Today, I am pleased to share my recent email interview conversation with Christine Donnelly, Communications Manager, USCCB office of Migration and Refugee Services. I've asked Christine to bring us up to date on this humanitarian crisis, what the USCCB is currently doing, and how we -- as Catholic families -- might respond to the situation with prayer and concrete acts of mercy and love. LMH

Image Credit: USCCB Image Credit: USCCB

Q: Please offer a brief recap of the situation currently occurring along the border that involves unaccompanied children who are migrating North from Central America and Mexico in increasing numbers.

USCCB: 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—2011, and upwards of 90,000 are projected to arrive in Fiscal Year 2014 (October 1, 2013—September 30, 2014).

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.”

Q: What do Catholic families need to know about this situation?

Catholic families need to know that the underpinning of our work and advocacy on this topic is Catholic social teaching. I defer to the words of Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, in a column he released earlier this week:

I would implore the people of our nation to receive the child who is a stranger with love and to make that child's well-being our first priority.  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.

Q: Where can readers turn for current, non-politicized information on the plight of these children and families?

Our friends at Catholic News Service are covering it well. I know they had a photographer on the border just yesterday.

Q: What can the average Catholic family do to help?

Oh, how they can help! Here are a few ways:

    • 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 more information.
    • 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.)

Q: What efforts are the USCCB and Catholic Relief Services currently involved in to help these children and vulnerable adults?

Family Reunification

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.

Foster Care

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.

Q: Are there any additional thoughts or comments you would like to share?

This is really more of a refugee situation than an immigration situation. A significant number of these children could qualify for refugee protection, consistent with U.S. and international law. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) found that 58% of these children fleeing violence in their home countries could qualify for international protection as refugees. We have to look at this through a child protection lens.

For more information from the USCCB, visit  Unaccompanied children— a humanitarian crisis: what we are doing and how you can help

Copyright 2014 Lisa M. Hendey