With tens of thousands of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America detained at the U.S. border, Catholic Charities of Tennessee is waiting to see if some of its staffers are needed to help resolve the crisis.
Responding to a request from the federal government, Catholic Charities USA asked the 187 Catholic Charities agencies across the country if they had any bilingual staffers with experience working with children who might be available to help process the cases of thousands of children waiting in detention centers, said William P. Sinclair, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee.
Sinclair’s agency has a couple of staffers with the language skills and experience ready to help, but they’ve yet to be called to the border, he said.
“Everybody’s thinking about what they might want to do and how they want to do it,” Sinclair said of federal officials trying to deal with the large influx of unaccompanied child migrants who have come to the country in the last year.
According to federal officials, 47,017 children traveling without parents or a legal guardian had been caught along the southwestern border between Oct. 1 of last year – the start of the federal fiscal year – and June 2. That is a 92 percent increase over the same period the year before. For the entire 2011 fiscal year, about 6,560 unaccompanied minors were caught at the border.
Most of the unaccompanied children come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which are experiencing an increase in gang violence, officials have said.
There have been reports of smugglers telling people in Central America that if their children can make it to the United States, they would be allowed to stay. But U.S. officials have said that is incorrect and they are trying to let people know the facts and urging them not to send their children north.
“I don’t have the answer for why there are so many children who’ve crossed the border recently,” Sinclair said. “I just know that it’s a fact.”
Federal law requires that people caught trying to enter the country without proper documentation must receive a court hearing to determine whether they qualify to remain in the country or must be deported back to their country of origin. With the sharp increase of unaccompanied minors, a large backlog of cases has developed.
Caseworkers like the ones from Catholic Charities who might be called to the border to help would be working with the children to make sure they’ve had a health check, to verify any documentation they might have, and to determine if they have any family in the United States that can care for them while their cases are pending, Sinclair said.
Most of the children detained are between the ages of 6 and 16, he said.
The crisis could have an impact on Catholic Charities’ refugee programs, but so far nothing has been decided, Sinclair said.
“There was sort of an outbreak of bad information where people were saying all sorts of things that were incorrect,” Sinclair said.
Catholic Charities staffers have taken calls from people who had heard that Catholic Charities had already agreed to resettle the children and had received federal grant money to do so, Sinclair said. All of that is false, he added.
Contributing to the problem, Sinclair said, is the fact that there was no federal agency that had responsibility for dealing with the crisis of the unaccompanied children. As the situation worsened, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement was given the assignment to address the crisis, even though the children are not refugees, Sinclair said.
Catholic Charities has two departments that deal with refugees. For the last six years, Catholic Charities’ Tennessee Office of Refugees has had the contract to administer federal funds for refugee programs throughout the state, Sinclair explained. Since 1975, Catholic Charities’ Office of Refugee Resettlement has offered services to help refugees resettle in Nashville and Middle Tennessee, he said.
Among the programs the Office of Refugee Resettlement offers are helping families set up a household and look for work, helping children adapt to school in the United States, helping refugees with health care issues, helping elderly refugees with acculturation and with applying for U.S. citizenship, Sinclair said.
The Obama administration has asked Congress to allocate about $4 billion to deal with the crisis of unaccompanied children and some of that money would be shifted from programs that assist refugees, Sinclair said.
“If that happens, there would be a reduction in refugee services,” Sinclair said. “The cut in Tennessee would be over $1 million” and would affect services offered across the state, he added.
A decision on shifting the funds is still on hold, Sinclair said.