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Heart of Clay

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

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.

"So when I got there, I saw children with their faces pressed to the glass so they could see their relative. The first child I saw, she was crying out for her sister while a border patrol agent changed her on his desk. They were doing the best they can. It's just an unreal situation.

"I saw kids having accidents waiting to go to the bathroom because the line was so long. There's a lot of irritable bowel with these kids. They're dehydrated and malnourished when they get there. There's a dietary change and huge stress involved."

Two years earlier, in a conversation on the living wage, Jenkins had told me a bit about his own childhood — a more hardscrabble tale than one might expect from a successful lawyer living in the Park Cities. So I asked him about it in greater detail recently when we sat to talk about the border. He didn't bring it up. I did. But he answered my questions.

He was born in Oak Cliff in 1964. When he was 7 years old his father suffered a heart attack in front of him and a sister in a park, from which he did not recover.

"He had a heart attack, and unfortunately he made the decision to drive my sister and me home, back to Illinois and Newport Avenues, as opposed to going straight to Methodist Hospital, which, sadly, was right across the street from the park. By the time my uncle drove him to the hospital, they had lost the golden hour, what we now call the golden 15 minutes, and he just never came out."

Things got a lot tougher at that point. Jenkins and his sister became latch-key kids.

"My mom worked at the phone company. She had to work longer shifts. Like all kids, you remember trouble in your own childhood. I'm not so far removed from it, even as a middle-aged man with an 8-year-old daughter, that I can't remember what it's like to be alone as a child and to feel abandoned.

"Not because my mom was an inattentive mother. She had to work. A lot of times my mom would be gone from the house before it got to be light, and she'd come home after it got to be dark."

His mother remarried when he was 11, and things got better. I asked him if he thought his childhood experiences had a direct effect on his reaction to the kids at the border. He said he thought his childhood was less of a factor in his feelings about the border question than it has been in his commitment to the issue of a living wage. In order for children to have a healthy bond with their parents, he said, the parents must be able to come home from work in time to see the kids.

He said he doesn't see the border question in black and white. "Just as the border crisis is complex and fluid, people are complex and fluid," he said. "A lot of it is in how they frame the issue in their own minds."

He said he believes leaders have an important role in how the issue is broadly framed. "Leaders can invoke reason and compassion, or they can incite fear and anger."

In the end, however, the more important question is how the community responds. "It's the community that ultimately decides the response. In Dallas County they overwhelmingly chose compassion. I think a big reason they did that is that the faith community rose up and took control of the debate.

"In Murietta and Escondido, California, and other places, the call to action was to protest the government, so the debate was framed by people who were afraid and angry. They were angry about immigration and the border. They were afraid of faceless immigrants.

"In Dallas County, the faith community led people to get in touch with the values of compassion and mercy toward children. It's two sides of the same question. I don't think the people on either side of the question are inherently better than the other. It's what do you tap into when you see these child refugees. Do you see danger or do you see children?"


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