Little known Fife facility houses undocumented kids
Down an inconspicuous driveway in Fife — cutting through a thicket of overgrown grass along a four-lane road that roars with truck traffic — a dated building with bars on the windows sits just out of sight. The discreet location feels by design.
Beyond the brush, a tall, wire fence — slanted inward at the top, presumably to prevent anyone from climbing out — surrounds a field with artificial turf and soccer goals at each end.
Down the driveway, a sign welcomes people to the Selma Carson Home. To enter, visitors buzz the front desk from a locked gate and wait for a garbled, tinny voice to respond from a small call box outside.
Since 2003, the Selma Carson Home — a 23-bed medium security facility operated by Pioneer Human Services, a nonprofit that has a contract with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement — has housed what immigration officials refer to as “undocumented and unaccompanied” boys, ages 12 to 17.
Historically, most of these children embarked on a long, dangerous journey to the United States alone, coming from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Mexico, according to Art Tel, the facility’s director of programming.
It’s a place 16-year-old "Gabriel" knows well.
For roughly six months, Gabriel was one of 63 boys housed at the home over the course of 2017. Originally from Honduras, he made the northward trek to the United States by riding atop freight trains — or "The Beast" — and begging for money along the way.
The News Tribune is withholding his real name because of his age and concern that his speaking to the media will have a negative impact on his ongoing immigration case or that his friends and family members might face retaliation from federal immigration officials.
Through an interpreter, Gabriel says he made the decision to come to the United States at the age of 15. At the time, he says, he was living on the streets.
He says he faced constant fear of rampant gang violence in Honduras and his choice to undertake the long, treacherous journey to the United States was made with self-preservation in mind. He says gangs in Honduras forced him to sell marijuana, which is how he supported himself.
He believed he’d be killed if he stayed.
“It was dangerous there,” he says.
After crossing the border, the boys living at the Selma Carson Home in Fife are detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, beginning what immigration attorneys and advocates say is a lengthy and unpredictable process of navigating federal immigration proceedings under the Trump Administration.
Recently, that scenario has become even more complicated.
According to Janet Gwilym, the managing attorney of the Seattle office of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a new kind of “unaccompanied” youth has been arriving at facilities in the Pacific Northwest: Children separated from their families at the border.
It’s a result, she says, of the Trump Administration’s new “zero-tolerance” policy, which emphasizes the prosecution of immigrants who enter the United States illegally.
Gwilym says her organization, which provides legal counsel to all the children facing immigration proceedings at the Selma Carson Home, is aware of eight such children who have been shipped to local facilities, including the little-known facility in Fife.
It’s a contention officials at the Selma Carson Home strongly deny.
"Parents and relatives are what the program staff are trying to find," Tel contends. The ultimate goal, he says, is reuniting the boys with family while their immigration proceedings work their way through the system.
"We checked all of the files of our clients and with confidence I can say that up to this point we have not served any youth who have been separated from their parents at the border in the U.S.," Tel says. "Clearly all of the youth we serve are separated from their families in their country of origin by choice, force or out of desperation. Also, their detainment in the U.S. is a separation — but the youth we serve have not been taken from their parents here.
"The conversations that our residents have with their lawyers are confidential, so we would not have a way of knowing what they are sharing with them."
Gwilym is adamant that there is at least one case involving family separation at the Selma Carson Home.
“These local family-separation cases seem to be a direct result of the new zero tolerance policy,” she says. "The government is forcing them to be unaccompanied children.
“The horrifying thing now is they’re actually being separated from parents.”
Many people are familiar with the Northwest Detention Center on Tacoma's Tideflats, which houses adults going through immigration proceedings.
But few know about the Selma Carson Home. The facility serves the same purpose as the NWDC, only for boys, and is one of a handful of similar facilities in Western Washington contracted with the federal government to do this work.
As Tel says, the anonymity the Selma Carson Home enjoys is “probably not a bad thing,” at least from his perspective.
