Accompanying Unaccompanied Refugee Children

The Catholic Church takes a lead role in assisting minors who are designated as refugees and brought to the U.S. without parents or adult relatives.

U.S. Border Patrol agents escort unaccompanied minors and immigrant families from El Salvador after they crossed the Rio Grande illegally into the United States on July 24 in Mission, Texas.
U.S. Border Patrol agents escort unaccompanied minors and immigrant families from El Salvador after they crossed the Rio Grande illegally into the United States on July 24 in Mission, Texas. (photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Nearly half of the world’s refugees are children, many of whom have lost parents to war or been abandoned by their families.

“These kids are all alone in the world. They’re alone in the refugee camps. They’re not safe where they are,” said Steve Hicken, the division director of economic development services for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County in California.

Hicken’s agency, affiliated with the Diocese of San Jose, is currently helping dozens of minors who were designated as refugees and brought over to the United States when it was determined that they did not have any parents or adult relatives to care for them. Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County is one of several Catholic agencies across the country that connect the young refugees with foster families and help them integrate into society.

“We’re there helping kids in a programmatic way and trying to make sure they have positive outcomes, and also that they eventually become independent and self-sufficient,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.

The USCCB is one of two lead voluntary agencies — the other is Lutheran Immigration Refugee Services — that helps the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement administer the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program, which provides specialized foster-care services for refugee children under age 18.

The URM program operates in 15 states and has about 700 children in its care. The children are classified as refugees by the U.S. State Department. Many of the unaccompanied minors were living alone in refugee camps in Africa, the Middle East or Asia when humanitarian workers determined that they did not have any parents or family members caring for them.

“Oftentimes, they’ve seen parents killed, siblings killed. They’ve been through war and have been isolated from their families. They’ve been through a lot,” said Gina Montanarella, director of the Children, Youth and Family Department of the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, N.Y.

Many refugee children are coming from African countries such as Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Rwanda and Uganda. The young refugees are also hailing from Myanmar, Bhutan, Iraq, Cuba and increasingly from Central-American countries like Honduras and Guatemala.


Central-American Children

More children from Central America’s Golden Triangle — Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — are being classified as unaccompanied refugee minors because they are said to be fleeing from persecution at the hands of drug cartels and street gangs. Since October 2013, at least 66,000 unaccompanied minors from that region have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border without documentation, overwhelming U.S. Border Patrol facilities in the Rio Grande Valley.

Most of those young migrants who crossed the border illegally are classified as unaccompanied alien children, not refugees, and they are supposed to undergo deportation proceedings, even as the federal government works to place them with any relatives they might have in the United States. Appleby said the USCCB has lobbied for more Central-American minors to be able to enter the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program.

“But until now, the government has said that they are not really refugees,” Appleby said.

That may be changing. In late September, President Barack Obama’s administration announced a new plan to allow children from Central America to apply for refugee status in the United States. While adding that the parameters were still being worked out, administration officials said that the children would be able to apply at processing centers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador by late December. In a memorandum to the State Department, the president said that 4,000 out of 70,000 refugee visas should be allocated to individuals from Central America and the Caribbean.



The president announced his plan just a few weeks after Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, expressed his concerns with local religious leaders that many of the 200 unaccompanied alien minors who had been sent to that state could be transferred to the URM program.

According to published reports, Bryant was frustrated that the federal government had not told previously told him that the unaccompanied alien minors would be sent to his state. Bryant also reportedly said that he suspected the Obama administration would take advantage of the URM program.

Appleby said Bryant was comparing apples to oranges, but Marguerite Telford, the communications director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors a stricter immigration policy, told the Register that the Obama administration’s lack of transparency makes it difficult for governors like Bryant to trust the federal government.

“They’ve been so secretive from the very beginning about what they were going to do with all these children. You had governors begging to be told in advance about where the kids were being sent, and not even congressmen were being made aware,” said Telford, who accused the Obama administration of trying to “fudge” the difference between unaccompanied minor aliens and refugees.

“If you get labeled a refugee, then what the government has done is get you to see this as a humanitarian issue rather than a law enforcement issue,” Telford said.


History of the Program

The federal government created the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program in the 1980s to address the needs of thousands of children in Southeast Asia who did not have a parent or guardian to care for them. Since 1980, more than 13,000 minors have entered the URM program. At its peak in 1985, the Office of Refugee Resettlement provided care to 3,828 refugee children.

In the 1980s, the URM program took in many of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of more than 20,000 boys who were displaced or orphaned during the Second Sudanese Civil War, which lasted from 1983 to 2005.

Over the decades since the URM’s inception, the federal government has expanded the conditions for who can qualify for the program. For example, since 2000, the federal government has expanded URM services to child victims of human trafficking, unaccompanied minors who are granted asylum in the United States and some immigrant juveniles in federal custody who migrated illegally from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Many of the young refugees who are found in camps or urban settings overseas — once officials determine that they do not have any parents or adult relatives who can care for them — are screened to determine if they qualify for URM services. Over the course of several months, the young refugees often undergo several interviews from American government officials.

“If even one small detail changes from one interview to the next, a lot of times, they are kicked out of the process because of how secure the government is trying to keep this program,” said Kerby Anderson, a social worker and executive assistant to the president and CEO at Catholic Charities of Fort Worth, Texas.

Once the children are classified as refugees and accepted into the URM program, they are flown to one of 19 locations in the United States, where agencies link them with foster families. Oftentimes, those foster families may have a familiarity with the refugee child’s culture and language.

“Our goal is for these kids, who have already been through a lot, to feel comfortable, to make them feel that this is their family now and to still have a connection to the families and use them as a support system when they age out of the program,” said Jennifer Berenson, the placement-service supervisor at the Catholic Family Center in Rochester, which normally carries a caseload of 38 to 40 children who receive URM services.


The Catholic Contribution

Catholic agencies involved in the URM program train foster parents and make sure that the refugee children receive medical and dental care, are enrolled in school and receive tutoring, as well as any needed counseling or social services. The young refugees are also often taught independent life skills such as budgeting and applying for jobs.

Anderson said that Catholic Charities of Fort Worth runs a monthly support group that allows the refugee minors to share their thoughts with each other.

“They’re able to share their past experiences and talk about their adapting to life here,” Anderson said. “It’s shown to be a very good forum for them to open up about past things and get support from their peers. It really helps them to start down that healing process, and we’ve seen a lot of kids open up in that setting and become more comfortable with the idea of doing more individual counseling.”

Catholic officials take pride in the educational achievements of many children in the URM program. Many of the young refugees have overcome the adversity and challenges of adapting to life in the United States and gone on to graduate from high school and college. Montanarella, from the Catholic Family Center, said her agency’s nine high-school seniors last year all graduated on time.

“And that after being in the country for less than four years, without speaking any English when they arrived,” Montanarella said. “We have two youths attending private colleges in the Rochester area and another three attending a local community college. Two others moved out of state and are employed full time. We prioritize education in the foster-care program.”

Hicken, from Catholic Charities of Santa Clara, said his agency has 20 URM students enrolled in either two- or four-year colleges.

Said Hicken, “They have defined their dreams and goals and are building new lives for themselves.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.