Nearly 22,000 migrant children arrived at our southern border in the past month. The push factors for many of them are natural disasters, poverty, gang violence, a desire to reunify with family, and failing federal policies. For up to 1,000 children, the next stop on this often-traumatic journey is here in Long Beach.
On April 6, at the behest of Mayor Robert Garcia, the City Council unanimously approved negotiating a lease between Long Beach and the federal government. About 350 children are now here––the first of whom arrived last Thursday at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Lauren Heidbrink, an expert on Central American child migration and associate professor of Human Development at Cal State Long Beach, criticized the city for not asking the right questions prior to agreeing to lease the Convention Center to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The City was at one time in the driver’s seat to ask for provisions in the contract with HHS,” she said. “Those might include naming organizations that are providing the services, indigenous language interpreters, staffing levels, certain child welfare protocols, and a monitoring role to make sure that they are meeting basic child welfare standards.”
Were these questions asked and answered? We don’t know.
The qualifications and expertise of the adults interacting with these children on a daily basis have not been released. This should raise a red flag as we know that children will often experience profound psychological trauma when separated from their families.
The warmth of the butterfly images on the wall fade quickly when a child is not met by a team of qualified mental health experts. Years after children leave migrant detention facilities, some still recall the trauma of being alone, scared, and without the ability to communicate in their native language.
Long Beach Immigrant Rights Coalition raised concerns about the migrant children being detained in Long Beach before and after the council’s decision. “I’d like to know why we are being left out of the conversation,” said Gaby Hernandez, the group’s executive director.
Anyone who asked questions that appeared adversarial or challenging to the mayor’s narrative prior to the City Council vote has not been invited back to the table. For the sake of these migrant children and the Long Beach community in general, we need more of these challenging conversations not less.
Mayor Garcia and City Council members must advocate for these children. They must hold the federal government and their contractors responsible if the care is substandard at the city’s convention center.
Of course, these children need a sanctuary. But sanctuary without accountability is unconscionable.