These children, and also some families, are fleeing drastic increases in gang-related violence and their governments’ inability or unwillingness to protect them, as well as fleeing extreme poverty. On their way to the United States many report experiencing extreme violence, rape, extortion and even torture. Some children are as young as five and teenage girls are encouraged to take “precautionary contraceptive” before their journey as rape is so common.
Once they cross the border into the U.S., the children are apprehended by the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection, known as CBP. Legally, CBP is only allowed to hold these children for 72 hours, after which they are moved to temporary shelters operated by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR. ORR places the children in the care of family members already residing in the United States, with foster care families, or in detention facilities.
Children receive a “Notice to Appear” in immigration court where a judge will make the final determination if the child will be deported or remain in the U.S. – often through the asylum process or on a special immigrant juvenile visa that is available to children who have been abused or neglected by a parent. As immigration courts are currently backlogged, children often stay with family, in a foster home, or in detention for an extended period of time while they await their proceedings.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has experienced serious pressures on its budget as the number of unaccompanied children has escalated over the last three years. This year, ORR has reprogrammed $94 million in social service assistance to its refugee resettlement program to meet these children’s needs.
The Obama administration has asked Congress for emergency funding of $3.7 billion to help support the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the State Department, and immigration courts. The supplemental appropriation will focus on increasing immigration court capacity and expanding law enforcement that targets criminal networks both in the United States and in Central America. The additional funding will also be used to bolster foreign cooperation to help with repatriation and reintegration in Central America and to increase the capacity of the United States to provide care and transportation for unaccompanied children.
CWS is mounting a response to address the crisis utilizing a system modeled after its current Caribbean Secondment Program. CWS draws on full-time staff for its secondments, giving the program the capacity to identify, prepare and send Spanish-speaking attorneys and legal staff for short-term assignments with little notice.
The specifics of the CWS response include these components:
CWS will deploy Spanish-speaking legal staff (lawyers and Board of Immigration Appeals) to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, where a large number of children are held for processing. This will be done in partnership with Justice for our Neighbors, known as JFON and Refugee And Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, known as RAICES, the legal service agency with access to the facility.
The deployees will interview children and their families; offer “know-your-rights” briefings to help individuals understand the sequence of events they must follow to apply for protection. Those deployed will spend anywhere between two to 21 days in the field, interviewing approximately eight cases a day. This is work similar to that performed by the Resettlement Support Center in Kenya managed by CWS. Denominational Spanish-speaking legal staff who might be interested in participating will have the opportunity to apply for deployment and engage in the program.
CWS is currently offering spiritual care in a detention facility in Artesia, N.M., formerly Artesia Christian College. This is a DHS “family detention facility,” meaning that children who are accompanied by a parent or a sibling are placed there. CWS has moved its chaplain from Port Isabel, Texas, to serve in Artesia until further notice. This work is funded by DHS.
Provided resources are secured, CWS will establish a similar presence in other detention centers holding children and families, matching the federally funded services with the private contributions and deploying staff through the aforementioned Secondment Program. Since presence in federal facilities of this nature requires a security clearance which takes time to obtain, CWS will not be in the position to accept volunteers from member communions at this time. It is our plan to expand the number of staff with increased access to facilities in the months to come through this public-private partnership model.
ORR makes an effort to release children upon processing and health screening to relatives they may have in the United States as soon as possible. ORR has a legal obligation to act in the best interest of the children while they wait for immigration proceedings. This means that children are often sent to live with family or in temporary detention centers while they wait to for immigration proceedings. Once in their temporary destination, children require legal help, emotional care, education and hospitality, and other types of assistance.
CWS local and affiliate offices are equipped to deal with these needs and will make every effort to offer that assistance in all local offices and at the CWS Corporate Center in New York. With the help of this appeal, CWS will offer that assistance on a pro-bono basis. For those whose cases are denied, and CWS feels that an appeal would be useful, CWS legal staff will pursue that direction.
CWS is receiving troubling reports that, in some instances, DHS is dealing with the developing crisis by dropping off women and children after initial screening in potentially vulnerable spaces, such as parking lots and bus stops. As one recent example, there have been reports of more than 50 children and women being dropped off at shopping center parking lots in Yuma, Ariz.
Faith communities in Yuma, including First Presbyterian Church of Yuma, Yuma United Church of Christ and Yuma Interfaith, a coalition of not-for-profit organizations and faith groups, are working together to provide housing, gather clothing and food donations and help coordinate bus tickets so that these women and children can reach relatives elsewhere in the United States and await their court dates to determine if they can stay or will be deported.
"Women and children are being dropped off with a notice to appear in court, and nothing else; no food, no water, no diapers, no money and without Identification or a phone to call their relatives. We have a responsibility to respond, if we don't stand up for justice and peace, who will?" said Rev. Alberta Wallace of Yuma United Church of Christ.
Funds are urgently required to meet immediate needs including food, water, clothing, diapers, medical care, housing and bus tickets. The interfaith effort has been volunteer-based and although it has received wide community support, the effort needs additional resources to further organize this relief effort, which should include case management and volunteer coordination.
In several cases, CWS member communions are actively organizing responses to similar situations by coordinating hospitality, shelter, donations and mobilizing local congregations to advocate for policies that defend humanitarian protections and push back against unnecessary increased border militarization. CWS will collaborate with member communions to support this work.
Lastly, CWS has been and will continue to be on the forefront of advocacy efforts to recognize this situation as the humanitarian crisis that it is; to ensure that ORR has adequate resources to care for the children; to prevent rollbacks to life-saving protections for the children; and to see that policies and procedures are in place so that children who are in need of protection can apply for status and reside here permanently.
The total amount being sought for the entire CWS-supported effort is $200,000. This includes:
Legal Services and Assistance - $120,000
Religious Services and Pastoral Care - $35,000
Hospitality at Drop-off Points - $25,000
Advocacy/Grassroots Organizing - $20,000
Total - $200,000
Please note: Several appeal revisions related to this response are expected. As one example, we expect to be revising the appeal upward in coming weeks to help support response to children who are being returned to Honduras and Guatemala from the U.S.
How to help
Make a secure, online contribution here
Contributions may also be sent by mail to: Church World Service, Attn. Unaccompanied Children Crisis (# 76-628-B), P.O. Box 968, Elkhart, IN 46515.
Contacts for this appeal:
Director, CWS Immigration and Refugee Program
Associate Director for External Relations, CWS Immigration and Refugee Program