SAN FRANCISCO — Julio Escobar, the restorative-justice coordinator for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, has devoted much of the past decade to assisting young people in trouble.

Some of those young people are undocumented minors from Mexico and Central America, and, in recent years, Escobar has witnessed a sharp increase in their numbers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Families have sent young people to the U.S. alone, while others have been trafficked,” reported Escobar, noting the danger of forced prostitution and other unanticipated problems that await many young migrants who arrive here without papers.

Escobar’s account echoes reports from Church-affiliated outreach groups across the country. And last November, staff from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’ Department of Migration and Refugee Services, the largest refugee-resettlement agency in the world, organized a mission to Mexico and Central America to examine the reasons for increased number of young migrants crossing the border.

The resulting report, issued in January by the USCCB delegation, led by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, warned that an estimated 60,000 undocumented minors — referred to in U.S. law as “unaccompanied alien children" (UAC) — could arrive in this country before the close of 2014.

“The delegation found that a series of interrelated factors have contributed to this dramatic increase in migration and that a ‘perfect storm’ of a number of these root causes has coalesced to create this phenomenon,” according to the report.

Poverty, weak educational opportunities and a bleak future with no job prospects were part of the problem. The report also noted that many youngsters hoped to be reunited with family members, especially parents, who may already be working in this country.

However, the most urgent reasons for the “fear and hopelessness” that spurred teenagers to embark on a harrowing journey to the United States were “generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law.”

Asked to comment further on the delegation’s investigation, Kevin Appleby, the U.S. bishops’ director of migration policy and public affairs and the author of the delegation’s report, told the Register that the well-publicized “violence arising from the expansion of the drug cartels is part of the problem.”

“But gang activity isn’t necessarily funded by drug money,” Appleby said. “When criminal elements control communities in these countries, they charge a renta, which people must pay if they want to be left alone.”

“They may also be working in tandem with drug groups, which increases their power, especially if the government is unable or unwilling to challenge them.”


The Shelter-Release Program

The majority of unaccompanied minors are taken into custody by the U.S. border patrol, placed in a shelter and then released to relatives, with the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services (HHS) providing most of the initial services.

Last year, an estimated 20,000 minors passed through the “shelter-release” program run by the HHS Office of Refugee Services, almost double the number of 2012. In the first quarter for this fiscal year, 9,881 minors had already been placed in shelters, with daily costs averaging about $400 per person, according to a recent report in The Wall Street Journal.

At the national level, the USCCB's a Department of Migration and Refugee Services lobbies to improve options and services for undocumented minors and oversees a nationwide network of mostly Church-affiliated agencies that administer foster-care programs.

Critics of the federal shelter-release program argue that by facilitating family reunification and providing services like free education, the shelter-release program is encouraging young migrants to make a hazardous journey and violate U.S. laws.

A Jan. 29 report in The Wall Street Journal noted criticism of federal policy by Judge Andrew Hanen of the U.S. district court in Brownsville, Texas, in a case involving a “10-year-old girl who had been smuggled across the border to live with her mother.”

The girl had been released to her mother by federal authorities, and in his decision, Judge Hanen raised questions about the government’s response."The DHS [Department of Homeland Security] is rewarding criminal conduct instead of enforcing the current laws.

“More troubling, the DHS is encouraging parents to seriously jeopardize the safety of their children.”

But in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, where the local Catholic Charities operates two shelters for juveniles, Church personnel contend that fear and desperation bring the teenagers to this country, and a humane response is warranted.

“From a moral perspective, as a father, I cannot imagine the kind of conditions that would inspire me to send my kids on a one- or two-month trek through Mexico in the hopes they would arrive here,” Deacon Sam Dunning, the director of the justice and peace office for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, told the Register.

“Imagine what would cause families to take that great risk.”

Houston is not a border town, but as a major regional hub in Texas, a Southwestern state that borders Mexico, it is a magnet for young people crossing the border.

With those numbers rising, Deacon Dunning has defended government programs that provide  basic housing, food, education and legal assistance for the new arrivals.

“From a public policy stance, this is an example of how broken our immigrant policy is,” he said, noting the additional challenge of family reunification years after parents have left their children behind to find work in the United States.


Usually Sent Back

Wafa Abdin, vice president of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston,  said that the majority of teenagers who arrive here without papers are usually returned to their home country. 

Abdin is an attorney who has worked with immigrants and other vulnerable groups for more than a decade, and she outlined the government-funded services provided by Catholic Charities during the shelter-release process.

When Catholic Charities receives word that a teenager has been sent to a shelter, a caseworker and staff attorney meet with the youngster to present the legal options that may be available and explain whether he or she may be eligible for any relief.

“Most of these kids escape very difficult situations. A lot have come here to work, and some have been hurt or abused back home or during their journey. But in most cases, under immigration laws, there is nothing we can do to help them remain here,” said Abdin.

Some are able to remain if they have a family member who can sponsor them of if they can prove they have been persecuted or if they are victims of human trafficking, she explained.

In such cases, Catholic Charities lawyers go to court to make the case that deportation would not be in the best interests of the child.

Advocates for these youngsters argue that the rising level of violence and instability in their home countries make them suitable candidates for programs that allow those fleeing such conditions to obtain asylum in the United States.

The U.S. bishops’ report on this issue notes that young people from lawless regions in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have fled the threat of “extortion, kidnapping ... and the forcible recruitment of children into criminal activity.”

The USCCB’s Kevin Appleby equates these young migrants with wartime refugees. And Abdin said she agrees with that characterization.

“Yes, they are coming here to work, but they are also fleeing from gang recruitment: Their lives would be in danger if they refused to join the gang,” she said.

“Yet it is still hard for them to qualify for asylum because a lot of case law does not consider [the threat of gang] recruitment to be grounds for asylum.”


Political Debate

The USCCB report marking the dramatic influx of young people fleeing violence in their homeland calls for more generous and flexible asylum policies that place the “best interests of the child” ahead of legal “eligibility for immigration relief.”

The report also calls for adequate legal representation for youngsters in the shelter-release program and increased funding for family-reunification services.

Those demands could be a tall order in Washington, where the U.S. bishops’ push for comprehensive immigration reform has stalled, prompting frustration that a “broken” system will not be repaired soon.

This week, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez called for “interim measures,” such as a moratorium on immigration raids and help for undocumented minors, in order to bypass immigration reform’s apparent “political dead-end.”

“These two proposals are no substitute for true immigration reform — but they would make a big difference in the lives of millions of our neighbors,” Archbishop Gomez said in his Feb. 21 column for the Los Angeles Archdiocese’s newspaper, The Tidings.

However, while advocates for undocumented minors press for workable, long-term solutions, some lawmakers argue that the push for comprehensive reform has actually fueled the surge of youngsters crossing the border.

The USCCB’s Appleby disputes that suggestion. He says that when the USCCB delegation interviewed young people in Mexico and Central America, they spoke about gangs and lawlessness, not the "Dream Act" or other proposals for immigration reform.

“We heard only twice in our trip that immigration reform would be a pull factor, and that was from the ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs] agents,” said Appleby.

“We didn’t hear that from any other source, including the kids themselves."

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.