California to temporarily house young migrants, bringing stories of human suffering into sharper focus

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Unaccompanied minors from Central America line up to be transported by U.S. Customs Border Protection officials, after crossing the Rio Grande river into the United States from Mexico on rafts in Penitas, Texas, U.S., March 26, 2021. Picture taken March 26, 2021. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters.

In March alone, about 19,000 migrant children came alone to the U.S.-Mexico border, seeking asylum. That's an all-time high. 

At the request of the Biden administration, Long Beach has agreed to turn its convention center into a temporary shelter for migrant children who are waiting to be united with relatives or sponsors in the U.S. The center could start housing young migrants as early as this week. The LA County Board of Supervisors also approved plans to use the Pomona Fairplex for the same purpose. 

The plan for sheltering the children in public facilities is highly controversial. KCRW discusses this with León Krauze, columnist for the Washington Post and anchor for Univision network.

KCRW: What do you think about the effort unfolding right now to house these migrant children?

León Krauze: “I think it's a courageous step, and in many ways, also given the magnitude of the crisis, a logical step.”

Do we know how long the children might be there?

“I recently spoke with Robert Garcia, the mayor of Long Beach, and he told me that all the kids housed at the convention center will immediately go through the process of family reunification. And this is crucial, because the intention is to make the process of reunification easier for both the kids and their families.

Part of the challenge is to do it in an environment that helps convey safety, not only for the children, but for the parents claiming these children, because in previous years, parents were afraid to come forward because they feared they would be deported themselves. And this was, quite frankly, an understandable fear given the Trump administration's punitive policies, but that is no longer the case. So to help children in immigrant-friendly communities like Long Beach might help mitigate that fear. 

The mayor of Long Beach guaranteed that the facilities would be run professionally by people appointed by the federal government, and also us in the media have to follow that very closely.”

Conservatives say the Biden administration is encouraging migrants to come north by repealing tougher aspects of the Trump administration's policies. Progressives, on the other hand, say migrant children should be transitioned more quickly from government oversight into licensed care facilities. Is this a no-win situation for the Biden administration?

“I would argue that both sides should admit that this is a situation that (has) no easy solution. This is a process. The country's immigration system has been a mess for a long time. The way it processes refugees has been a mess for at least four years and longer. 

And then you have to take into consideration where these children come from, why did their parents put them at risk? And the reality is for many of these children and their parents, the alternative was much worse. Many of these children faced violence, abuse, kidnapping, sexual slavery in their countries. And those are the facts one has to consider when evaluating the steps the government is taking to deal with the crisis.”

Progressives say these temporary shelters could turn into full-fledged detention facilities. Do you think that's a legitimate concern?

“Absolutely. It is a legitimate concern. We're talking about thousands of children and teenagers housed in a strange environment after having gone through hell. So of course, that is crucial. 

The administration has said that contrary to what happened in the previous administration, Health and Human Services will focus on the wellbeing of the children. 

I have interviewed California Congress members, such as Lou Correa, who told me that even though it is far from ideal, the set of conditions that these children live in nowadays in the United States is better. Again, this is far from ideal, but that is a reason why it is urgent for other places to pitch in and help alleviate the burden these facilities have been facing.”

Do you think reporters should have access to these shelters for an initial tour? Does the media have a watchdog role to play here?

“Absolutely. Not only do we need to be there present, making sure that the facilities are adequate, that what we saw in the previous administration never happens again in the United States, but it’s also important that we hear from the children and the teenagers themselves.

Do you think reporters are missing the boat here? What should the focus of this story be?

“Yes. I mean no disrespect to our colleagues, there are many exceptions to my complaint. I do believe that when it comes to immigration, we focus mainly on what the political downfall will be, what consequences will this have in Washington. And the story is not in Washington. The story is not even at the border. 

The story is in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. And that story has been going on for years. Those of us who have gone to these places, who have interviewed these parents, who have interviewed these children, [we] know what they are going through, we know the reasons behind the brutal decision to send the kids to the United States in search of a family member. 

Those stories of very concrete human suffering are what drive the situation, nothing else. There's no political variable in this equation. Really. We are talking about very concrete human suffering.”




Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman