EDITORIAL: The ‘aliens’ among us

IMMIGRATION IS A PROBLEM for states on the border, like Texas and California, which is to say, that other border that connects us with Mexico and, in effect, Central America, too. Our border is the one a few hours north of here. Why would Canadians want to leave their country for ours?

So you can understand why the news that migrants, most likely from the southern border, were going to be housed and cared for in the Town of Canaan drew a crowd of local residents to Town Hall last week. People wanted to hear what’s going on.

They learned that the federal Department of Health and Human Services is working with the Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth, which straddles Route 22 at the intersection with Queechy Lake Drive. The center will temporarily house migrants labeled by the federal government as “Unaccompanied Alien Children.”

Let’s start with the “children” part of this label. These kids have to be under the age of 18. “Unaccompanied” means that neither a parent nor a legal guardian is present. And then there’s the “alien” designation, which means they were detained by U.S. border personnel. If they had been with their families they would have been returned to Mexico regardless of where they came from. Adults are now told to pursue their claims for asylum or a visa or whatever reason they have for entering this country while they are living in Mexico. It’s part of a Trump administration program cynically called Migration Protection Protocols (MPP).

But under the MPP, kids without parents who are taken into custody in the U.S. have to be cared for while our government tries to find more permanent places for them to live with family members or in other safe settings. That’s where Berkshire Farm Center comes in. Its Sheltered Hearts program will serve around 40 of these kids at a time and the government says the average stay is currently about 50 days.

Berkshire Farm Center and Youth Services has a 134-year history. It was started in Canaan by two philanthropists who funded programs for “wayward” boys. These kids were sent to the country, where they learned practical skills. Now it’s a multi-million-dollar non-profit operation with programs ranging from foster care and group homes to detention facilities and a residential treatment center. If this sounds like more cages for children caught up in this mass migration of children—10s of thousands of kids a year—that’s not the reputation the center has.

Some of the Berkshire Farm Center’s neighbors may be wary of any plan to increase the population of kids at the center. It was all too frequent in the past that young people at the center were reported by police to have left without permission and vandalized private property, frightened neighbors or stolen vehicles. At least one case ended tragically.

The details of the Sheltered Hearts program remain vague at best. Telling the public more might anticipate and address reasonable concerns. That type of inclusive approach might also generate ideas for welcoming these temporary visitors. And while that may sound at odds with past experience, remember who we’re talking about.

Probably most residents of Columbia County have not had a childhood like the “aliens,” who lived where society crumbled and gangs ruled the streets. Who among us, when we were adolescents or teens, would have seen clearly that the only chance to survive, let alone thrive, was to flee their country and seek a better life in a place that didn’t want us and was still the best option. Has anybody you know made that kind of perilous journey and lived to tell about it?

These may be the bravest, strongest-willed children we’ll ever meet. Their determination and resourceful spirit distinguishes them as the very people who embody what we like to call American values of freedom and independence. If the government insists on calling them aliens, all it does is weaken the word by reminding us of their courage.

Berkshire Farm Center and Services for Youth deserves praise for taking on what looks like a vital service needed by these young citizens of the Earth. But there is another step to take, and that is to find ways the citizens of this county can meet with and welcome these young people. They soon will be our neighbors. They’ve survived, defying the tyranny and chaos that would have destroyed them. Those are skills we will need more of in the days ahead.

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