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At Guatemalan-Maya Center, fear grips South Florida undocumented immigrants

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

Tim Gamwell, assistant director of the Guatemalan-Maya Center, and U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, discuss the Trump administration's immigration crackdown Monday, July 9, 2018. (Skyler Swisher/Sun Sentinel)

At the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth, soccer balls, stuffed animals and other toys are stacked on a table — gifts for migrant children being held in South Florida.

Families seeking help fill every seat in the lobby of the small center that has served immigrants in South Florida since 1992. A few people stand outside on the sidewalk waiting for space to open.

The stories of children being taken from their parents have injected even more fear into South Florida’s immigrant communities, advocates said Monday during a round-table discussion organized by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach.

For immigrant families, the Guatemalan-Maya Center is a place where they can feel safe and know they can get help without being targeted for deportation, said Tim Gamwell, the center’s assistant director.

“Families on the whole are scared to drive down the street, scared to take their kids to schools,” he said. “If their child is sick they are scared to take them to the hospital or doctor office. They are scared to report minor infractions.”

The Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth has served immigrant families since 1992. (Skyler Swisher/ South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Frankel said she has little faith in the federal government’s ability to reunite children separated under the Trump administration’s now-defunct zero-tolerance immigration crackdown. That policy called for the criminal prosecution of anyone trying to cross illegally into the United States, dramatically increasing the number of family separations at the border.

Frankel said she hasn’t been given information on the number of separated children in Florida and their reunification status. Parents have been deported without their children, making it difficult to reunite them, she said.

“It’s shocking we have a government that takes children from their parents and doesn’t know how to bring them back together,” Frankel said.

Tuesday is the court-ordered deadline for the federal government to reunite children 5 and younger with their parents, but the American Civil Liberties Union says fewer than half of the 102 children in that age bracket will be reunited by the court-imposed deadline.

At least three shelters are housing immigrant children in Florida.

More than 1,000 migrant teenagers — the vast majority from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — are being held at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children, the shelter director told reporters. Most of those children came without older relatives, but about 70 were separated from their parents as a part of the zero tolerance policy, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s office. At least two dozen separated children were also being kept at group homes in Cutler Bay and Miami Gardens.

A 38-year-old woman — who would not give her name because she is undocumented and feared deportation — told the congresswoman that her cousin’s 10-year-old boy was separated from his mother and sent to South Florida. The mother has not been able to speak with her son, the woman told Frankel.

The woman from Guatemala said she has been in the United States for 21 years without papers and has four children of her own who are citizens.

“It’s very scary,” she said. “Sometimes, they see the police behind and they say, ‘Be careful, Be careful.’ The immigration. They’ll catch you.”

By the time people arrive at the Guatemalan-Maya Center, they often have fled terrible violence in their native countries and endured a thousand-plus mile journey through harsh conditions, Gamwell said.

“Children are being asked to enroll in gangs, as young as 12 years old,” he said. “Daughters are being threatened with rape. … Parents have a difficult choice to make — do we stay or do we flee for our lives.”

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