On Wednesday, October 25th, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing, Ensuring the Safety and Well-Being of Unaccompanied Children, Part II, to examine ways in which Congress can further protect unaccompanied children – children who arrive in the U.S. without a parent or guardian – from labor exploitation. The hearing provides an opportunity for Congress to shine a light on the continuing needs of vulnerable unaccompanied children, and to respond to those needs with decisive action – including by implementing changes Church World Service has called for, such as robustly funding post-release services, promptly-completed and culturally competent home studies, legal representation, mental health services, and child advocates.
Each year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied children seek refuge in the United States, they are among the most vulnerable children who arrive at the U.S. border. Most are from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras and are fleeing violence and threats to their safety. A major factor forcing unaccompanied children from their homes is the high rates of violent crime, gang violence and recruitment, and severe economic insecurity. For many, the long and dangerous journey to the United States is just the beginning. After these children are released from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody and into the care of a sponsor, such as a loved one, the transition is difficult as they adjust to new communities, cultures, languages, and families.
In Fiscal Year 2022, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered a record 152,800 unaccompanied children at U.S. borders. In Fiscal Year 2023, as of July 2023, CBP encountered around 109,000 unaccompanied children. Each child has mental health, safety, education, and legal needs that must be met. They are facing a new world, and Congress has a critical role to play to ensure unaccompanied children have the resources they need to rebuild their lives and succeed.
It is critical that Congress robustly funds post-release services, promptly-completed and culturally competent home studies, legal representation, mental health services, and child advocates to ensure the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children. Post-release services and promptly-completed and culturally competent home studies provide each child with access to education, medical and mental healthcare, legal representation, and other services. Through child-centered, trauma-informed, culturally, and linguistically competent case management, these services ensure that each child has a safe and stable home placement where they can learn, grow, and thrive. Caseworkers work with the children and sponsors to set goals like finishing school, obtaining a legal immigration status, or connecting to other community support systems. The services also provide parental support to new caregivers and facilitate integration with local communities. The entire process takes place in whatever language the child and their sponsor are most comfortable speaking.
It is also critical that Congress help provide oversight of current government programs, processes, and policies to ensure that unaccompanied children are cared for in child-centered, trauma-informed, linguistically and culturally appropriate environments that are designed in their best interest. Congress should support bills that reflect values of supporting and protecting vulnerable unaccompanied children, and their families and sponsors, like the Refugee Protection Act (reintroduction forthcoming), the Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act (S.1885 and H.R.4285), and the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act (S.3065).
Contact Your Two Senators and One Representative Today!
On the right-hand side, you can send an email that connects you to your Members of Congress.
Sample Email/Script: “I’m your constituent from [city/town] and [a faith leader/refugee leader/community member]. I urge you to support any effort to ensure the safety and well-being of unaccompanied children, particularly by robustly funding post-release services, promptly-completed and culturally competent home studies, legal representation, mental health services, and child advocates so that all unaccompanied children have an opportunity to thrive in a safe and caring environment.
In addition, here are some recommendations to protect unaccompanied children:
- Support Positive Legislation to Strengthen Protections for Unaccompanied Children:
- The Refugee Protection Act (reintroduction forthcoming), which would restore and strengthen the refugee resettlement program and asylum protections – and includes provisions to support and welcome unaccompanied children.
- Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act (S.1885 and H.R.4285), which would mitigate the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) green card backlog and help vulnerable immigrant children and youth access a permanent immigration status.
- Fair Day in Court for Kids Act (S.3065), which would ensure legal representation of unaccompanied children in immigration proceedings and help uphold fundamental fairness for children who are at risk of deportation to the same dangers they fled.
- Facilitate Family Reunification and Uphold Family Unity: In February 2021, the Biden administration created the Family Reunification Task Force to encourage the reunification of all separated families. Families who were separated can apply for humanitarian parole and return to the U.S. to be reunited in safety and to find support to help them heal from their trauma. I urge Congress to support these children and reunified families by providing funding and congressional authorization for Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) services, such as case management, behavioral health, legal representation, and medical and mental health services.
- Support Youth Aging Out of ORR Custody: A portion of unaccompanied children in ORR custody will turn age 18 while still in ORR custody, thereby aging out of “UC status.” Abrupt transitions out of a child welfare setting without sufficient planning and support can further traumatize children and leave them vulnerable to homelessness, exploitation, and trafficking. I urge Congress to provide funding for ORR to develop long term plans for every 17-year-old unaccompanied child in ORR care who will be aging out of ORR custody at least 30 days in advance of their 18th birthday.
- Strengthen Child Welfare-Centered Placements in ORR Network: I urge Congress to direct ORR to increase the number of children in family-based or small group settings — and direct all government agencies in charge of unaccompanied children to recruit, educate, and support applications for funding by organizations that are able to house children in small and family-based settings. Additionally, Congress should robustly fund ORR to expand small-scale and licensed capacity, so that temporary, unlicensed facilities are a last resort.
- Expand and Strengthen Family Reunification and Asylum Protections: I urge Congress to hold the administration accountable to increase protections for Central American minors and strengthen the Central American Minors (CAM) program. Congress should also ensure the administration prioritizes family reunifications for unaccompanied Afghan minors (UAMs). I urge Congress to hold the administration accountable to restore asylum protections and end harmful border policies like Operation Lone Star.”
Amplify on Social Media: Amplify this message on social media using the sample social posts below.
- [@legislator] I’m calling on you to ensure the safety and well-being of unaccompanied kids by robustly funding post-release services, promptly-completed and culturally competent home studies, legal representation, mental health services, and child advocates.
- Each year, tens of thousands of unaccompanied kids seek refuge in the US, fleeing high rates of violent crime, gang violence & recruitment & severe economic insecurity that threaten their safety. [@legislator] please provide the necessary resources to support these kids.
- Each unaccompanied child has mental health, safety, education & legal needs that must be met. [@legislator] you can ensure these kids have the resources they need to rebuild their lives & succeed. Support bills that champion the rights & future of young newcomers.
- [@legislator] please support bills that protect vulnerable unaccompanied children & their families. Bills like the Refugee Protection Act, the Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act, & the Fair Day in Court for Kids Act aim to provide necessary protection & support.
- Policy Asks: UC Briefing October 2023
- CWS Factsheet: Who Are Unaccompanied Children?
- CWS Home Study and Post-Release Services
Thank you for taking action, and please share this alert with your networks!