While the nation's outrage over the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy reached a boiling point, a small nonprofit in Topeka was quietly accepting migrant children who had been separated from their parents.
These children, unwitting victims in the White House's efforts to gain leverage in the immigration debate, do not belong in Kansas. They should be with their parents.
And while President Donald Trump signed an executive order Wednesday ending the separation policy, it was not immediately clear what that would mean for the children who already had been shipped to this facility in Topeka.
For five decades, The Villages has helped troubled and neglected youth, including juveniles sent to group homes and children in foster care.
But now the agency has taken a government contract to house Central American migrant children who have been separated from their parents as a result of the Trump administration policy that was enacted in April. The Villages is believed to be the only location in Kansas or Missouri and possibly in the central region of the U.S. that has been receiving immigrant children whose parents have been detained in separate federal facilities.
The inhumane and morally indefensible policies implemented at our country's southern border amounted to forcibly removing children from their parents under the pretense that such cruelty would deter other immigrant families. It was a nonsensical argument that ignored the life-threatening dangers many of the asylum-seeking families faced in their native countries of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
While Trump, who had falsely claimed that only Congress could clean up his mess of a policy, relented Wednesday and announced that he would stop splitting up families at the border, much damage already had been done to the children housed at The Villages and other similar facilities.
How quickly the children in Kansas can be sent back to their parents, where they might be housed in the interim and how the administration will approach the complex process of reunification are still open questions.
And the trauma inflicted upon the migrant children is real and irreversible.
One child advocate familiar with The Villages and its government contract said, “It’s not cages in a Walmart. It’s more like a traditional group home setting. But it’s still troubling.” Some 1,500 immigrant boys have been living in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas.
Sylvia Crawford, executive director of The Villages, said her top priority has been to ensure that the children under her care are safe. She understands the volatile nature of the current immigration debate.
"We have kids in this program," she said of the government’s unaccompanied child program. "We have chosen on purpose to be very low profile."
Crawford and others familiar with The Villages declined to provide details about the facility or the children who have been sent there. Crawford said she doesn’t want “the kids to be caught in the crossfire of the feuds” over immigration policy.
A Kansas City immigration attorney working under a government subcontract to help with the children's legal representation also declined to comment and directed questions to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for caring for children who come to the U.S. without a parent or other legal guardian. The government office did not respond to a request for more information about the contract with The Villages.
Postings on The Villages' website and social media accounts in recent months show the organization has been seeking Spanish-speaking employees to work with the children. Jobs have included a teacher, a youth care worker, a mental health clinician and a paraprofessional to assist the teacher.
The first arrivals were likely teenagers who came to the U.S. alone. But The Villages has begun receiving much younger children, possibly as young as 6 years old, in recent weeks, others familiar with the program said.
The shroud of secrecy enveloping these migrant children, the facilities where they're housed and the contracts with private groups such as The Villages, is deeply troubling. Administration policy and taxpayer-funded government contracts must be able to withstand public scrutiny.
The Villages has a strong reputation as an agency that has helped youths in several group homes in Topeka and Lawrence. But no level of care can completely erase the pain of children who were taken from their parents.
One of The Villages' locations in Topeka is a nearly 400-acre rural outpost, with programming that focuses on having the youth interact with nature. The bucolic surroundings likely are preferable to the warehouse-like facilities filled with cages and foil blankets that quickly became the indelible images associated with the administration's cold-blooded policy.
But fresh air still can't negate the harm that has been done to the children at The Villages.
A wide range of structural changes are needed to ensure that our immigration system can process claims for asylum fairly, efficiently and without separating families. Trump took an urgently needed first step by finally abandoning his ill-considered policy.
But for the White House and Congress, the hard work of immigration reform still lies ahead. And sadly, for the migrant children who now find themselves in Kansas, the immediate future remains uncertain and, no doubt, rather frightening.