities with Central American immigrants.
A Unified Coordination Group is evaluating facilities proposed by local and state partners, said Health and Human Services representative Kenneth Wolfe. “While only a few facilities will ultimately be selected, a wide range of facilities are being identified and evaluated to determine if they may feasibly provide temporary shelter space for children. Facilities will be announced when they are identified as viable options,” he added.
Cheryl Goodwin, president and CEO of Davenport-based Family Resources, was among social service providers at the July 14 meeting expressing concern about moving ahead too quickly when many questions remain unanswered. Her agency had been asked whether it could accommodate some of the unaccompanied children.
Goodwin said her board of directors “does not believe providing shelter to these children is an option based on the government’s desire to house so many children together, as well as all of the ‘unknowns,’ and how that may leave our current operations vulnerable or at risk. We will continue to be a participant in the discussions and if there’s a role we can play we will certainly consider it.”
The mayor directed the group at the table to devise a list of questions and answers concerning the unaccompanied children and their needs to share with the federal government. He maintained his call for swift action, even after learning that Iowa Governor Terry Branstad opposes temporarily housing the children in the state.
“If you’re in a cage in Texas and you’re 4 or 5 years old, you don’t want to wait for us to figure this process out,” Gluba said. Byron Brown, president of The Reneric Group in Rock Island, Ill., said he has worked with displaced people in other parts of the world. “The worst thing you can do is wait,” added Brown, who agreed to coordinate information from the social service providers.
“We’re all children or grandchildren of immigrants,” Mayor Gluba said. “We are our brothers’ keeper.”
Iowa bishops’ statement
“A November 2013 report from the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Committee on Migration alerted us to the ongoing increase in migration of unaccompanied children across the border. More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border since the beginning of the year.
“The report found a ‘perfect storm’ of reasons leading to this phenomenon, including an absence of economic opportunities, a lack of access to education, and a desire to reunify with family in the United States. One cause has played a decisive role in recent years: extreme violence in the countries of origin and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law. This violence has resulted in part because of the drug trade driven by users in the United States.
“We appreciate government officials for responding as best they can to this crisis and ask them to make sure that legal services are available to unaccompanied children. Children without family in the U.S. are at risk of being sent back to an unsafe situation. The best interests of these children should be a priority.
“In a recent statement for World Refugee Day, Pope Francis said ‘Jesus was a refugee’ and called upon Catholics and others to ‘alleviate their suffering in a concrete way.’ We are responding the best we can through our Catholic Charities organizations and ask the government to do the same.”
The letter was signed by Archbishop Michael Jackels, archbishop of the Dubuque Archdiocese; Bishop R. Walker Nickless, bishop of the Sioux City Diocese; Bishop Martin Amos, bishop of the Davenport Diocese; and Bishop Richard Pates, bishop of the Des Moines Diocese.