We were once refugees…
Providing Safe Passage to Unaccompanied Children from Central America
Overview of Current Situation
Central American children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are migrating to the United States alone in
record numbers. While not a new phenomenon, the number of children who are making the perilous journey
alone has increased exponentially—6,775, on average, arrived between 2003—20111
, and upwards of 90,000 are projected to arrive in Fiscal Year 2014 (October 1, 2013—September 30, 2014)2
. A delegation of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) traveled to Central America in November 2013 and reported in Mission to Central America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States that multiple interrelated factors are contributing to the increase in forced child migration. Some of these factors include: a lack of strong social institutions and civil society support, abuse in the family stemming from pressure on family units due to violence
and family separation, a lack of viable economic and educational opportunities, and environmental factors
affecting crop production. However, the delegation reported that “one overriding factor has played a decisive and
forceful role in recent years: generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of
the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness.”3
Catholic Teaching Underpinnings of Our Work
The sanctity of the family and the need to protect the vulnerable is an integral element of Catholic approach to
service and pastoral care in the United States. This is evidenced in the January 2003 pastoral statement on
migration of the US and Mexican Catholic Bishops, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, which
specifically speaks of the unaccompanied child, noting this special population’s heightened vulnerability, and the
corresponding need for special consideration and care that these children should receive.4
It is the view of the
Church that protecting family values should not depend on a family’s nationality or immigration status and through
its Justice for Immigrants Campaign USCCB promotes humane and compassionate immigration reform that
preserves the family unit as the cornerstone of the immigration system.
Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso put it this way in a July 2014 column:
A willingness to give of ourselves for the sake of the most vulnerable is the measure by which we will be
measured according to the one who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matt. 25:35) Jesus
also told us: “Whoever receives a child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matt. 18:5) Jesus surely
loves the little children. We are called to do the same.
Promoting Permanency through Family Reunification and Foster Care
The Children’s Services unit within USCCB’s department of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) provides
community-based services to support the reunification of unaccompanied children with their family members in the United States through its national network of more than 210 social service agencies. This program also serves
as an alternative to detention—allowing children to live with their families while they undergo immigration
proceedings rather than remain in shelters in the custody of the federal government. Services include referrals to
immigration attorneys and orientation on the immigration legal process, referrals for culturally and linguistically
appropriate medical and mental health services, enrollment in school, and assistance with navigating the
community and local resources. Family Reunification services ensure the child’s placement is safe and appropriate
while strengthening families and mitigating risk for breakdown.
USCCB/MRS Children’s Services provides community-based residential services to unaccompanied refugee and
immigrant children through its network of 12 Unaccompanied Refugee Minor (URM) foster care programs. The
URM programs are federally-funded and state-licensed and provide family-like placements for children to include
foster family homes and living arrangements for older youth, to include group care and supervised independent
living. The USCCB/MRS foster care programs are included within their state’s existing child welfare framework but
overseen by agencies with expertise in working with refugee and immigrant populations. USCCB/MRS provides
transitional foster care to unaccompanied children who are in federal custody pending their release to their
families and long-term foster care for unaccompanied children without a viable sponsor with whom to reunify, but
who are pursuing, or receive immigration relief status.
How You Can Help!
Many of you have contacted USCCB/MRS asking what you can do to help. We are grateful for your generosity and
interest in welcoming children and families who have been separated by migration.
Does your agency have expertise in working with children and/or refugee and immigrant families? If so,
consider partnering with USCCB/MRS to provide Home Study and Post-Release services to
unaccompanied children who are reunifying with families in your communities. Contact Katie Kuennen to
learn more about this opportunity.
Are you interested in becoming a foster parent for an unaccompanied child? USCCB/MRS currently
provides foster care to unaccompanied children in the following locations: Texas, Michigan, Arizona,
Virginia, New York, California, Washington, Mississippi, Florida and Utah. Those interested in becoming a
foster parent would need to follow state and agency guidelines for training and licensing. If you live in one
of the afore-mentioned states, and are interested in becoming a foster parent, contact Anne Mullooly for
Is your agency interested in providing residential services to unaccompanied children? Check out ORR’s
Residential Services grant. The deadline to apply is August 5, 2014. Care providers must be licensed by an
appropriate State agency to provide residential, group, or foster care services for dependent children.
Support your local Catholic Charities or Catholic Social Services affiliate in their efforts to serve refugees
and immigrants! Contact your local Catholic Charities affiliate to learn about their material/volunteer
needs to include the donation of needed items, including clothing, hygiene products, food, and cash and
the provision of volunteers to distribute goods.
Support the work of USCCB/MRS by donating to The National Catholic Fund for Migration and Refugee
Services or Passing on Hope!
Join the Justice for Immigrants Campaign and become a part of a network of Catholic institutions,
individuals, and other persons of good faith in support of a broad legalization program and
comprehensive immigration reform! Voice your opposition to your local Representative and Senators to
legislative proposals that would roll back humane protections for these children and to a reduction in
funding for the care of unaccompanied children. (You can do this easily by using Action Alerts on the
Justice for Immigrants website.)
Source: USCCB United States Conference of Catholic Bishops