“I do think the city of Fife kind of likes it that way. We certainly want (the boys housed at the Selma Carson Home) to be safe,” Tel says.
Safety, Tel says, is something most of the boys at the Selma Carson Home have experienced very little of in their lives.
“A very common experience of these kids is exposure to community violence,” Tel says. They envision coming to the United States, even with the risks involved, as “an escape,” he says.
One thing is clear, at least according to immigration attorneys and advocates.
The Trump Administration’s new aggressive immigration policy means that the definition of "unaccompanied" child seems to be changing, and how long boys are forced to stay at the Selma Carson Home once they arrive in Fife has become increasingly uncertain.
Structured and isolated
Inside the Selma Carson Home, a room lined with flags from around the globe, each representing a home country of a boy the facility has housed over the years, serves as a main meeting area. A digital message board displays a rotating set of messages about values like accountability and hard work.
Officials at the Selma Carson Home describe a “structured” schedule at the facility, one designed to create a “proactive environment” and build trust with the boys.
Tel says that isn’t always easy.
“It’s hard to earn trust,” he says. “What we talk about a lot is just unconditional support. I do think it’s difficult, and we just keep going at it because it’s in their best interest. That’s what we’re here for.”
Five days a week, the boys wake up at 6:30 a.m. and get ready for breakfast, which is served at 6:45 a.m. After breakfast, the boys spend the biggest chunk of the day in school at the facility, with lessons varying depending on the education level of the student.
Pioneer Human Services employs four teachers who work at the Selma Carson Home, Tel says.
“Education,” he explains, is the facility’s “biggest component.”
Olivia del Carmen Acosta Cardenas is one of the Selma Carson Home’s teachers. She’s served as education supervisor at the facility for the last three years.
“We have kiddos who they don’t know how to write or read to students who are ready to go to high school,” she says. “Our curriculum is really, really wide — with U.S. History, math, English, vocational (classes) and P.E.”
Essentially, Cardenas says, “the whole day (the boys) are with us.”
“It’s wonderful … most of the kiddos probably don’t have the opportunity (to attend school) for many reasons in their country,” she says. “They come or they live in a real remote place, so they don’t even have a school where they live. Those kiddos, when they start the school, I can see they are eager to learn.
“Two or three months later, they are getting used to it.”
The detained boys also spend time in therapy sessions, doing chores and light housework, playing on the fence-lined field outside or engaged in free time. There’s a garden, and soon chickens will arrive for the boys to help raise.
The freedom the boys enjoy is largely earned, Tel says. Access to what’s known as a “Level 3 room” — which features video games and musical instruments — is restricted in an attempt to "incentivize as best we can positive behavior.”
The boys also are allowed 60 minutes of phone time a week, permitted to call only “approved contacts,” Tel says, which are typically family members.
Aside from the occasional medical appointment, it’s rare for the boys detained at the Selma Carson Home to see the outside world.
“They are here, really, all the time,” Tel says. “The vast, vast majority of their time is spent inside this fence.”
'Escaping something terrible'
Gwilym is very familiar with the stories of the boys detained at the Selma Carson Home.
“All of the kids pretty much are escaping from something terrible. They’re all survivors of some kind of traumatic experience,” she says. “There’s a lot of violence in their home countries. A lot of it is gang violence. A lot of domestic violence.
"Many of them have been street children … living in extreme poverty situations.”
Some travel alone or with friends, hoping to connect with family in the United States.
Others times, the family hires human smugglers — or "coyotes" — exhausting savings in hopes that their children can be safely shepherded to the United States for a better life, one they don’t believe they have the means of providing at home.
Sometimes, the children are kidnapped against their will and taken to the United States for sex trafficking or forced labor, Gwilym says.
Gabriel fits the first description.
Once Gabriel crossed the U.S.- Mexico border, he says, he gave himself up to federal immigration officials. He remembers them asking “a lot of questions.”
He was seeking asylum and hoping to be able to work in this country.
