Meta Peace Team members Joan McCoy, left, and Kim Redigan came to support the interfaith prayer vigil for refugee kids held last month at Grace Lutheran Church in Vassar, where many of the more than 100 children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are slated to stay.More than 100 of the children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will arrive in Farmington Hills, Bay City and Vassar.(Caption Information) META Peace Team members Joan McCoy of Saginaw Twp., left, and Kim Redigan of Dearborn Heights came to support the interfaith prayer vigil for Vassar and refugee children held last month at Grace Lutheran Church in Vassar, Michigan. July 31, 2014. (John M. Galloway/Special to the News) (John M. Galloway / Special to The Detroit News)
Their children could be those children.
For Maria Argueta, Magnolia Bartlon and Sandra Padilla, seeing the unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America hits especially close to home.
These women, who themselves emigrated from the impoverished region, are now raising families in Metro Detroit, and they’re filled with empathy for the dozens of children headed for temporary shelter in Michigan.
The voices of Central American families living in Metro Detroit have been missing from the increasingly explosive conversation about immigration, especially involving the Central American minors, in part because of language barriers and their fear of retribution.
Argueta, who originally is from the Nueva Concepcion section of Escuintla, Guatemala, is so distraught about the plight of the youngsters, she is willing to adopt one as a sibling to her own three children.
“It makes me very, very sad because these kids are victims, and it’s not their fault,” said Argueta, of Detroit, cradling her bawling 15-month-old son.
Argueta, 33, a U.S. citizen, works four days a week in a factory and helps out at her family-owned Guatemalan restaurant in Detroit; her husband Eduardo, 34, is a landscaper. “We have good jobs, and I think we could afford to take care of four children to help at least one,” she said.
Next month, more than 100 of the children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras will arrive in Farmington Hills, Bay City and Vassar. They will face a state split between residents welcoming them, and those screaming for them to stay away.
“The children coming here just want to have a better life and an education so they can have better opportunities,” said Bartlon, who emigrated from Guatemala’s mountainous municipality of Sibinale, in San Marcos. Bartlon, a domestic worker, has six children — all born in the United States with her husband, David, a 32-year-old landscaper who also is from the region. Bartlon knows first-hand how difficult it is trying to survive in her native land.
“There is a lot of poverty, and there aren’t any good jobs,” the 32-year-old mother who now lives in Detroit said through a translator.
In Guatemala, “Some families have 10 or 20 children,” she said.
Sandra Padilla, 37, from El Negrito, in Honduras, has lived in Detroit for 11 years. She and her husband, Obed Hernandez, born in Mexico, have three children. She opened a Honduran restaurant, Antojitos El Catracho, in southwest Detroit four years ago.
“Many of the people are very poor, and it’s hard for children to even go to school because their parents can’t afford it,” Padilla said through a translator, while settled into a booth at her restaurant. “Thank God our children are here with us, because so many children can no longer be with their families once they leave.”
Many of the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minors who have come to the United States are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The federal government has reported that 92 unaccompanied minors arrived in Michigan over the past six months, according to Sara Wurfel, the spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder.
Earlier this month, Snyder told The Detroit News he doesn’t have a problem with Michigan hosting children as long as the state isn’t footing the bill.
That attitude has angered Tamyra Murray, founder of an anti-immigration group that is protesting their arrival in Vassar, a small town 20 miles east of Saginaw. “The federal government is pushing this on the people and acting as child traffickers,” said Murray, who founded Michiganders for Immigration Control and Enforcement.
“First of all, these kids are not refugees,” she said. “They’re legally classified as illegal aliens, so the government is breaking the law by aiding and abetting.” Murray also accused some of the unaccompanied minors of being members of drug cartels and gangs.
“They’re being recruited right inside the detention centers,” she said.
Vassar activists are fighting a proposal to house migrant children at a juvenile treatment facility run by Wolverine Human Services, a private social services agency based in Grosse Pointe Park.
The youths, ages 12-17, would stay at the facility's 130-acre campus for two to four weeks while officials connect them with a relative or sponsor, said Derrick McCree, senior vice president for Wolverine.
The 48 children headed for Farmington Hills and Bay City will be housed temporarily at Wellspring Lutheran Services campuses.
“Activities, counseling and tutoring will occur on our campus as part of the contract,” said Wellspring spokesman Tim Johnston.
Wellspring has a federal contract to provide housing at the two facilities. The “self-contained contract” is with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and all services children may require are paid through the contract. The impact on local resources, officials said, should be minimal.
The plan by Wolverine to house the youngsters at its 145-bed Pioneer Work and Learn Center has been met with protesters demanding that the government send them back to Central America.
In a counter-protest, some residents held an interfaith vigil last month, attracting a standing-room-only crowd at Grace Lutheran Church in Vassar.
Lydia Chouinard, who has traveled to Guatemala four times, including a medical mission to Nuevo Progresso in February, was among those at the vigil.
“We need to support the children and our government, because along the border, the holding cells are extremely overcrowded, and we have places in other states that can temporarily hold them until they receive due process and not be automatically deported,” said Chouinard, 29, a student from Detroit.
Others in the community agree that returning the minors to their home countries is not in their best interest.
Jorge L. Chinea, director of the Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies at Wayne State University, said one of the major obstacles the unaccompanied minors face is falling in the “unwanted category.”
“The Cubans, for example, were considered (by some American citizens) the ‘golden exiles,’ because a lot of them were educated, well-off and socially mobile, and we wanted more of that,” he said. “But the Central American children are viewed as undermining our educational system, and many will flood the schools with remedial needs and the need for social welfare programs.”
He said the prevailing attitude is, if it’s going to cost us, we don’t want them.
“But returning children to face more poverty is a big mistake,” he said. “There’s got to be a more humane approach.”