U.S. Bishops Call on Congress to Do More to Protect Unaccompanied Migrant Children

On 9 November, Bishop Mark J. Seitz of El Paso, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)’s Committee on Migration and Refugees, sent a letter to Congress with a list of recommendations to address the grave issue related to the exploitation of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children in the U.S.A. Over the last months, several reports have shed light on an increasing number of unaccompanied migrant and refugee children being forced into punishing jobs, abused, threatened, trafficked, harmed, or even killed, after the governmental Department of Health and Human Services released them into the care of sponsors.

U.S. Bishops Call on Congress to Do More to Protect Unaccompanied Migrant Children 1

In his letter, Bishop Mark J. Seitz recommends that Congress increase funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to provide post-release services and intervene when necessary; for legal services to ensure a child-centred and trauma-informed immigration process; and for the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division to enforce child labor laws and prevent exploitation. Additionally, the letter advocates for greater oversight at the state and federal levels and mandated training for ORR (Office of Refugee Resettlement) staff to identify signs of maltreatment and human trafficking. It also recommends the passage of the Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act, a bill introduced in June 2023 that would prioritize the immigration process for abused, abandoned, and neglected migrant children applying for the Special Immigrant Juveniles visa.

“Developed by the USCCB’s Department of Migration and Refugee Services (MRS), these recommendations are specifically geared toward safeguarding unaccompanied children once they have been released to a sponsor in the United States,” reads Bishop Seitz’s letter to Congress.

The bishop’s call comes after media reports over the last months have revealed that thousands of unaccompanied migrant children are being forced to work “some of the most punishing jobs in the country,”[1]at the expense of their education, health, and even lives.

According to U.S. legislation, unaccompanied migrant and refugee children arriving at a U.S. border are allowed to enter the country and to be reunited with their parents, legal guardians, relatives, or vetted sponsors, while they wait for their cases to be processed.

However, investigations have revealed that just one-third of unaccompanied migrant children processed by the Department of Health and Human Services are being reunited with their parents, and that thousands are entrusted to the care of sponsors the Department had not been able to vet. According to a February 2023 report from the New York Times, the agency has lost immediate contact with one-third of migrant children it is mandated to supervise, and had been completely unable to reach over 85,000 children during the previous two years. 

The increased flux of children arriving at the border (130,000 in 2022, five times more than in 2017) has left the Department of Health and Human Services unprepared and unable to process their cases appropriately, conduct proper vetting, stay in contact, and check on the children’s well-being, and to report cases of abuse, violence, exploitation, or trafficking, according to the New York Times’ report. 

“While we are also deeply committed to the well-being of these children prior to and during their time in federal custody, including steps taken by ORR to ensure safe sponsor placements, the scope of these recommendations reflects the reality that exploitation is most likely to occur when children lack access to support and become isolated from their local communities,” states Bishop Seitz’s letter. “As Pope Francis reminds us, ‘the right of states to control migratory movement and to protect the common good of the nation must be seen in conjunction with the duty to resolve and regularize the situation of child migrants, fully respecting their dignity and seeking to meet their needs.’”

The USCCB is ICMC’s national member Bishops Conference in the United States. ICMC advocates for child-centred and trauma-sensitive migration policies, as unaccompanied migrant children are very likely to have been the victim of violence, abuse, war, or natural disasters before or during their journey. As a member of the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, and of the Initiative for Child Rights in the Global Compacts, ICMC has a longstanding commitment and experience working in child protection, particularly for refugee and migrant children. 

You can read Bishop Mark J. Seitz’s full letter here

[1] Dreier, Hannah, “Alone and Exploited, Migrant Children Work Brutal Jobs Across the U.S.”, the New York Times, February 25, 2023.

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