Some toy drives check immigration status
By JEANNIE KEVER Copyright 2009 Houston Chronicle
Nov. 30, 2009, 8:59PM
They don’t claim to know who’s been naughty or nice, but some Houston charities are asking whether children are in the country legally before giving them toys.
In a year when more families than ever have asked for help, several programs providing Christmas gifts for needy children require at least one member of the household to be a U.S. citizen. Others ask for proof of income or rely on churches and schools to suggest recipients.
The Salvation Army and a charity affiliated with the Houston Fire Department are among those that consider immigration status, asking for birth certificates or Social Security cards for the children.
The point isn’t to punish the children but to ensure that their parents are either citizens, legal immigrants or working to become legal residents, said Lorugene Young, whose Outreach Program Inc. is one of three groups that distribute toys collected by firefighters.
“It’s not our desire to turn anyone down,” she said. “Those kids are not responsible if they are here illegally. It is the parents’ responsibility.”
The idea of a charity turning away children because of decisions made by their parents unsettled some immigration activists.
“It is very disturbing to think a holiday like Christmas would be tainted with things like this,” said Cesar Espinoza, executive director of America for All, a Houston-based advocacy group. “Usually, people target the adults because the adults made the decision to migrate, where the children are just brought through no fault of their own.”
Other groups don’t require specific documentation, relying instead on outside groups to recommend families.
“When you distribute toys to 10,000 to 12,000 kids, it’s impossible to background (check) every child,” said Fred Joe Pyland, a Houston police officer who oversees the Blue Santa program. Blue Santa doesn’t consider immigration status but collects names from police officers, schools and churches.
Those who do check immigration status or other qualifications say they are trying to ensure they make the best decisions about whom to help.
“We want to be good stewards, so the people that are donating to us trust we’re going to do the right thing,” said Sonya Scott, manager of care ministries at West Houston Assistance Ministries. The group does not check immigration but requires identification, including birth certificates for children, and proof of income.
It has registered 686 children to provide with gifts this year, up from 613 last year.
At the Salvation Army, 30,000 children have registered for the Angel Tree program, which allows children to request the gifts they want most. That’s up 20 percent from last year, spokesman Juan Alanis said.
Gifts for all children
Alanis and Young say they will serve families if the children are here legally, regardless of the parents’ status. The Salvation Army provides gifts for all children in the family if one sibling is a citizen.
The Outreach Program requires parents to show photo identification and birth certificates or Social Security cards for the children. Young said she makes an exception if parents can show they have applied for legal status or that a child is enrolled in school.
Alicia White, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, said it is up to each group distributing toys to decide how to do so. The other groups giving out toys collected by firefighters — Catholic Charities and the Hispanic Firefighters Caucus— do not ask about immigration status.
Participants in the Houston Chronicle’s Goodfellows toy drive were selected by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, chosen from those with children between the ages of 2 and 10 who receive food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid. People who aren’t legal residents don’t qualify for those services, but others in their household may.
Most local toy drives are no longer accepting applications, although the Outreach Program doesn’t pre-register recipients, so families needing gifts for their children will line up Dec. 23 at 1305 Benson.
One of the season’s first big toy distribution events will be Saturday at the George R. Brown Convention Center, when 2,520 children from 63 area elementary schools will be treated to gifts by Navidad En El Barrio.
Israel Gomez, a retired Houston police officer who runs the program, said the kids are asked to donate one can of food.
Navidad En El Barrio draws participants from schools with a high percentage of students who qualify for free lunches.
For programs that select recipients themselves, deciding what documentation to require can be tricky. Alanis said the Salvation Army traditionally has required photo identification and proof of income and legal residency to ensure help reaches those most in need and to prevent people from registering at multiple Salvation Army locations.
Catholic Charities doesn’t ask for proof of income or immigration status. But it does require identification and birth certificates to ensure people actually have the number of children they claim, spokeswoman Julissa Guerrero Chappell said.