Earlier this year, Devereux, a national behavioral-health agency, announced that it would soon open a shelter to house up to 42 undocumented migrant children in Chester County. The detention of those children — deemed “unaccompanied minors” by the federal government because they crossed the nation’s southwest border alone, or were separated there from their parents — has added fuel to the fiery national debate over immigration.

The Inquirer turned to Erika Almirón, a longtime social justice activist and the executive director of Juntos, an immigrants’ rights organization, and Leah Yaw, an executive at Devereux, to debate what should happen to children who cross the border into this country alone.

America should work to reunite families, not profit from the lives of children

My mother came to the United States in 1972, just a few months shy of her 18th birthday, to be with my father, whom she married only a few months before arriving in New York City. She was young and in my eyes has always been one of the bravest people I know. My parents came fleeing a vicious dictatorship in Paraguay that was being propped up and funded by the U.S. government at the time. Coming to the U.S. for them was about survival, period.

Their story is not much different from the many families and children who are coming to the U.S. today seeking asylum at our borders. U.S. involvement in Latin American governments has left many countries historically destabilized. But we have yet to meet this humanitarian crisis with a humanitarian solution. Instead, what we have been witness to has been the devastating ripping apart of families and the inhumane detention of asylum-seekers in deplorable conditions. Just this past year, at least seven children have died while in the custody of Border Patrol or the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

Erika Almirón, executive director of the immigrant rights group Juntos, speaks as protesters block the street in front of a Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facility in Villanova, Pa., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Several dozen protesters blocked the road to show their opposition to Devereux's plans to build a facility in Devon to hold unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the border.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Erika Almirón, executive director of the immigrant rights group Juntos, speaks as protesters block the street in front of a Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health facility in Villanova, Pa., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. Several dozen protesters blocked the road to show their opposition to Devereux's plans to build a facility in Devon to hold unaccompanied minors who illegally crossed the border.

The U.S. detains the most immigrant children of any other country in the world and for the longest periods of time, both at the border and at ORR facilities across the country. As the White House continues to criminalize migrants, we have seen these numbers soar and companies like Devereux see this as an opportunity to rake in profits off of the separation of families.

In the last year nine Devereux employees in Chester County have been arrested and charged with assaulting children under their care or standing by and not reporting it. A local family is suing them for gross negligence that they allege led to their son’s sexual assault and there are similarly disturbing cases across the country from Phoenix to Georgia. Devereux files taxes as a “nonprofit,” yet their top 10 executives make close to $4 million combined, making it much more obvious what their bottom line is. Instead of expanding their portfolio, Devereux should be focused on these internal issues and develop a plan to better ensure the safety of the children that are currently under their care.

While ORR facilities will argue they are shelters, we know they are not. Young people cannot leave these facilities and if they attempt to reunite themselves with their families, local police are called. Police dogs have chased them through the neighborhoods. Most of these children have families here in the U.S., but the process for these families to get their children out of custody is complicated and many have had their information shared with ICE, leading to home raids and the chilling effect of more sponsors coming forward. This means these young people can spend months or even years detained and their 18th birthday can be turned over to ICE and entered into deportation proceedings.

Many say that children seeking asylum and their families need to choose between staying in cages at the border or in detention centers masked as shelters, as if the latter is their better option. This is a false choice. Neither of these scenarios is a solution to what our families need. Seeking asylum is not a crime. What we should be doing is reuniting families, supporting people in understanding their rights, giving them access to pro bono lawyers, and letting them have their due process in court, not criminalizing them or allowing profiteers to come in and pocket money off of their suffering.

This is not how we should be treating people, especially children, in the U.S. I like to believe we have the potential to be better than that.

Erika Almirón is the executive director of the Latino immigrant rights organization Juntos and a social justice activist for close to 20 years.


An entrance sign to the Devereux Stone & Gables campus in Devon.
JULIE SHAW / Staff
An entrance sign to the Devereux Stone & Gables campus in Devon.

Providing shelter and care for unaccompanied minors is the most humane thing to do

Last summer, three of the most well-respected nonprofit immigration attorneys in the nation came together to advise Devereux on a request from the Office of Refugee Resettlement to open therapeutic programs designed to get unaccompanied migrant children out of overcrowded border detention camps run by ICE. ORR’s charge to Devereux was to provide trauma-informed health care, therapy, education, recreation, coordinated access to religious services and immigration attorneys, and case-management designed specifically to reunite children with their family members in the U.S. – ideally within 30 days.

The most striking moment of the meeting was one attorney’s suggestion of what the children would need to hear from staff in order to feel safe when they first arrived to us.

“You’ll need to convince them they’re actually in America. They’ve believed profoundly in something all their lives; that they’ll be safe once they get to America. But when children finally arrive here, after struggles impossible to imagine, their experiences have not been of safety or compassion – and maybe they’ve been horrific. That’s your first task.”

What does Devereux think should happen to children who cross our borders alone? We think their trauma and terror should end. We think they should receive compassionate care from highly trained medical professionals and teachers who speak their native languages. We think they should be offered trauma-informed therapy, nutritious food, safe and warm living spaces respecting their dignity and privacy, recreation, the support and counsel of immigration attorneys, and case management to unite them safely and quickly with family members living in the U.S.

We live in complex times, but the spirit in which we must care for children, regardless of immigration status, is not complicated. The U.S. is party to the protocols of the 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees, which specify child refugees have a right to health care, education, meaningful access to courts, and systems respecting the “principles of the unity of family.” These are precisely the human rights Devereux’s program is designed to provide and protect.

Although Devereux, a historic nonprofit organization, has consistently demonstrated a focus on excellence, compassion, and charitable service for more than 100 years, some have falsely alleged profit-making motivates this effort. Profiteering off unaccompanied children is a scourge and it must be addressed, because some organizations are – and wildly. Devereux is not among them. Detailed financial reporting for every program we operate is publicly available, and we welcome review.

A few people have pointed to the compensation of our top 10 leaders as evidence that the organization is unworthy of working in service of the community. Devereux cares for more than 25,000 of the most vulnerable children and adults in the country every single year through a comprehensive nonprofit health-care network across 13 states, employing 7,500 staff. Five of our top 10 executives charged with that very complex work are MDs at the top of their field; another is an attorney with a 40-year nonprofit track record. Two others began their careers “on the floor” as entry-level direct care staff for the very children who, decades later, it is their privilege to serve in a leadership capacity. Collectively, those 10 people bring more than 325 years of nonprofit health-care leadership experience to the table every day.

As the discussion of Devereux caring for unaccompanied children has evolved, a few advocacy organizations have pointed to individual incidents across our national network to suggest they represent systemic problems. That suggestion is categorically untrue. In just the last 20 years, Devereux has employed more than 58,000 dedicated staff who have provided extraordinary, and at times, lifesaving, care to hundreds of thousands of children and adults. One incident in care is one too many, and no one believes that more strongly, or works harder to improve every day, than the staff at Devereux.

Does immigration policy need to change? That is one of the most important questions the advocacy community must address, and while they do, Devereux will be quietly caring for these children and reuniting them with their families. When the Red Cross provides care in a war zone, it isn’t supporting the policies of war. It is doing the best work possible, in a complicated and often tragic situation, to help those in need.

Standing on the sidelines while immigration policy is debated would certainly be easier than fighting to help these children in real time, but that would mean abandoning them to detention camps or the streets. Devereux won’t do that.

Leah Yaw serves as senior vice president and chief strategy officer for Devereux Advanced Behavioral Health.