Final hearing reveals more details on inner workings of Casa Padre - Brownsville Herald: Local News

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Final hearing reveals more details on inner workings of Casa Padre

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Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2018 9:25 am

The final court proceeding Tuesday morning in a guardianship investigation initiated in Cameron County Court-at-Law No. 4 revealed that a federal judge visited the Southwest Key-Casa Padre immigrant shelter in early September.

U.S. District Judge Rolando Olvera toured the nonprofit shelter that holds unaccompanied minor immigrants as well as immigrant children separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance prosecution policy on Sept. 7, court-appointed attorney Myles Garza said during the hearing.

Garza, who was present for the tour, said Olvera had no restrictions and was able to speak to children being held at the shelter.

His tour revealed information previously unknown to Myles Garza, who along with an investigator and several guardians, were appointed by County Court-at-Law No. 4 Judge Sheila Bence to determine whether any of the 1,400 children held in the old Walmart on Padre Island Highway were in need of legal guardians or counsel.

“ We were allowed to be seen, not heard,” Garza said of his role in Olvera’s tour.

Myles Garza said Olvera spoke to several minors in a barbershop who when asked whether they were happy, said yes. The federal judge also went into a classroom to speak with children, who echoed the sentiment of happiness expressed by the immigrant children in the barbershop.

While Olvera was able to speak with 50 to 60 children, none of them had been separated from their families.

However, during an Aug. 17 tour of the facility, Southwest Key Programs-Casa Padre shelter staff told court-appointed guardian Rochelle Garza that children who were separated from their families were being held in the old Walmart.

A federal judge in California ordered the federal government to reunite detained immigrant children separated from their parents with their families by July 26.

Rochelle Garza also questioned whether the children who spoke with Olvera were being completely honest, given that they’ve been arrested and handed over to be held by Southwest Key Programs.

“ I think their reaction might have been a little skewed,” Rochelle Garza said, adding that the facility is tantamount to a detention center.

Southwest Key Programs has said Casa Padre is a shelter, not a detention center, and that immigrant children held there can leave at any time, which has happened, prompting missing person investigations as local police work to find the children.

Pedro S. Cruz, one of the court-appointed guardians also questioned whether those reactions were honest, saying that even though a cage is made of gold, it’s still a prison.

THE INVESTIGATION

Judge Bence originally signed off on the guardianship investigation on July 6.

However, when the court-appointed guardians and investigators arrived on July 12, Southwest Key Programs denied them access. The group went back to the shelter in the old Walmart the next day, with a court order, and was met by Department of Justice attorneys, who removed the case from the state to federal court.

That litigation has since concluded after the government and Myles Garza decided to jointly dismiss it after the court-appointed investigators toured Casa Padre on Aug. 17. The Tuesday morning report to Bence was the final proceeding in that case.

However, Myles Garza told Bence Tuesday that the group was unable to determine during an Aug. 17 tour whether any children were in need of guardians because although he and three court-appointed guardians were able to tour Casa Padre, they were not allowed to speak to the children, who spent an average of 62 days in the facility, according to the August average.

But the final proceeding did provide more insight into what it’s like inside Casa Padre, which is the largest shelter that holds unaccompanied minors in the country.

Rochelle Garza said, unsurprisingly, that the facility is large. It is split into four different quadrants that are then split into subgroups, which are named after presidents and house 40 to 70 children.

“ They are kind of cramped,” Rochelle Garza said. “Each quadrant is like its own little city.”

When Rochelle Garza, Myles Garza and guardian Priscilla Noriega first arrived in Casa Padre, Rochelle Garza said the trio was surprised to see that a pastor was preaching to about 200 children.

She said they wondered why it was so easy for the ORR to facilitate religious services for the migrant children, but why it was so difficult for court-appointed guardian investigators or legal counsel to meet with the children, which never happened despite their efforts.

