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Austin Interfaith petitions county to aid unaccompanied migrant minors

Tuesday, July 22, 2014 by Beth Cortez-Neavel

Austin Interfaith seeks Travis County aid for migrant minors

By Beth Cortez-Neavel

Members of Austin Interfaith called on Travis County Commissioners Tuesday to provide social and legal services to the thousands of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border from Central America. However, County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county could not extend its governmental arm to aid the undocumented children unless they are already within county boundaries.

There has been increasing public pressure on local, state and national governments to take legal action and provide aid to the thousands of Central American children and youth currently detained along the Texas border, having crossed into the U.S. without legal documentation.

Likewise, local constituents have called and e-mailed members of the court asking what the public and what the county could do to alleviate what President Barack Obama has declared a “humanitarian crisis.” Biscoe said he did not know what to say to callers, until he learned that St. James Episcopal Church in Austin had put out a call for donations to take to the McAllen Faith Community for Disaster Recovery in South Texas.

Biscoe placed an item on next week’s agenda to educate the community on this opportunity, expressly stating that the focus of discussion would be the donation drive, and limited to identifying what items could be donated to the drive and a call for more collection spots and partners.

However, after St. James Rector Lisa Saunders briefed the court on the church’s Humanitarian Crisis Collection, members of Austin Interfaith – a group of faith-based organizations, public schools, nonprofits and unions – urged Commissioners to take action.

Naomi Lyons Friedman was one of the constituents who called with concerns earlier in the week. She said she commented in court Tuesday to urge the county to act, to “put our money and our presence where our mouth is.”

“We are not able to turn our back on these people and still call ourselves the liberal and tolerant Travis County,” she said.

Austin Interfaith called for the county to follow the lead of Dallas County, which has pledged to provide shelter to some of the Central American undocumented minors, and organize private and public services to aid the undocumented children and youth.

Staff from the Equal Justice Center, a member of Austin Interfaith and a nonprofit worker’s rights law office, also urged the county to play the role of facilitator and mobilize legal support for children being transferred to Central Texas.

“These children need both legal and social services provided to them and what the county can do is facilitate the provision of those services, whether they be diapers and shoes or matching lawyers to somebody who qualifies for refugee status and can submit an asylum petition,” Equal Justice attorney Caitlin Boehne told the Monitor. “I definitely left with the feeling that the commissioners court would be interested in continuing to get engaged with us as we all try to feel our way forward. We’re in the midst of this crisis and so we’re all trying to figure out what makes the most sense and what doesn’t.”

The center will be sending staff and law school student interns to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio to help interview detained undocumented children and youth.

Pct. 4 Commissioner Margaret Gómez said she, like Biscoe, also received phone calls from concerned constituents and in turn made calls to Austin City Council members and members of the Austin school board to see what could be done.

“We do work on these issues in a collaborative manner,” Gómez said, “I think this certainly deserves a collaborative approach because it is going to continue to increase, especially if children will be coming here.”

Pct. 2 Commissioner Bruce Todd suggested Austin Interfaith and St. James Episcopal Church, which is not a member of the group, challenge local neighborhoods to help with the donation drive. “Normally those neighborhood associations only take on neighborhood issues… but this is a neighborhood issue of a different magnitude,” Todd said.

Biscoe said after the court was adjourned for the day that unless the county acts pursuant to state or federal declaration, the county probably could not legally assist anyone outside of the county’s boundaries. He said he does not see the county organizing to bring undocumented minors here, either.

“That’s overreaching,” he said. The likelihood of us reaching down there is small; the likelihood of us providing meaningful significant services and programs is very great if they are here. And if I were an Interfaith person, I would do my best to get them here. And I would say: Travis County, here are these kids and they really need help.”

Biscoe said he did not expect Austin Interfaith to come forward with a request, and that he specifically limited his agenda item to prevent getting involved in the politics.

“This is not us committing to do anything specific other than help out by doing things that we normally do. We normally announce, we educate, we put it on flyers,” Biscoe said. “I really didn’t want to get involved in the state and federal immigration policy debate. It’s already confusing enough and it is also contentious.”

St. James is looking for the following: gently-used or new donated items to take down to McAllen: trash bags, items for nursing mothers, hooded sweatshirts, disposable diapers, baby wipes, children and women’s clothing, shoes sized 2 to 12, blankets, pillows, toiletries, easy-open snacks and juice boxes. Items can be dropped off at 1941 Webberville Road before Sunday.


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