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Politics & Government

Border Crisis: Milwaukee Organization to Help House Immigrant Children, if Needed

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As undocumented children continue arriving at the US-Mexico border, FEMA has asked a Milwaukee agency to stand by – in case it’s needed.

FEMA typically responds to natural disasters, but now it views the children’s arrival a humanitarian crisis. Thousands have traveled from Central America to the US border. On Tuesday, President Obama asked Congress for more than $3 billion to address the situation. 

The local agency preparing to help is Catholic Charities of Milwaukee. Executive Director Fr. David Bergner says FEMA asked the organization to identify three potential sites, which could be used as a temporary shelter. Each would need to house 100 children. FEMA also requested staff, who could work at the shelter.

Bergner says Catholic Charities picked two former schools and a former office complex, which could be transformed into shelter space. He says the organization would coordinate food, clothing and education for the children, with a lot of assistance:

“There’s no question because of the scope of it, that should we develop a shelter here in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin, that we would need help from other organizations, especially those that are close to the immigrant community, to assist with this effort," he says. "And of course, we’ll also encourage the involvement on the part of volunteers.”

Catholic Charities also would connect children with legal help. Immigration Attorney Barbara Graham says lawyers would have a couple options to assist children who are fleeing Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, because of gang violence or domestic violence:

Credit Ann-Elise Henzl
Fr. David Bergner and attorney Barbara Graham say Catholic Charities is getting ready to welcome the children from Central America, in the event FEMA decides to send them here

“For those escaping domestic violence and gang violence, we can try to do something called an asylum claim," Graham says. "For those who literally had to leave because of abuse in the home, we can also try to do something called special juvenile immigrant status, which would require going into state court and getting a guardianship or getting a CHIPS petition -- child in need of protection -- as well, and then using that order to go ahead and file with immigration to get them their lawful, permanent residency.”

Graham says legal proceedings could take months – even years. She says courts already are backlogged with immigration-related cases.

Fr. Bergner says it’s conceivable Catholic Charities would provide services to children from Central America for quite some time. He says in some cases, the shelter would only be a nurturing "holding station,” before children are repatriated.

“Certainly, we’re going to be committed to whatever kids come under our care and supervision," Bergner says. "At the same time, we’re going to take an advocate position in terms of how we can interface as a country with the countries in Central America to improve the human living conditions there, so that this human disaster doesn’t repeat itself in 5-10 years. I think that’s the real challenge.”

Bergner says he's not sure how long it will take before Catholic Charities learns if FEMA will send Central American children to Wisconsin. He guesses FEMA's decision will depend on whether Congress approves the funding President Obama is requesting, to address the crisis at the border.

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