After a stay at a similar facility in California, he landed in Fife. He stayed at the facility for half a year before being reunified with a family member living in Florida, where he’s currently enrolled in school. He says his favorite subject is English. In Honduras, Gabriel says he didn’t really attend school.
He also is waiting while the fate of his asylum request and his immigration case plays out.
Under the Trump Administration’s new immigration policy, asylum for immigrants in Gabriel's situation is an increasingly dicey proposition.. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared that domestic violence and gang violence should not be grounds for the protection.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, declined a chance to comment for this story after initially requesting questions be submitted in writing.
“The asylum statute does not provide redress for all misfortune,” Sessions wrote in a recent ruling.
Longer stays, growing uncertainty
A family reunification like Gabriel's, Tel says, is one of several ways boys detained at the Selma Carson Home can earn their freedom while their immigration case proceeds. Historically, it’s also been the most common — representing the preferred outcome, he says.
Some, like Gabriel, seek asylum. Others apply for what's known as a special immigrant visa, which would allow them to stay in the country. Tel says the boys' increasingly lengthy immigration cases rarely culminate at the facility
A minority decide they want to go back home, Tel says, opting for a voluntary deportation back to their home country.
As the Trump Administration continues to shape federal immigration policy, another consequence is emerging. Family reunifications — which provide a more stable and less restrictive environment while the boys' immigration cases play out — are starting to take longer to facilitate and becoming rarer, Gwilym says.
She says an increased emphasis on “vetting” the family members willing to take in the boys is significantly delaying the process. At the same time, fewer and fewer family members are willing to come forward for fear of attracting the unwanted attention of federal immigration officials.
“Sponsors are having a lot harder time getting approved, or their afraid of declaring,” Gwilym explains.
According to Tel, it’s one of several factors — including increased immigration court caseloads — contributing to longer stays at the Selma Carson Home.
The last quarterly report at the facility, he says, revealed an average stay of “just over 100 days.”
Comparatively, it’s a noticeable increase. Tel says it's the first time in several years the average stay has been that long.
“We’ve had a handful of kids who have been here over a year,” Tel says.
At the time he spoke to The News Tribune, the longest current detention at the Selma Carson Home was nine months — and counting.
“Which is a long time,” Tel says. “But every case is going to be different.”
'Not a perfect system'
Ovidio Penalver is a longtime Puyallup resident who has visited the facility once a week for over a year offering a weekly communion service through All Saints Catholic Church. Penalver says he can’t help but feel for the boys detained at the Selma Carson Home.
While he understands the facility is a small piece of a much larger federal immigration system and recognizes the services that are provided, Penalver — who fled Cuba when he was 21 — still feels there must be a better way.
“It’s like a prison,” Penalver says. “It should be more like a halfway home or a shared home. I don’t know why these kids are treated like prisoners.
“They all want to leave. They feel like what it is — very restricted. It’s detention, you know?”
In his work, Tel is clearly aware of this vexing dynamic and the complicated part the facility he oversees plays in a larger system he has little control over.
Still, he says, he sees his job as “a helping profession,” including all the good and the bad that comes along with it.
Most of all, Tel says, he wants people to see the humanity of the situation — that these are just boys, trying to escape unthinkably cruel circumstances in most cases, now caught up in something much bigger than themselves.
“It’s not a perfect system,” he says. “But we’re … really working hard to making sure (the boys are) going to a safe place next and then equipping them to be successful when they get there. You hear some very difficult stories. The toughness and the resiliency — that is just so impressive to me. For them to have survived the experiences that they have — it’s something I will never forget.”
“Then sometimes they go back to those environments,” he adds. “I mean, that’s difficult.”
When it comes to his experience at the Selma Carson Home, Gabriel — who Penalver remembers as "a wonderful kid, but very rambunctious" — recalls an experience filled with uncertainty and isolation.
Asked about the adults at the facility, he said: “There are some who win the hearts of the boys, but others don’t.”
Gabriel remembers spending a lot of time in his room and often being angry.
“The boys feel sad,” he says.