On Thursday the opposition to confining undocumented migrant children in the United States landed hard in the Philadelphia suburbs, aimed at a shelter project in the wealthy Chester County community of Devon.
About 40 demonstrators rallied against Devereux, the well-known, national behavioral-health provider and the second agency to try to open a children’s shelter in the region, reaping millions of government dollars in the process.
“We need to be very clear: These are jails, these are not shelters,” said Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, the Latino advocacy group. “When you talk to the young people [in other centers], they are jailed. They cannot leave. If they do leave, police are called.”
Ten protesters stood blocking the road outside Devereux headquarters, holding a banner that said, “Free them all.” The crowd sang and chanted slogans including, “Never again means now!”
Police watched impassively. No one was arrested.
“These are detention centers, no matter what they call them,” said Andy Moskowitz, a spokesperson for Never Again Action. “A cage is still a cage. If your bars are made of gold, they’re still bars.”
Never Again Action joined with Juntos to lead the demonstration.
Devereux senior vice president Leah Yaw said the agency’s sole intent is to provide needed health, education, and legal services to migrant children now being held in rough border camps, "to get kids out of detention camps and reunited to their families.” To equate the agency’s therapeutic services with those of a holding facility is simply “not factual,” she said.
“Devereux as a health-care provider does not have the luxury of posturing when children’s lives are at stake," Yaw said. “Right-minded people can’t leave those kids where they are. You want to change public policy and stop detaining children? I promise you, Devereux gets out of this tomorrow. But there is a difference between ideology and reality."
Neighbors have been upset by the plan, both for zoning and moral reasons. They learned from workers renovating a shuttered Devereux property that youths who crossed the nation’s southwest border alone, or were separated there from their families, would be moving in.
Devereux intends to house 42 undocumented children between ages 5 and 12, known as “unaccompanied minors,” in what it describes as an ethical imperative to help young people. The nonprofit plans to use its Stone & Gables campus on Highland Avenue.
An initial government payment of up to $14 million will fund the project, and also help Devereux plan and potentially open four new children’s shelters — in Connecticut, Texas, Colorado, and Massachusetts, along with a small foster-care program in New Jersey that will have no physical campus.
“It’s really important not only for Devereux, but for all these companies who are looking to get these contracts to open these detention centers, to know there’s visible protest against this,” said Miguel Andrade of Juntos.
Moskowitz said the proposed Devon facility is no humanitarian gesture, but a funding source from which will spring more child-migrant centers.
The detention of these children is both highly controversial, helping drive the contentious national debate over immigration, and big business.
Juntos, based in South Philadelphia, has fought the plans of the Arizona-based, for-profit VisionQuest to open a shelter in North Philadelphia. The company has been blocked by a zoning dispute and in court by the Kenney administration, moves cheered by activists who insist that Philadelphia, as a “sanctuary city,” should have no role in the detention of children.
“There are more companies out there who will try to use this opportunity to make money off the suffering of our children,” Almiron said. “Every time they try to do that, we will be there to resist.”
VisionQuest runs a similar immigrant shelter in Arizona, and recently signed agreements to open others in Albuquerque, N.M., and San Antonio. Opponents in both cities are challenging the plans.
Devon, set about 15 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is a leafy enclave of 1,700 people, 92 percent white. The median income of $183,483 is more than three times the state median of $56,951. The community is probably best known for the annual Devon Horse Show and Country Fair, among the jewels of Main Line traditions.
Yaw said her agency has told federal authorities that the deliberate separation of families is “an aberrant practice, which should never happen" and that Devereux would not support or be involved in that.
However, conditions at the border can make it difficult or impossible to determine who is truly “unaccompanied.” Generally, that term refers to a child who comes to the country without a parent or legal guardian. But lawyers and investigators have reported that children who enter the United States with an aunt, uncle, or other relative who is not a parent are being separated from those family members.
“Most people of conscience think about what’s happening at the border as a mass atrocity,” Moskowitz said. “We want people to be aware, it’s not just at the border, it’s happening all around us.”