Sioux Falls, S.D. - For nearly five months a group of South Dakotans has been reuniting children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. “Hand in hand, Justice for Immigrant Children” is an initiative of the nonprofit South Dakota Voices for Peace.
The group is raising money to develop and sustain legal and support services for immigrant children seeking asylum. The Office of Refugee Resettlement said nearly 300 unaccompanied children from Central America have been placed with families in South Dakota since 2014.
“I mean that’s really drastic to think of 15, 14, 12-year old's traveling by foot 3,000 miles,” South Dakota Voices for Peace Executive Director Taneeza Islam said.
With the crisis at the border, more continue arriving, looking for a better life. But, in the process families have become separated.
“Most of the people they say you speak Spanish. Where is my mom? Where is my dad, but we never know,” Pueblo de Dios pastor Maria Cabello said.
The legal process to reunite families can be difficult for many.
“Children who show up to immigration court without a lawyer have a 90 percent chance of being returned to the country they just fled. A 90 percent. With a lawyer we also know they have a 60 percent chance of being able to stay here lawfully,” Islam said.
That’s where "Justice for Immigrant Children" steps in, helping provide legal services to families here legally. Many are seeking asylum by following the laws that are currently in place.
“We think we can make a real impact. I mean 300 is not that big of a number and we have no point in South Dakota of contact for these children and families. We want to become that place,” Islam said.
Maria Cabello has been there when families are reunited. She traveled with one mom to get her daughter after they were separated at the border.
“I feel very happy and my husband feels very happy too because the little girl, when we arrived there, she say where is my mom? Where is my mom? She is only two years old,” Cabello said.
Maria said she considers the help she's receiving from South Dakotans a blessing. She’s hoping more families will be able to experience the joy she has.
“You see their eyes and you see their faces. They look different. They look very happy. This is enough for me when I saw the people happy,” Cabello said.
Islam said through Hand in Hand, they hope to hire a full time immigration lawyer, supervisor, paralegal, and bilingual support staff to help those unaccompanied minors and those separated at the border.
About a dozen children separated at the border have been reunited with their families and are now living in South Dakota.
Dozens of restaurants in Sioux Falls are donating a portion of their proceeds to the organization. A GoFundMe page has also been set up, already raising nearly $40,000.