Help and Hope: Here Are Eight Ideas for Supporting Children Coming Out of Migrant Detention Centers

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Alex Hernandez, an alum of the UnidosUS National Institute of Latino School Leaders fellowship (NILSL) knew she was signing up for an inspiring but tough job when she accepted a position as principal of Multicultural High School in Brooklyn, New York in 2010. Just how tough was another question.

Since that time, she says dozens of asylum-seeking students have enrolled in her school after being released from migrant detention centers. She saw the biggest wave around 2014, when many were showing up in her school as unaccompanied minors.

“There’s no question that what’s happening in immigration is affecting our community. I can distinctly remember kids telling us stories of being right in the refrigerator or the icebox, and that narrative still continues, so we’ve seen this for a while now but the severity of the experience for the students is worse,” says Hernandez, noting that migrant detention centers, known for unhospitable temperatures and bedding, have been around for a long time.

School attendance is a requirement for all school-age children, but in today’s political climate, it’s tough to get them to show up and stay motivated when they do. First, these children have to deal with the trauma of migration, then the trauma of the detention center, and finally, the trauma of very possibly being deported when they become legal adults at 18 because their asylum cases aren’t likely to be accepted.

“I’ve been going crazy trying to develop a tiered mental health model in our school where we’re targeting kids based on the needs that surface. I’ve had my guidance counselors keeping track of kids that were in detention centers, to observe them in the first weeks of school, and engage with mental health counselors, but there isn’t always a happy ending,” Hernandez laments. “The asylum cases were approved a lot more a few years ago. Now we host legal clinics once a month, and the attorneys are giving our kids a lot of really disappointing news, so I’ve had young people run away, or turn to substance abuse. They’re suppressing their trauma.”

Infuriating and devastating as these scenarios may be, Hernandez and her team continue to look for ways to offer emotional and logistical support and share ideas with other educators and school administrators. And that led to seek out others for greater information sharing and networking. In fact, we spoke to education and youth development specialists operating here in the United States as well as in some of the countries from which a large number of these youth are coming. The following is a list of ideas we curated from Hernandez, her staff, and these other sources.

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1) Identify Who Needs the Most Support

Educators generally know which students have just come from migrant detention centers because they are usually sent to the schools by refugee services programs. But that might not always be the case, and even if you do know which kids have been through a harrowing migratory experience, their reaction to it may vary. Children may react to this in all kinds of ways, from becoming increasingly quiet and distant to very notably angry and aggressive.

“It’s just different for all the kids. They don’t really open up completely until later on in the school year when the sense of normalcy has been more continuous,” says Hernandez.

“Ultimately, young people want to be known and accepted. Our students’ needs range from needing homes to wanting access to immigration help in hopes to find work to survive.”

Luckily for Hernandez and her students, Multicultural High School is designed for young people who are new to the country and are from the Spanish-speaking diaspora, allowing them to immediately connect to the community with few linguistic or cultural barriers. But most schools aren’t set up that way, so faculty and staff will need to get creative, and probably lean on local community youth programs for support.

“Cultivating trust and being responsive to needs of students is critical to the success of young people who find themselves in these complex situations,” Hernandez adds. “For schools that do not have the privilege of a community like ours, creating safe spaces for students to connect with one another and identifying adults they can speak to is key.”

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2) Create Warm, Friendly Spaces

It’s pretty obvious that any child coming out of a migrant detention center has suffered multiple traumas, and oftentimes there are multiple layers, such as the trauma that prompted their family to flee the home country, the trauma of traveling to the U.S. border, the trauma of being detained and very likely separated from one’s parents, and the trauma of starting a new school and a new homelife on the back end, waiting and wondering if it’s a permanent one.

As such, creating safe, fun spaces, however large or small those spaces may be, can help to distract kids for a time, and even lower their stress levels, says anthropologist Carolyn Rose-Avila, a former Save the Children director in Latin America and the Caribbean, who has worked with youth and migration in all kinds of disaster scenarios in the Americas. Today, she serves as an interpreter for asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border. She and her husband Magdaleno Rose-Avila, a prominent Chicano civil rights organizer, have been hosting Central American teenagers who came seeking asylum.

“When you have this kind of a crisis, everyone is stressed out, the parents are stressed out, there’s no home, no water—you don’t want the children to have to constantly hear about this horrible situation, so I love the concept of the child-friendly space,” she says.

And what does such a space look like? Many of the experts we spoke with said that could be a quiet room or a play room in a larger structure, or a cozy corner in a classroom or an office lobby. It helps to decorate such a space in an aesthetically inviting and kid-friendly way with lots of color pops and fun pictures, and to fill it with stuffed animals, toys, games, or materials to make art projects.

