Children who are fleeing Central American nations to escape crime, violence and poverty are finding their way to Freehold Borough.
Reports in the national news media have indicated that thousands of unaccompanied minors from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have entered the United States through Mexico in recent months.
News reports now indicate that the immigrant children are being moved out of America’s border states to other locations around the nation.
Some of the children who fled their native country have arrived in Freehold Borough as they seek safety.
This week, Rita Dentino, the director of Casa Freehold, said between five and 10 unaccompanied minors from Central America are now residing in Freehold Borough.
Dentino said she expects more unaccompanied children to arrive.
“There are more coming every day,” she said.
Casa Freehold was founded in 2004 in response to the needs of a growing immigrant population. Casa Freehold describes itself as an immigrants’ rights advocacy organization. The organization says it fights for immigrants’ rights on all levels — from the local to the international. The organization says it helps newly arrived immigrants to integrate into the community.
Dentino said the children who have arrived in Freehold range in age from 11 to 16.
At least one adult immigrant from the recent influx has also made his home in town. Juan (not his real name) arrived in Freehold Borough 15 days ago from Honduras. He said the fleeing children are traveling on foot and by vehicle.
Dentino translated for Juan, 27, who said Honduras “has the worst crime, the worst violence and the most terrible poverty. Many, many children are coming here by any way they can find to get out of their country.” Juan said he made much of his journey on foot. He said he is “very happy” to have made it safely to the U.S.
Juan, who left behind his parents and 10 brothers and sisters, said this “is a horrible decision for parents to have to make.” He is hoping his family will join him in America at some point in the future.
Dentino said Casa Freehold is working with Catholic Charities in Lakewood and Casa Esperanza in Bound Brook to address the situation.
Regarding the recent influx of unaccompanied children to the U.S., Dentino said that in the past year there have been changes to policies in Honduras, and the situation has “gone from bad to worse.”
“This has exacerbated an already bad situation,” she said. “The United States supports this policy change and then we complain about the problem, when in fact, we have supported the policy that has created the problem.” As to how a child ends up in Freehold Borough, Dentino said that in some cases an individual will tell her a relative is being processed in a refugee center in a border state. She then begins the process of trying to unite the family member and the child.
“The family member must have provisions for the arriving child,” she said. “They have to be able to economically support the child, have housing, a plan for education and health care, money for a plane ticket and a chaperone who will go with the child on the plane. That is the way it is supposed to work, but it’s all on paper. No one actually comes to visit the homes they stay in here,” she said.
Following the process, children in refugee centers will have their vaccination and education records with them. Others who do not follow the procedure will not have those records or a guardian to sponsor them.
Dentino said half the new arrivals she has seen in the borough from Central America do not have any custodian or records.
“I will be making a visit to DYFS [state Division of Youth and Family Services] soon to begin the process of finding these children a guardian,” she said.
Dentino is working with Freehold attorney John Leschak. Regarding the treatment of the minors, Leschak said, “It is essential to maintain due process for child immigrants pursuant to our legal and moral duties. We need to oppose legislation … which would strip children of due process.”
When asked if the children who are arriving in the community will be enrolled in the Freehold Borough K-8 School District, Dentino said that is not likely at this time.
“We do not have a way to enroll them in school yet,” she said. “They need to have custodial care and also have access to health services. Children have a right to an education, but we need to go through the proper process. Their immigration status, however, has nothing to do with the right to an education in this country, but the bureaucratic process requires a custodian to care for the child.”
Dentino said Casa Freehold does not have the resources to help these children.
“The larger question is how do we, as a community, properly care for a child arrival with no connection to family? We should welcome any child refugee,” she said. “It is our duty as human beings.”
Superintendent of Schools Rocco Tomazic said Freehold Borough school officials are unaware of any placement of recently arrived, unaccompanied children.
“However, a news release from the federal government on July 24 indicates that over 1,500 children have been placed in New Jersey, so there remains the possibility that some of them may find their way to our … schools by September,” he said.
Dentino summed up her feelings about the treatment of the children, saying, “For our country to respond with hatred to child refugees who we have never had to deal with before is inhumane and defies the definition of one who is a human being.”
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