How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

California lawmakers tour Ventura County child migrant shelter, call for refugee status

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As the Central American migrant crisis continues, a group of Latino state lawmakers toured an emergency shelter for unaccompanied minors Tuesday in Ventura County.

Members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus said they were pleased by the conditions they saw at Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme, where a 600-bed shelter houses unaccompanied minors over age 12. It's one of several emergency shelters set up as the federal government scrambles to come up with housing and resources to deal with the mass migration.

Democratic state Sen. Ricardo Lara of Los Angeles County was among those on the tour. He said that while the conditions they saw at the shelter were favorable, more needs to be done for children and families fleeing growing violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

"We call on the President to take action with compassion by considering refugee status for the children here in Ventura, and for other children who have escaped inhumane treatment back home," Lara told reporters by phone.

Since last October, more than 50,000 unaccompanied children and and teens have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly from Central America. Others have arrived accompanied by parents and other relatives. They cite escalating gang and drug violence in their home countries as the reason for their flight, as well as grinding poverty and little opportunity.

Many also have family members in the United States, in many cases parents who have sent for their children. Some parents have been encouraged by rumors of a "permiso," or permit, they have heard allows children to stay in the United States once they arrive.

Although there is no such thing, a 2008 law designed to protect trafficking victims does make it more difficult to deport Central American children, since minors from countries that don't share a border with the United States must have an immigration hearing.

President Obama has proposed amending the law to allow for expedited deportations of Central American minors, in much the same way as Mexican youths are quickly repatriated. On Tuesday, Obama also asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency funding to help pay for temporary shelter as more migrants arrive, as well as other expenses such as border security and to boost the capacity of immigration courts to process and deport migrants more quickly.

Meanwhile, a number of lawmakers and others have suggested granting these migrants refugee status as a way of diffusing the situation. The United Nations is now pushing for many of the Central Americans fleeing to the U.S. to be treated as refugees displaced by armed conflict, a designation meant to pressure the U.S. and Mexico to accept tens of thousands currently ineligible for asylum.

During a teleconference after the Port Hueneme shelter tour on Tuesday, Democratic state Sen. Norma Torres from the Inland Empire stressed that the crisis should not be politicized.

"This is not a Republican or Democratic issue," said Torres, who was born in Guatemala. "This is a crisis that involves children, seeking refuge from violent thugs and gang members in their homeland."

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