May 25, 2012
By Dianne Solis
In a Dallas federal immigration courtroom, children as young as 12 are increasingly taking center stage. They are part of a troubling rise in unaccompanied minors charged with coming into Texas illegally — boys and girls in search of a childhood, fleeing violence or desperate to reunite with a mother or father.
Children and teenagers filled the first row of brown wooden benches in Judge Dietrich Sims’ immigration court recently. Heads of the two smallest — 12-year-old Francisco Villanueva and 13-year-old Luis Quiroga — barely bobbed above the backs of their seats.
In the last seven months, the number of children in refugee custody has nearly doubled to about 6,900, according to the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. Many more minors under 18 are believed to have gotten through undetected, and Mexican authorities report they are seeing an increase in children in the first three months of this year.
The refugee agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services took over the child welfare mission in 2003. Some shelters began operation through the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service in the late 1980s as a surge of Central American soldier boys—aged 14 through 18--entered the Rio Grande Valley, straining social services and inspiring solutions other than deportation back to violence....
The Catholic Charities veteran leads efforts in North Texas to encourage counselors and attorneys to help with cases involving children and teenagers. Other assistance comes from the Southern Methodist University law school, the private bar, and the Salesmanship Club Youth and Family Centers, a Dallas nonprofit....