A plan that could allow local residents to house dozens of the Central American children detained at the United States southern border got some preliminary support from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, while the situation spurred a silent vigil in downtown Mountain View.
Supervisors voted 4-1 to have county administrators iron out a program allowing "host families" to take in the children temporarily. The much-publicized situation of unaccompanied minors attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border spurred 100 members of St. Joseph church to hold a silent vigil in downtown Mountain View on the evening of Friday, August 1.
"A lot of people are pro-life and this is a pro-life issue," said church member and longtime community organizer Sylvia Villasenor. "They do need care and they will need education -- they are children."
It is unclear how many of the children could be helped in Santa Clara County under the "modest" proposal board members supported on August 5, said Supervisor Joe Simitian, Mountain View's representative on the board, in a phone interview. There could be anywhere from 25 to 100 homes involved, he said.
"I think the honest answer is we don't know yet," Simitian said of how many kids could be helped.
County officials say they don't want to use county funds or take resources away from the foster care system, and expect that federal funding will be available to pay community organizations to do much of the work. Parents of the children would not lose their parental rights, and the children's fate would still be decided in federal immigration courts. County supervisors may approve the "host family program" on August 26, including an effort to line up pro-bono attorneys to represent the children in immigration proceedings.
The program would "help identify and connect (the kids to) host families who have big enough hearts and big enough homes to welcome these kids to Santa Clara County," Simitian said. "(If) the federal government is going to be funding some sort of facility for these youngsters, could those same funds be diverted to host families? They could probably do the job more cost effectively and in a way that's better for the kids involved."
With most fleeing violence in Central America, it is estimated that 90,000 children will attempt to cross the southern U.S. border this year, while 57,000 have reportedly been caught crossing the border since October. As of July, about 30,000 have reportedly been placed in homes around the country, while thousands of other children are being held in warehouses, where Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren says she witnessed hundreds of unaccompanied kids "sleeping on cement floors, dozens of little girls sharing one toilet, with no privacy." She recently called on county officials to help with what she described as a humanitarian crisis.
"We each have a moral obligation to help relieve human suffering," said Supervisor Dave Cortese, the San Jose mayoral candidate who is spearheading the county effort. "Santa Clara County is standing with those communities around the nation who have offered to provide a safe haven for these refugee children who are awaiting federal asylum hearings."
Not everyone praised the effort.
"The kids do need to be cared for and there's really no question about that," said Don Barich of the Tea Party Patriots of Silicon Valley. "This is indeed a humanitarian crisis. Unfortunately it is also a manufactured crisis (created by people) trying to use these children as pawns for a political agenda. They've put those poor children in a difficult position. What's the federal plan for this exactly? What are the feds going to do?"
He questioned the use of county resources to help the kids when "Santa Clara County has highest percentage of food-insecure children in the entire Bay Area."
Board president Mike Wasserman echoed opponents before he voted against the program. "I cannot support the creation of a new program, further stretching our resources, when I know we have so many unmet needs in our community already," he said at the meeting.
"I do believe this is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue," said middle school teacher Andrea Ramos. "Please keep in mind that these children really have left everything behind and they have traveled thousands of miles to get here. That's a journey that shouldn't be taken lightly. I personally would be sincerely honored to help give these children an honorable education and help them feel safe and happy in their homes."
If approved by the board on August 26, county officials say work will begin to place 50 children with host families who would go through a screening and evaluation process. A budget of $200,000 has been proposed, or $2,000 to place each child per month, expected to be reimbursed by the federal government.
County officials say they would work with a number of community organizations to implement the program, including the Bill Wilson Center, Unity Care, Catholic Charities, EMQ Families First, Community Health Partnership, Working Partnerships USA, Center for Employment Training (CET) and Services Refugee Rights & Education Network (SIREN).
"The Board of Supervisors has given us the crucial task of working with our community partners to create a program to care for unaccompanied refugee minors," said county executive Jeffrey Smith in a statement. "There are many factors that we will be examining to meet this humanitarian crisis. Our goal is to make sure that our systems and the community are prepared."