AUSTIN – The Texas caseworker who took emergency custody of an abused child in the Rio Grande Valley found the first foster home she could: two hours north of home.
But when she tried to cross an internal highway checkpoint – designed to stop illegal immigrants and drug traffickers who have slipped past the border – federal agents seized the child and detained her for transporting an undocumented minor.
The child’s fate is unknown.
It’s not the first time Texas’ chain of inland border checkpoints has challenged the agency’s efforts to care for endangered children. The highway posts have created a border within a border, separating abused children in counties adjacent to Mexico from services north of the invisible line.
The strategy has made Texas Child Protective Services caseworkers more shrewd, seeking more foster families along the border, and finding ways to bring services to kids without moving them through the checkpoints.
“El Paso, Laredo, Del Rio, they feel the same thing: ‘We’ve got this child, and we can’t get anywhere,’” said Sandra Rodriguez, the Child Protective Services director who oversees all kids in custody in the Rio Grande Valley. “You have to pull back and say, ‘Let’s be creative. If you can’t get there, how can we bring it to you?’”
Despite remarkable effort, kids and their families are more or less locked down, child welfare advocates say. Caseworkers – who are required to care for children regardless of their immigration status – no longer move undocumented kids through checkpoints, regardless of what treatment they need.
“They’re essentially cutting off those services that might be available to them in Houston or San Antonio,” said David Walding, executive director of the Bernardo Kohler Center, which advocates for immigrants in Texas. “It isolates rural communities along the border, which don’t generally have the best range of specialized medical procedures or mental health services.”
Hand-wringing over even having undocumented children in agency vehicles prompted Texas child welfare officials to issue a memo to federal border patrol agents, asking them not to take hasty action.
The agency “is expressly authorized to provide services… without regard to the immigration status of the child or the child’s family,” the letter states.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said it’s their impression that CPS workers are reluctant to have undocumented kids in their custody, and “seem to prefer that federal authorities handle them.” They have asked CPS to notify them in advance when a caseworker with an undocumented child in custody may be approaching a checkpoint.
They say they don’t have information on specific cases where caseworkers were detained and kids were taken into federal custody.
“We can merely speculate that there was a breakdown in communication in notifying a checkpoint in advance,” said Mark Qualia, spokesman for the agency.
Whether a child ends up in state or federal custody can determine his or her fate in the U.S.
Many of the estimated 85,000 undocumented juveniles picked up by federal agents every year are returned to their home countries within a single day, particularly those from Mexico and Canada. Bi-national agreements with those countries mean child refugees are rarely given a court hearing or reunited with family members in the U.S.
State caseworkers, meanwhile, work to reunite families in Texas, and only send kids back to their home country if that’s the only place a qualified adult can care for them.
Rodriguez said Texas caseworkers have done well building the network of foster families in the Valley, and getting care providers to drive in from across the state for children’s appointments. Her region, home to four or five highway checkpoints at any given time, recently received a new children’s hospital and two psychiatric facilities, both of which have cut down on the need to travel through checkpoints for care.
But undocumented kids who need to travel – either for services or for court hearings – are often out of luck. The transportation problems aren’t limited to Texas’ 18 permanent highway checkpoints, most of them between 25 and 100 miles from the border. When a caseworker in the Rio Grande Valley tried to fly a severely emotionally disturbed girl to a Houston care facility, border patrol officers stopped them at the airport. They detained the worker and took the undocumented girl into federal custody. It’s unclear what happened to the girl.
Caseworkers are loath to transport even documented youth through checkpoints, because their relatives so often are undocumented. Family visits are mandatory for parents to regain custody of their youth – and won’t happen if undocumented parents have to risk highway checkpoints.
“How are you going to hold it against a mother if she can’t get through the checkpoint to visit her child?” asked Selina Mireles, a family law attorney in Laredo. “It doesn’t give them much justice, as far as their children are concerned.”