While the threat of the so-called Islamic State, the spread of Ebola and the march toward Election Day takes up most of the current political discourse, lawyers, activists, religious leaders and government officials gathered at the Weinberg Park Heights JCC last Friday to discuss an issue that gained momentum over the summer but then faded out of view: immigration.
“This has been called a crisis,” Sheena Wadhawan told the hundreds gathered for her keynote address at the seventh annual Baltimore Immigration Summit. “But this is an opportunity.”
Wadhawan is the legal program manager at CASA de Maryland, the state’s biggest immigrant advocacy organization. In her role, she told summit attendees, she has seen firsthand the effects of the country’s immigration policy on the children and families she works with every day. The group gathered to discuss how best to help the influx of immigrants Baltimore has seen from troubled Central American countries such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. In the year since the spike in unaccompanied minors crossing into the U.S. along its southern border began, Maryland has taken in more unaccompanied children per capita than any other state.
The day-long event was sponsored by the Baltimore Jewish Council, the Jewish Museum of Maryland, the JCC, Towson University, the mayor’s office and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore. It featured talks on the DREAM Act, human trafficking, language barriers, meeting the needs of new immigrant children and protecting the rights of immigrants. In addition to helping the children who travel to Baltimore to be reunited with their families, speakers stressed, the families receiving the children need help as well.
“So many of the parents don’t know how difficult it’s going to be,” said Pat Letke, who works on the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center’s Care-A-Van in southeast Baltimore delivering health care to uninsured, and often undocumented, children and their families. Often, she continued, the mental effects of the journey are more lasting and difficult than any physical effects. Many of the parents last saw their children when they were just toddlers and now find themselves having to raise a teenager.
Other panel discussions addressed the options undocumented immigrants have when they arrive in the U.S. There are multiple pathways available to children traveling into the country on their own, said Adonia Simpson, an attorney at Catholic Charities’ Esperanza Center, to a crowd of about 50, but officials are trying to move cases so quickly that many do not have the opportunity to seek legal counsel before they are sent back to their home country.
“All of these children, by virtue of their journey, are victims of trauma,” said Simpson.
The latest effort, said Ruben Chandrasekar of the International Rescue Committee, is to seek asylum for the children, but that can be complicated. In order to be granted asylum, a person must prove that she is a member of a persecuted group in her home nation. But persecution, Chandrasekar said, is a changing concept. In some of the cities the children are running from, simply being a youth makes them a target for gang recruitment.
While many of those in attendance came in an official capacity with one advocacy group or another, some attended just to get involved in an issue close to their own consciences.“I have a very strong interest in these issues,” said Lenore Meyers, who began volunteering with the International Rescue Committee about a year ago but chose to attend the conference on her own. As a Jew, Meyers said she was inspired by the Jewish community’s involvement in the summit.
“The comments that were made this morning [in BJC President Lainy LeBow-Sachs’ opening remarks] made me proud to be a Jew and be here today,” she said.
For her part, BJC deputy executive director Cailey Locklair Tolle said the Jewish community’s decision to host this year’s summit was easy.
“Every Jew is here because their family immigrated here,” said Tolle, who emphasized the Jewish community’s experience with having to struggle to gain entry into a new country. “We can absolutely relate to that story. It absolutely feels like history repeating itself.”