Heart of Clay

Why Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins was so quick to come to child migrants' rescue.

Heart of Clay
Dylan Hollingsworth
County Judge Clay Jenkins credits Dallas’ faith community for the city’s response to the surge of child immigrants.

In President Obama's 1995 autobiography, Dreams from My Father, one passage describes a day when he is still a kid in Indonesia, walking down a road with his Indonesian stepfather.

His stepfather asks him how much money he has in his pocket. Then the stepfather asks how many beggars he sees ahead in the road.

The stepfather's point is plain: If Barak, the soft-hearted boy, gives money to every beggar he comes upon, then he will give away all of this money every time he walks down the road. Like greed, the stepfather teaches, charity, too, must have limits.

Two weeks ago we published a collection of reports, called "The Surge," painting word portraits of the children who are flooding across the Texas border, most of them from Central America. The scenes in the stories are heart-rending, from parents who must send their children off alone to save their lives to the icy wall of bureaucratic resistance the children confront once they cross the border.

Absolute right and absolute wrong are hard to find in the border children issue. It's not fair to paint people fighting for border control as unfeeling fiends, nor is it fair to paint the people whose arms are open to children in need as profligate fools. But I do find myself wondering about a more inner, less political aspect: Why do some people look at the kids at the border and feel an immediate pang of empathy, maybe even a painful one, and other people not so much, not so quickly?

It occurred to me that we have a pretty good example of the immediate pang of empathy response here in Dallas County in the person of County Judge Clay Jenkins, the elected president of the county commission.

When the surge of children became big news in June and July, Jenkins traveled to the border and then quickly announced he was leading an effort to provide emergency housing here for thousands of children. Later, when the surge of child immigrants slowed, the need for housing here went away, and those plans are off the table — at least until the surge returns.

I wondered what Jenkins saw at the border. How did it affect him? Someone in his position may make a million political calculations, but was there a deeper more personal factor? We met a few weeks ago, and I asked what he saw when he went to McAllen last July.

He said he found the children in McAllen were not being held in a facility like the one that had been shown widely on TV.

"The ones you see on television are mostly the chain-link type. That's Nogales, Arizona," he said. The children in McAllen, instead, were in "kind of like drunk tank holding facilities.

"If you have ever been into a jail where they have a drunk tank, what you've got is an observation pod in the center, a glass pod, and then coming around that pod you've got tanks that face the pod.

"They would separate them. You've got a 14-year-old girl, and she is bringing over her 11-year-old sister and her 8-year-old brother. They have traveled 1,000 miles. Statistically they've got a 50-50 shot at being sexually assaulted if they're young girls, a little less if they are boys, and that's just reported assault. We know that sexual assault is one of the least reported crimes that there is. So they've been through a lot together."

The children, he said, had been instructed by their parents or by the smuggler who helped them across the border to surrender themselves immediately to Border Patrol or other uniformed authorities, in the certainty that the uniformed adults would take them to shelter.

"They get here, and they find that man in the green uniform. They give him their scrap of paper or the phone number of an uncle they've got written on their belt. They're taken to this holding facility.

"Little boys go over here, little girls over there, other little girl over here, because you separate them by age and sex. If you've got a 6- and a 7-year-old, they might be in the same place, or if you've got a 16-year-old carrying a 1-year-old, if they're under 3 they stay with their older sibling. Otherwise they're separated into these holding cells.

"You might have 30 little boys in this holding cell. The cell, if you've ever been in the drunk tank, you can think back to your college days, it's a cinderblock room. On one wall is a concrete bench for people to sit on. In the corner is a stainless steel toilet with no privacy whatsoever.

"Think about it. The reason for that is that it's an observation tank. You've got a group of people being held there, and you want to make sure that guy isn't fighting with that guy, that guy doesn't go into the bathroom and slit his wrist or hang himself. So you have a situation where kids were eating and going to the restroom all in the same place.

"Plus, in a detention facility you don't have showers. You have children who were supposed to be there not more than three days, and they're in there for nine days. They're given limited cleanliness, very little exercise.

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4 comments
AlwaysAGuest
AlwaysAGuest

Dallas/Ft Worth is spying on my data.  I now have proof with this article!  Don't let them fool you. I encourage every American to penalize DFW in any/every possible way!

stsh_sd
stsh_sd

There doesn't have to be a limit on charity if the recipient is deserving. But not many are deserving.

brettshipp
brettshipp

Jim, you weren't there two weeks ago at Commissioners Court to hear it but I was. And honestly, I'm not sure anyone but me was listening. I've been covering politics and government in Dallas since 1991.  Not as long as you but pretty long.  But this was the most powerful speech I have ever heard delivered from a public pulpit in this city.  Out of turn and almost out of nowhere, Clay Jenkins took the floor and stole the show with an artfully crafted, passionate and extemporaneous soliloquy on the topic of "a living wage".  Commissioner Cantrell was miffed that Judge Jenkins was suggesting that a certain vendor couldn't keep or renew its contract unless it promised to pay its employees a living wage.  After Cantrell spoke his mind about how it was government overreach for the county to suggest how vendors run their businesses, Jenkins delved into a 5 minute, gospel-like sermon about how society benefits from giving the least among us a hand up.  Of how janitors and journeymen have to work 2 jobs and 16 hour days, 6 days a week to keep the bills paid and food on the table and the children in clothes. And of how the County owes it to its citizens to set the bar higher for public and private business when it comes to social economic responsibility. It was a beautifully delivered, heart-felt, compassion-filled lesson on giving back the blessings so many of the folks in that room enjoy.  When he was done, there was no "amen", no applause, and zero acknowledgement of one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard a local politicain deliver.  So when I saw you had written this column I immediately appreciated the fact that you had taken time to recognize the leadership and compassion of a man who spent about four straight weeks hitting "delete" on the hate email.  Folks were hating on Clay for his immigrant housing initiative which never came to pass. That was a lot of hate that genuinely hurt Jenkins.  I know.  He told me. And I'm glad he told you his story and that you printed it. 

epicmale
epicmale

Afraid of the immigrants?  No, be we have rational, logical, concerns about bringing a huge population of people that have not been screened properly.  We don't want to admit criminals.  Just look at what happened with Carter's acceptance of Castro's Marielitos!  We are also concerned about the sheer numbers.  This will escalate, and our own children will suffer.  We will be LESS able to help those illegals back in their homeland, and that will cause the problem to swell to overwhelming numbers.

 
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