Seeking open hearts and spare rooms

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, headquartered in Baltimore and celebrating its 75th anniversary with a gala tonight, has at least part of the solution to the problem of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S. border with Mexico — and it's not sending them back where they came from.

LIRS thinks just the opposite should occur: a full embrace of the problem by the government and faith-based organizations, and foster homes for the children who have no relatives here.

So officials at the national headquarters near Baltimore's Inner Harbor have been asking Lutheran families (and anyone else with a heart and a spare room) to "give the gift of family" to some of the thousands of kids who've made journeys from Central American countries torn by violence.

These kids have faced all kinds of dangers back home. LIRS says some were forced into gangs; some were forced into the sex-slave trade. And even as they escaped into Mexico and north to the border, some endured sexual violence and abuse.

Nearly 10,000 children were caught at the border in May alone. Most are being held in crowded and inadequate facilities near the border, which is why the White House calls this an "urgent humanitarian situation."

The surge of unaccompanied children hit home here a couple of weeks ago when it was learned that the Obama administration was nosing around Maryland for a place to house hundreds of them. For a time, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considered the empty Metro West office complex on North Greene Street as a potential shelter site. But that idea was scrapped after Sen. Barbara Mikulski, among others, deemed the site unsuitable for children.

Since then, the Obama administration has begun to explore other sites in Maryland, including one in Prince George's County.

In the meantime, the faith-based community is doing what Mikulski and others have implored it to do — get involved.

The Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church in Baltimore County is operating under a grant to care for several dozen immigrants.

And from their offices on Light Street, the Lutherans are on the case on a national scale.

Many unaccompanied children have crossed the border before, says LIRS President and CEO Linda Hartke, but not in the numbers seen by immigration officials in the last couple of years.

Kimberly Haynes, director of children's services for the LIRS, says that, while the numbers are growing — largely as the result of violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — most of the children have relatives in the United States and, potentially, places to live.

In fact, Haynes says, between 90 percent and 95 percent of the border kids have a parent or sibling here already, someone who could provide them with a home. The difficulty comes during "processing" — that is, providing the children a decent shelter and services while federal officials screen them and eventually place them.

Another small percentage of children have family friends who might be willing to take them in. But that takes time to sort out, too.

"Less than 1 percent of them are minors with no family here," says Haynes. Those kids, she adds, might have been victims of human trafficking, or they might have been the victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment. Their main caregiver back in Guatemala or Honduras might have died.

It's for that small group of children with no place to go that the LIRS suggests foster care — that is, placement with American families and enrollment in schools.

The LIRS collaborates with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and some 60 legal and social service partners — Catholic Charities' Esperanza Center on South Broadway, for instance — to provide services to immigrant children across the country. The LIRS supports foster care programs in about 10 areas, including the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia.

There's no organization officially offering foster care for the border kids in Baltimore, says Haynes. The feds must agree to such an expansion, she says, and have not yet done so.

But that doesn't preclude Baltimoreans with open hearts and spare rooms from taking in a border kid. Willing adults could still apply to be a foster parent through one of the LIRS-affiliated organizations in the Washington area.

Meanwhile, the Immigration Outreach Service Center at St. Matthew Roman Catholic Church in Northeast Baltimore has put out a feeler for Spanish-speaking parishioners willing to house children, says Pat Jones, its director.

I asked the Rev. Joe Muth, the longtime pastor at St. Matthew's, if he had a homily to go with that appeal.

"This weekend coming," he noted, "we have the reading from the book of Deuteronomy that says, 'Remember, the Lord, your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery; who guided you through the vast and terrible desert with its saraph serpents and scorpions, its parched and waterless ground.' "

Sounds like the makings of an effective pitch to people with open hearts and spare rooms.

"Hopefully," Father Joe said, "the well-known generosity of the American people will prevail once again."

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM

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