Rochelle Garza told Bence that the children are held in dorm-type rooms without doors or ceilings and sleep on cots.

“ You can hear everything,” she said.

The trio also reported that Southwest Key does hold meetings where migrant children can express concerns to staff about anything they don’t like, and added that the facility, although cold, was well-kept and the migrant children appeared to be having their physical needs met.

CLASSIFICATIONS

Olvera’s visit was revealing in more ways than just his conversations with immigrant children held at Casa Padre, according to what Myles Garza said during the hearing.

For instance, Casa Padre employees told Olvera that children fall into four levels of classifications when it comes to the types of sponsorships available.

Sponsors are used by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to get immigrant children out of the shelters as their court proceedings play out.

The first level is where a child held in Casa Padre has a legal guardian or parent in the United States that they can be released to. The second level is where a child has a sibling, aunt, uncle or first cousin. The third level includes distant relatives or family friends. The last level is when a child has no one in the country that can accept sponsorship, which is the rarest of classifications, Myles Garza said.

Casa Padre employees told Olvera that it does not have children who fit into that classification, Myles Garza said.

The ORR releases children in this classification to the Texas Department of Family Protective Services.

However, court-appointed guardian Rochelle Garza said after the hearing that once these children age out of foster care when they turn 18, if they haven’t obtained a visa, they are arrested by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and transported to adult detention centers.

Rochelle Garza also said that the ORR is sharing sponsor information with ICE.

The Guardian reported on Sept. 20 that ICE is using information submitted by people applying to sponsor immigrant children held in federal custody to determine whether they too are undocumented immigrants. If so, ICE is arresting the would-be sponsors, according to that report.

Olvera’s visit also revealed that there are three types of facilities where unaccompanied minors are held.

Casa Padre is described as a regular facility where children without documentation to be in the country are held. The next type is a residential treatment center. This is where the ORR can administer psychotropic drugs to children.

The same federal judge from California ruled that the government may not administer such medication to migrant children without first obtaining a court order or consent from a parent of legal guardian. However, that remains a point of contention for the ORR, which believes it can administer such drugs in the case of an emergency, Myles Garza said during the hearing.

The third type of facility is a maximum security facility, which is where minors accused of crimes like drug trafficking are detained. In federal marijuana trafficking complaints filed in Brownsville, Border Patrol routinely reports arresting minors during apprehensions of people found walking north from the banks of the Rio Grande with bundles of marijuana strapped to their backs.

RGV IMPACT

While the guardianship investigators were never able to speak with migrant children, Judge Bence said she did think positives came out of the investigation she ordered.

“ There was a lot of good that came from this,” Bence said.

Myles Garza said the group is working with the Cameron County Bar Association to find attorneys willing to work pro bono for children in need of legal representation.

And the court-ordered investigation sent a signal to the federal government that there were some gaps in their justification and practices within the nonprofit shelters, according to Myles Garza.

“ We’re keeping an eye on it and we’re going to do something about it,” Rochelle Garza said.

Bence said it was important to her that local attorneys are doing all they can to make sure detained migrant children have guardians and legal representation.

“ This is our community,” Bence said.

After the hearing, Rochelle Garza echoed that sentiment.

“ It’s our community and we need to respond,” Rochelle Garza said. “It doesn’t end here. Our case may be over, but our work is not.”

And that’s important, according to Myles Garza, because Brownsville, Cameron County and the Rio Grande Valley have been ground zero for the Trump Administration’s immigration policies, which have been met with intense criticism from opponents, praise from supporters and scrutiny from national nonprofits, advocacy groups and media organizations.

“ This has real big national implications, and it’s happening in our own backyard,” Myles Garza said.

However, the goal is to not have Brownsville changed by national policy, but instead, to have this community change the national policy that is playing out on the border, he said.

“ We’re keeping an eye on exactly what the federal government is doing,” Rochelle Garza said. “And we’re not going to stand by.”

mreagan@brownsvilleherald.com

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