Working Together

Jewish Community Services Director Barbara Gradet was one of about 50 faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to discuss treatment of young migrants from Central America. (Richard Lippenholz )
Jewish Community Services Director Barbara Gradet was one of about 50 faith leaders who met with Gov. Martin O’Malley to discuss treatment of young migrants from Central America. (Richard Lippenholz )

While uncertainty continues over how to quell the rush of young migrants crossing the Mexican border into the U.S. illegally and what to do with the children awaiting trials that will determine their fate, one thing is assured in Maryland: local faith leaders will have a large role in any upcoming action.

“Texas shares the borders, but we all share the concern and the passion for the children,” said Barbara Gradet, who attended a meeting between Gov. Martin O’Malley and faith leaders from around the state. Gradet attended on behalf of the Baltimore Jewish Council and Jewish Community Services, of which she is the executive director. Already, she said, she has received phone calls from Jewish community members as far away as Bethesda wanting to get involved.

The meeting, which was followed up by another similar meeting on Monday, was closed to the press, but Gradet said discussion focused on options for housing the children and other ways to help the young migrants.

Many children entering the country illegally travel to family members already living in the U.S. when they are released from Border Patrol custody. The fate of the thousands of children who do not have family to be reunited with is in limbo, however, as officials all over the U.S. grapple with how and where to house the children while they await their immigration trial.

“This is a humanitarian crisis that really belongs to our whole community,” said Gradet. “If we all pitched in and we harnessed the resources that we all can offer, then we can get these kids the main care and treatment that they need while they’re waiting for the federal process to happen.”

From what Gradet could tell, all of the 50 or so attendees were in agreement on the need to prevent the children from being sent back. They also agreed that, while the kids await their trials to determine whether they will be permitted to stay in the U.S., they need to be housed in a comfortable environment.

The group talked about placing an emphasis on the existent foster care system rather than repurposing old warehouses or recreation centers to house the kids. O’Malley has been vocal in his opposition to both sending the children back to their home countries and housing them in large temporary shelters.

While Catholic Charities, which was present at the event, has offered the use of one of its buildings in Timonium to house the children, Gradet said the focus of last week’s meeting was on fostering and the use of small group homes as a last resort.

“We need open arms and caring families,” she said. “People of faith have that very strong passion of caring.”

For many attendees, the issue is personal. O’Malley discussed his own great-grandfather’s immigration to America and Gradet said she couldn’t help but think of her great-grandmother escaping persecution by hiding under the false bottom of a hay cart to travel undetected out of her home country.

Each attendee was encouraged to start a discussion among their own faith community about volunteering to foster the Central American children, but not all communities are equally capable.

While some communities, such as the Catholics, have a large population of Spanish speakers, making them a better option for children who don’t know any English, other communities with few Spanish speakers are finding other ways to help. For JCS, Gradet said this might involve vetting potential foster parents — something the organization has experience with — or establishing a network of available babysitters to help those who  do house the children, in addition to collecting clothing and supplies children might need.

Gradet said she realizes the Jewish community has a lot on its plate right now, but insisted people find the time to think about the situation in the southwest as well.

“What an opportunity for them to see what this country is about and who we are,” she said of the young migrants.

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