Hundreds Of Refugee Children Are Locked Up — One Easy Way To Help

Photo: Larissa Veronesi/Getty Images.
With all the discussion over immigration and refugees that has been in the news in recent weeks, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that behind all the politics there are real families in need, made up of mothers and fathers and children. Many of these kids, with their residency status in limbo, are living in immigration-detention centers — and will be for the foreseeable future. With the holidays fast approaching, it’s a bleak reality that the majority of these children will be spending the season in the centers, separated from loved ones.

But one immigration-advocacy group is doing what it can to brighten the kids’ spirits. We Belong Together, a woman-focused group advocating for humane immigration policy, is organizing a letter-writing campaign connecting children in the detention centers with children outside. The campaign, called A Wish for the Holidays, asks kids of all ages to write letters and draw pictures to send to hundreds of children detained at three centers, providing them with messages of support and solidarity.

It’s not the first letter-writing campaign the group has organized, but it is the first to go to children who are detained. Previous years saw kids writing letters to elected officials as a way to engage the young about immigration policy. This year, with several hundred children living in jail-like centers, the letters are more important for their ability to cheer them up. Most of the children are actually refugees, their families fleeing from danger and terror in their home countries.

“It’s very isolating for the families who are in detention,” Anna Duncan, the program director for We Belong Together, told Refinery29 by phone. “It’s very restricted in terms of them being able to receive toys or gifts or anything that would bring some joy to what is otherwise a really dreary and difficult existence inside the facilities. Having that connection to kids on the outside, knowing that there are kids outside who know about what’s happening and who are standing in solidarity with them, it’s such an important message of hope to be able to send.”
Courtesy of We Belong Together.
But even if the campaign is super-successful, Duncan doesn’t want to send the letters again next year. “We’re hopeful that there won’t be any kids in detention next year,” she said. “We’re hopeful that with the legal pressure, all of the public pressure and outcry that there’s been, that we’ll see these facilities closed next year.”

There are currently multiple lawsuits pending against the Department of Homeland Security alleging that detention centers that hold children are in violation of federal law. In 1997, a federal court approved the Flores Settlement Agreement, which requires that children under 18 be released from custody “without unnecessary delay.” While children are in custody, they have to be held in a facility that can meet the needs of their age. The lawsuits allege that the three detention centers in Texas and Pennsylvania, where children have been held for many months, are not adequate to those needs.

“These are not facilities that are designed or in any way appropriate to housing children,” Duncan said. “We’re talking about families who are here seeking asylum…. There’s absolutely no reason for them to be punished by being locked up in the meantime.”

A Wish for the Holidays’ website has suggestions and guiding advice for educators and parents who want to send letters. Although the organization can’t take gifts because of strict regulations on what’s permitted in the detention centers, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has a gift catalog for items that can be purchased for families and children in need.

But, as your mom always reminds you, the spirit of the holidays isn’t about presents. The sharing of love and a bright image can make a world of difference for a child who feels alone. So grab the kids in your life, some construction paper, and a holiday soundtrack, and get drawing. But do it soon: The deadline for letters to A Wish for the Holidays is December 10th, so that organizers have time to get all the letters delivered.

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