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3) Help Them Explore the World and Their Place in It Positively

Whether in a refugee camp, an after-school program, or on school grounds, getting kids the ability to feel like kids is basically the same concept, Rose-Avila says. For example, she recently met an 11-year-old Congolese refugee with an old violin she couldn’t play because it didn’t have strings. She and her colleagues took the girl and her friends to a giant music store to buy new strings, and then spend the day exploring instruments. This led the immigrant outreach team Rose-Avila was working with to obtain a grant to buy the drums for the children, since percussion is so integral to Congolese lifeways, not to mention a great stress reliever.

They also worked to make kids feel excited and proud of where they come from by asking them to engage in simple geography exercises.

“We’d ask them ‘what does your flag look like?’ And then we’d have them take that flag and put it on a map,” says Rose-Avila.

And on that geographic note, says Rose-Avila, “They need to see the bigger world, and they need more exposure, so we do things like take them to the movies or to a museum. Yes, they’re in a tough situation, you want to have time to hear what their fears and concerns are, but you don’t want to make this a horrible tragedy all the time.”

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4) Help Them Recognize the Benefits of Staying in School, Even If It’s Temporary

Students drop out of school for many reasons. Among Latinos and immigrants, those reasons often include struggles with language barriers or familial pressure to work and support the family. And when it comes to youth who find themselves in legal limbo, wondering if and when they may be sent back to the land of their birth, interest in school can wane even more. But there are plenty of reasons to encourage these youth to continue coming to school, and create the circumstances for them wanting to be there.

“Helping students orient themselves into the possibility of their future is dropout intervention,” Hernandez says. “It is often so difficult to convince our students because they are trying to survive now. The primary argument we make is the relationship between education and poverty, specifically focused on education as the disruptor of poverty. We share with students that your education and your mind will always be yours and can never be taken away. We share that the dollar today will mean something different than the dollar tomorrow. We remind students of their future and encourage them to see themselves in it. Our students are hopeful, and our job is to keep the possibility of hope for the future alive.”

But again, not all schools are equipped the way they should be to handle those linguistic or cultural differences, not to mention low literacy levels, warns UnidosUS Director of Parent and Community Engagement Jose Rodriguez.

“Many of the unaccompanied minors have never been in school before or have very limited schooling in their native country, and most cannot read or write in their native language. For some, Spanish is their second language, so in a nutshell, schools are not prepared to serve them well,” he notes. Plus, he says “school counselors have so many other roles now, that they don’t have time to counsel kids. So that is a big problem.”

But that is a place where UnidosUS’s nationwide Affiliate Network can work to fill the gap, with UnidosUS’s youth mentorship and tutoring programs such as Escalera, Entre Mujeres, CHISPA, Líderes Avanzando.

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5) Remind Them They Are an Asset, No Matter What

No matter how much time these youth spend in your community, no matter how much English they pick up, they should be reminded that their life experience, their insights into the world, their resilience in moving through so many difficult situations can all be harnessed.

In fact, sometimes returned migrants are surprised to realize what they have to offer their own communities. In the late 1990s, Carolyn Rose-Avila was running Save the Children’s Central America and Caribbean programs from its headquarters in El Salvador, just as the United States began deporting hundreds of Central American youth. In that era, immigration authorities mostly targeted immigrants with criminal records, especially those affiliated with transnational gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street. Carolyn Rose-Avila leveraged her position with Save the Children to help her husband Magdaleno set up a separate program called Homies Unidos to help these youth. Controversial as it was, they understood that young people sometimes become involved in gangs because they grew up in war zones or crime-ridden neighborhoods as young refugees, and felt compelled to join gangs for protection.

They also understood that this issue could become exacerbated back in the war-torn countries to which these children were sent back because even in peacetime, violence was endemic, the rule of law weak, and the economy tumultuous. They wanted to help the youth get back on their feet without returning to the very gang life they came to know in the United States. Funding and programs for psychological intervention were few, but tapping into the youth’s knowledge of mural painting, sketching, music, and even tattoo art could be one way to give them a sense of catharsis and cooperation. They also found that these youth sometimes had skills their local compatriots didn’t.

They might speak very good English and could thus work as translators for international organizations. They might know more about technology and computers, and thus they might be instrumental in creating vocational centers.

“They could wear many hats,” said Carolyn Rose-Avila. “They could be guards for buildings. They knew how file documents and put things away. They knew how drive cars. It was about engaging them in positive activities.”

Demonstrators protest child migrant detention centers in Homestead, FL. Photo by Julienne Gage.

6) Help Students and Families Think Strategically About Worst-Case Scenarios

 Coming out of a migrant detention center doesn’t necessarily mean a child will be deported, but it’s certainly more likely in this current political climate. And even kids who never went into those centers are at risk of ICE raids, so one of the best ways to mitigate the risks and the stress associated with them is to talk about rights and options in any scenario. Educators and youth leaders can begin this process by providing legal resources. In fact, this summer, UnidosUS created a landing page called Every Child’s Right to Learn: Resources for Navigating Your Public Schools, which offers a wide array of information.

