Forces mobilize in Colorado to help unaccompanied immigrant children

While irate anti-immigration groups attempt to turn back the wave of minor immigrants crossing the border and being moved into shelters across the country, a quiet force of humanitarian support for the youngsters is building in Colorado.

Attorneys, churches, municipalities, social justice and immigrant rights groups are stepping up to provide housing, food and clothing, legal aid and foster homes to unaccompanied child immigrants entering the country without documentation.

So far, there has been only a trickle of youths into Colorado from the more than 57,000 who have been apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol since October. Many are trying to enter the United States after fleeing gang violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico.

That crush has created a crisis at the border that is now rippling across the country as the youths are bused to more than 110 temporary shelters.

For now, the only unaccompanied immigrant children in Colorado from this migration have been brought here individually to be reunited with family members. Colorado doesn’t yet have any shelters approved for large groups, but at least three entities are applying for grants to house immigrant youth in shelters or foster homes.

The city of Denver is applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to convert its 54-bed residential treatment facility into housing for immigrant children.

Ariel Clinical Services, a Grand Junction-based nonprofit, is applying for a grant to place the children in foster homes in the Denver area.

“It’s a good match with our mission. That’s what we do is help kids who are in trouble,” said Ariel executive director Becky Hobart.

Rite of Passage, an Arapahoe County-based agency that offers services for troubled and at-risk youth, is in talks with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to use part of its youth services center in Watkins to house immigrants, according to immigration activists. A Rite of Passage representative would not comment.

A website set up by an anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, to track shelters around the country has listed Rite of Passage as a planned shelter site.

Outside these official channels, there has been a groundswell of individuals and agencies offering aid of other sorts.

“We’ve been getting tons of calls from people wanting to know how they can help,” said Gabriela Flora with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition. “It’s been a really powerful response as people see that there is a humanitarian crisis.”

Some Coloradans hope to help by seeing that crisis firsthand. The Evangelical Immigration Table — a coalition of evangelical churches, including Focus on the Family — is taking members on trips to the Mexico border.

Some Colorado immigration attorneys are traveling to Artesia, N.M., in the coming weeks to offer free legal aid to some of the more than 600 minors in a holding facility there.

About 100 other Colorado attorneys have taken part in training so they can offer free assistance to youth they anticipate will come to the state. The lawyers attended a recent training session organized by the Rocky Mountain Immigration Advocacy Network and the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

“Colorado tends to be a more open and welcoming community overall and more accepting of things like this,” said David Kolko, chairman of the Colorado Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “The vast majority of these children are coming here because they are terrified. We are preparing to assist these children.”

Unaccompanied minors have actually been coming across the Mexican border in increasing numbers and into Colorado since 2011. Jennifer Piper, with the American Friends Service Committee, said that fact has been lost in the current controversy that has anti-immigration groups blockading bus loads of immigrant kids and protesting outside settlement locations in other parts of the country.

Piper also pointed out that many of the children coming into the country are following the law when they do so. They are required to declare their asylum-seeking status at the border. The problem is that the system is too backed up to deal with so many of these minors.

The immigration court in Denver has 280 juvenile cases pending. Most of those were filed before the recent rush to the border.

The court is being revamped to move the cases of unaccompanied minors through the system more quickly. More than 7,500 pending adult cases have been set aside so that the youth cases can be dealt with first.

All of this support and system changing for the young immigrants is angering some political factions in Colorado.

Regina Thomson, president of the Colorado Tea Party Patriots, said she believes the federal government is breaking its own laws in allowing the waves of youths to cross the border and remain in the United States and that states like Colorado are adding to the problem by becoming “sanctuary states.”

“While I have compassion, I don’t believe this is a real crisis,” she said. “I believe it’s been engineered.”

Thomson said she expects there will be protests by members of her group as more young immigrants arrive in Colorado.

Rudy Gonzales, executive director of Servicios de la Raza and son of the late Hispanic activist Corky Gonzales, said he thinks the help being offered in Colorado will outweigh the protests.

He said his organization has helped about a dozen minor immigrants recently, and he predicts a wide variety of Coloradans will do the same.

“I think Colorado is more ready to stand up and help because of the social justice movements here,” he said. “It is disheartening that we have so many people treating these children like animals. But in Colorado we have a long history of helping our brethren.”

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957, or

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Forces mobilize in Colorado to help unaccompanied immigrant children
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