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Family Fostering Migrant Children Share Experience

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Nearly 19,000 children and teenagers crossed the U.S.-Mexico border last month without a parent. That's the most unaccompanied minors to cross the border in more than a decade. Researchers say that's because of a number of issues in Latin America, including violent crime, corruption and climate change that's disrupted livelihoods. But whatever the cause or causes, federal agencies have been scrambling to find appropriate housing for children and teens.

Nonprofit and faith groups like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service have been part of that system of care for some time now. They find families to house and care for children before they can be connected with relatives in the U.S. Christopher and Bridget are one such couple. We are using only their first names for reasons of privacy. They live in the southeastern United States and since 2019 have served as foster parents for migrant children. And they are with us now to share some of their story.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRIDGET: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So it seems like we've been talking about unaccompanied kids at the border for the last few years, first because of the prior administration's policies that led to separating kids and now because of the surge. I'm just wondering how your family got involved with this work. Was there something in particular that influenced your decision? Bridget, do you want to start?

BRIDGET: Around the time that the family separations were happening, we actually were at a church service where our pastor showed a picture from an orphanage he had just visited in Haiti. And there was a picture of a little girl who just had a cold, but she was lying on a mattress by herself. You know, she didn't have Tylenol or any sort of medication that is very easy for us to get. She didn't have anyone to comfort her or care for her.

And he said, just because it's not my child doesn't mean it's OK. And in that same sentence, he challenged all of us to find something that breaks our heart and do something about it.

MARTIN: Does Christopher want to add anything?

CHRISTOPHER: Yeah. I think that was a light bulb moment for us and an opportunity to partner as we got to know more about the program. It's basically all-inclusive, right? So they go to school during the day. They have availability and access to their services, whether it's the case manager or doctor's appointments and all that during the day, which really unlocked the opportunity for us to participate while both working full-time jobs. These are children who just needed to be - you know, have a loving, caring place to stay the night and be fed. So it was a great opportunity for us to serve.

MARTIN: Do you remember the first child who came to you?

BRIDGET: Oh, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

BRIDGET: You never forget the first. And our first child was with us the longest. She was with us for six weeks. And she was a 4-year-old girl who was separated from her grandmother at the border when she came to us. She was very traumatized. She cried for almost two weeks nonstop about her abuela. She had for the first four years of her life been raised by her grandmother and had never slept a night not in her grandmother's bed. You know, that is a trauma that we know she'll carry with her for the rest of her life.

But the good news is that she was able to be reunited with her family, and her grandmother eventually came to the United States as well. And so they are all together now. And so we feel so good about that.

MARTIN: Christopher, is there any child who's been with you that stands out for you?

CHRISTOPHER: You know, in addition to her, you know, we've had nine children and seven placements total. There was a set of twin young girls who were amazingly sweet and loved to play princess and dress-up, and just everything had to be just so.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHRISTOPHER: And, you know, we had two teenage boys, so we haven't had a whole lot of princess time in our lives.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

CHRISTOPHER: But being able to discover each other and being able to discover each other's cultures and talk about food and where they're from and their families - and it's really amazing to see how they fit in and how much they're just like our children growing up.

MARTIN: Do you know anything about their circumstances - like, why they're in the situation that they're in - like, what brought them to crossing the border? Do you know anything about that?

BRIDGET: We're not always privy to the whole story. But, you know, we've had several boys between 12 and 14, and their story is always, my parents wanted to get me out of the country before I got involved with the gangs. You know, they were very much looking for a better, safer life for their sons. You know, the younger kids haven't been able to articulate that as much. One little girl that we had, her family had told her that it was like a vacation that she was going on. And so...

MARTIN: Oh.

BRIDGET: When she came to our house, she was not as fearful, not as scared as some of the others. And I - you know, I also wanted to mention another little boy who traveled with his mother from their home country, and his mother was subject to the remain in Mexico policy at that time. And so he told us after he had been here for a few days that she put his papers into his hand and said, go. You know, if you make it across the border, you'll never have to come back to this place, and you'll be safe.

And those kinds of stories just move us so deeply. And we feel those so deeply because, you know, we have boys around that same age, and the thought of being in a situation where the best choice is to send my child by himself into a foreign country - you know, it's just unfathomable to us. And it's something that, you know, we can't imagine.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that because, you know, for a lot of people, I think a lot of people don't know how to think about this. I mean, on the one hand, they think, what kind of parents would send their kids across the border by themselves? That's how some people feel. And some people feel, like, well, as you see, this has become this huge political football, and...

BRIDGET: Right.

MARTIN: So some parents are, like, why are we letting this happen, you know, as a country? Why are we letting people come here and all of this? And I'm just interested in - has your experience fostering kids - has it shaped your perspective on this?

CHRISTOPHER: You know, from our point of view, administrations representing both political sides or multiple political sides have neglected the situation on the border for way too long and have either ignored it or vilified the people who were interested in coming into our country. And we knew, and as much as it broke our heart, the situation, we knew there was nothing we could do about the situation. There's nothing we could do about the political narrative.

What we decided was we could help one child at a time, or every now and then, two children at a time. And, you know, we live in the Southeast. It's a very conservative area. And I can say that people in my own family's views of the situation at the border have been impacted by this program and by these children.

You can't meet a 4-year-old girl who just misses her grandmother, you can't meet an 11-year-old boy who was told to come across a border and find relatives and family, and he would have a safer life and a better life once he was able to do that - you can't meet these children and then think of them all in this group of horrible people and call them these horrible names, as we've seen happen in the political arena.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, so thank you again for talking with us. Is there anything else that you would wish people to know, anything else that you would wish people would think about as they think about, you know, this issue, whatever their politics are?

BRIDGET: Yeah. You know, I think we hear a lot about the fact that it's just a flood of gangs and violence and drugs coming across the border. And these children that we have taken into our home - they have been so sweet, so tender-hearted, so polite. One of the reasons we did this is because we were tired of just kind of fighting about it on social media (laughter) and tired of the rhetoric and the narrative.

And like Chris said, we wanted to just make a difference in the life of a few families because we don't know the solution to the immigration issues. We don't know how to solve the problems, how to fix the system. But we do know that these children are coming to this country for a better life. And we believe in that. And, you know, we just wanted to play a small role in this.

MARTIN: Christopher, any final thought from you?

CHRISTOPHER: I will just add that, you know, our younger son, our 14-year-old, has been lucky enough to be in a school and be immersed in Spanish language since he was in kindergarten. And so his role in sort of the last couple years has really been as our chief family translator. It does help having someone who knows some Spanish in the house to be able to talk to children. But you shouldn't be scared off even if you don't have someone in your house who does.

MARTIN: That was Bridget and Christopher. They provide foster care for migrant children through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

Thank you both so much for being with us.

BRIDGET: Thank you.

CHRISTOPHER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF RRAREBEAR'S "KIWIII") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.