The goal of government agencies and contractors working with unaccompanied minors housed at Fairplex in Pomona is to make sure they are reunified with parents or sponsors as soon as possible, officials emphasized at a pair of town hall meetings this week.
Two panels Wednesday, May 19, featuring representatives from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Cherokee Federal, the contractor providing services at the center, and local immigrant advocates, focused on the types of services children and adolescents are receiving at Fairplex, security arrangements and the reunification process. One meeting was presented in Spanish and another in English.
As of Wednesday, Fairplex is providing shelter to 500 unaccompanied minors who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border and were taken into federal custody, according to Neil Nowlin with Cherokee Federal. That number is split more or less evenly between boys and girls. A majority are in the 13-to-17 age group and about 180 children are between ages 6 and 12, he said, adding that only four children are very young — in the under-5 age group.
While reunifying these children with their family members or sponsors is the goal, safety comes first, Nowlin said.
“So far, we’ve reunited 36 boys and girls (at Fairplex), and we have more coming,” he said. “There are beautiful celebrations every day, which is great to see.”
The speed of the reunification process, which has been defined by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, depends on how much information children can provide when they come into the country, said Carol Fiertz, spokeswoman for Health and Human Services, the federal agency overseeing emergency intake centers scattered across the U.S.
The process is quick if the child has a parent in the United States, Fiertz said, but could be longer for others.
“There is the requirement for documentation, fingerprinting and vetting before we let the children go,” she said. “It’s a very strict process because we want to make sure the kids are going to a safe environment. For children who don’t have a family member or sponsor, it could take a little longer for us to work things out.”
Unaccompanied minors are typically sent to smaller homes when the emergency intake center closes because the children tend to do better in smaller group settings, Fiertz said. A majority of the children typically come with names and contact information in their pockets and tend to be reunified with family members or sponsors between 10 and 14 days, she added.
At Fairplex, children have a mix of structured and unstructured time including soccer games, popular with many kids, Nowlin said. When they arrive at the center, they receive a COVID-19 test and within four hours, get a phone call so they can reach out to their family members and let them know they are safe, he said. After a quick medical assessment, they pick up new clothes and shoes.
“It’s fun to walk through our clothing shop and see how excited the kids are to get a new set of clothes and shoes,” Nowlin said. “The pink Crocs are a big hit with the girls.”
The children are then placed in dorms with cots and mattresses and each child is provided a footlocker to store their belongings. They also attend a “know your rights” presentation led by a lawyer in a group setting.
“They can talk to a youth care worker or shift supervisor and ask for legal help,” Nowlin said. “Some kids are not ready to talk just yet, but we let them know there are people here to help them when they are ready.”
In addition to round-the-clock medical services, the center also provides some mental health services, but with the understanding that it is not possible to unpack all of the trauma a child might have experienced in a matter of days, he said.
“We talk to them about the basics,” Nowlin said. “How you start identifying those emotions — through journaling, breathing and art therapy. We talk to them about how it’s OK to ask for help, that it’s a sign of strength. We work with them so they have the building blocks when they get out to start the healing process.”
According to Fairplex CEO Walter Marquez, the site’s contract with Health and Human Services will run through the end of December. Home to the Los Angeles County Fair, the entertainment venue had 150 security cameras on the ground before the intake center opened and the government has enhanced security on-site, Marquez said, without going into specific details.
“It’s a secure site,” he said.
Local advocacy organizations emphasized that transparency should be ongoing in order to reassure the community.
“Many of us are directly impacted,” said Javier Hernandez, director of the Inland Coalition for Immigrant Justice in Ontario. “We are immigrants ourselves or our parents are immigrants. We are here to increase community oversight. The transparency we’ve seen (with Fairplex) has been wonderful. We’d like to see it continue.”
Fairplex is one of two emergency intake centers in Los Angeles County. Federal and local officials who have visited the facilities at Fairplex and the Long Beach Convention Center have touted the work being done to address the recent surge in unaccompanied minors seeking to cross the southern border.
How to help
The following organizations are collecting donations for children housed at Fairplex:
Pomona Community Foundation Esperanza Fund: 909-784-5327; pomonacommunityfoundation.org
Pomona Economic Opportunity Center: 909-397-4215; pomonadaylabor.org
Source: Orange County Register