A child is always just a child. And a child’s heart knows no boundaries.
It was 2012, and I had just moved to Portland, Oregon after working abroad in Asia and Latin America for 4 years. An advertisement caught my eye seeking a Spanish-speaking, social service worker to work with adolescents, and I quickly submitted my application. Never could I have imagined that I was entering the world of the Office of Refugee Resettlement which straddled a sea of contradicting policies influenced by politics, compassion and fear.
In 1997, the United States government and civil rights groups reached an agreement on the fair and humane treatment of children arriving to the United States unaccompanied by parents. The Flores Agreement required all children under the age of 18 to be cared for in the least restrictive setting, regardless of nationality or legal status, once they step foot on American soil. Coined the “Federal CPS,” the Office of Refugee Resettlement has a network of contracted child welfare agencies across the US to care for the children within 72 hours after being detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Usually, these agencies have long histories of working with children and families in the social service sector. Such an organization was where I was offered work two weeks after sending in my application.
When working in this field, one is forced to develop a dual language. Federal guidelines require these children to be called “minors”, “UC” (unaccompanied children) or “UAC” (unaccompanied alien children). All reports, case notes, emails and verbal discussions about these children involve adherence to this language. Calling a 10-year-old female client a UAC or an alien transforms her from the little girl with big eyes, a love for purple shirts and an addiction to stickers. She has thus faded away into the minds of lawmakers who write the policies from thousands of miles away in DC, who ultimately persuade Congress to pass laws restricting her care. Yet, the amazing staff working tirelessly in the field of unaccompanied minors programs will not let that happen! Our mission remains to conduct our work with a mastery of this dual language. Though we submit our reports using the required terminologies, we always retain the essence of the individual child at the forefront of our care. We learned to navigate the policies handed down from afar, and, to offer creative programming that allowed these children to be children once again.
Whether the media or politicians refer to these children as “illegals” or “refugees” in order to sway social thought in their direction, the fact remains that they will always be just children. My hope is that this one fact, this undeniably, non-alternative fact, can be the saving grace in the current crisis. And just as a child’s heart knows no boundaries, I hope one day our world will learn the same.
By Rebecca Sanchez