But should youth get sent back to their home countries, it can be complicated to link the up with support systems on the other side. Some countries have centers for returned migrants, but they’re so overwhelmed they don’t always advertise their services. As such, one of the next best options is to help youth think about social networks such as churches, international aid agencies, or non-governmental organizations.

Homies Unidos no longer has an official program in El Salvador, but does have programs in Los Angeles and Denver, where leaders who have been through migratory turmoil are working to build those networks. Currently, Homies Unidos’s main thrust in this area is to help older people who were incarcerated, served their time, and are getting sent back to a country they haven’t lived in for years. However, much of the same strategic advice they offer the formerly incarcerated can be offered to the formerly detained.

“We try and help them create a survival strategy—like making sure there’s someone waiting for them at the airport, knowing where a local church is because those can be a place of sanctuary,” says Homies Unidos Executive Director Alex Sanchez. “We’re really looking at what agencies can help at, putting together a plan that asks questions like ‘Where will they live? Where can they get temporary shelter or employment? Who can get them a job even before they get there?’”

Sanchez and his team are also aware that deportation is yet another layer of trauma that can lead people into substance abuse or other risk-taking activities, so it’s important to research rehabilitation programs, support groups, and even houses of worship to deal with the emotional wounds.

They also seek to remind immigrants in legal limbo that if they’re considering asylum over deportation, they’ll need to think about where to get the pro-bono support or the funds for a lawyer, which can be thousands of dollars. Migrants must be prepared to share a compelling case with lots of evidence and understand the differences in legal terms of categories such as asylum or cases of torture. Schools, community centers, and interest groups can all help by offering free legal clinics, but he says those clinics should also help their clients to be realistic.

“If you’re going to spend $7,000 on a case you’ll likely lose because you can’t prove it beyond a reasonable doubt, you’re gonna suffer, so we also let them know they might want to take that money and create a security fund to help them if they go home and need to support themselves while seeking employment,” Sanchez says.

Youth participating in World Vision’s Youth Ready program gather for a conference in Central America. Photo Care of World Vision.

7) Help Students Research Youth Outreach Programs in Their Home Countries

Homies Unidos is likely one of many organizations building out return plans for those who need them, and will continue to inform readers as we learn more. But in the meantime, teachers, social workers, and youth leaders can help students mitigate these dismal circumstances by reminding them that there are still reasons to be hopeful.

Even though funding for international youth programs has suffered dramatically under budget cuts to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), it still exists, and that money—as well as funds from churches and private donors—still supports youth outreach and development efforts on the ground in just about any country in the world. In fact, many of the most high-profile programs link up with much smaller, community-based projects to develop solid, life-affirming educational and vocational youth curriculums.

For example, Catholic Relief Services, one of the world’s largest private international development agencies, has spent almost a decade working with local partners in Central America to implement the US educational and vocational training program Youth Build International under the title Jóvenes Constructores. Another such model is World Vision’s Youth Ready. It is implemented all over the world, but in this hemisphere, it is largely focused on migration epicenters like San Pedro Sula, Honduras and Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Both programs hope to rebuild communities and discourage dangerous migration by coordinating social and economic engagement efforts between government agencies, the private sector, churches, universities, and civil organizations. That work gets more challenging with every new wave of deportations, but  these organizations are committed to welcoming everyone.

“Creating hope means working with the root causes of despair from a variety of angles,” says Aaron Ausland, World Vision’s Senior Technical Director for Youth Empowerment and Workforce Development and creator of the Youth Ready project model. “Internships can’t help a young person who can’t safely cross the invisible but very real boundaries of territorial gangs. Life skills training don’t have traction for youth struggling with trauma or in a mental health crisis.”

Wherever youth may be returning, he suggests researching area programs that can give them “credible hope at home” by linking them up with a combination of safe spaces for belonging and ongoing mentorship, a culturally relevant approach to education and technical training, and access to seed money for entrepeneurship, professional networking organizations, and jobs in the local market.

Young women participating in a Homies Unidos youth empowerment program in Los Angeles.

8) Keep in Touch

UnidosUS is among many organizations raising its voice against unjust immigration policies aimed at terrifying and deterring immigrants from seeking a better, safer life, and exercising their right to a fair legal hearing on their cases. At the same time, we know some immigrants in these cases will be deported or even make the tough choice to return to the countries and complex circumstances they left. But anyone working in the educational, humanitarian, or human rights sectors can work together toward peaceful resolutions by sharing information and ideas, and also by keeping in touch with the immigrants who do go home. That information can be a lifeline to others in the similar migratory situations, it can contribute to better long-term public policies, and it helps students to be resilient in the face of incredible struggle.

“Remaining connected to young people in these situations reminds them that they are not their status,” says Hernandez. “It is so important to remind young people that they are smart, capable, special, thoughtful, and have a place in our world.”

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