RNS

With an average 500 unaccompanied children arriving at the United States-Mexico border every day, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, calls the current situation at the border an "emergency."

The current rate, Vignarajah pointed out, puts the US on track to receive more than 100,000 unaccompanied children this year - higher than the record set in 2019, when 70,000 children arrived seeking to immigrate.

US unaccompanied immigrant children1

Unaccompanied immigrant children are seen walking across a parking lot in a frame grab from pool video shot during a tour by White House officials and members of Congress of the US Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Department of Health and Human Service's Carrizo Springs Influx Care Facility for unaccompanied immigrant children in Carrizo Springs, Texas, US, on 24th March. The videographer was prohibited from photographing the faces of any of the immigrants by government officials. PICTURE: Pool via Reuters.

Faith-based agencies like LIRS, which often contract with the federal government to settle migrants, were decimated by the Trump administration's border policies and then by COVID-19 restrictions. Now some are struggling to cobble together resources to answer the flow of unaccompanied minors and are asking for help to meet the need.

“Obviously, the most important issue is how do we take care of the unaccompanied kids who are coming to our southern border,” Vignarajah said.

“Obviously, the most important issue is how do we take care of the unaccompanied kids who are coming to our southern border."

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

After the Trump administration closed the border during the ongoing pandemic, LIRS faced a hiring freeze, after making cuts over the past four years as the Trump administration slashed the number of immigrants and refugees allowed to enter the country.

“So there wasn't as much of an ability to kind of prepare for any significant increase in children," said Vignarajah.

The organisation is focused now on building its capacity to continue offering “small, family-centric” care, she said. On a webinar last Wednesday, LIRS asked for prayer, donations and volunteers to offer fostercare and advocates to call on the Biden administration and Congress to take action, among other things.

Volunteers, the agencies say, will be crucial to fill their shortfalls. Last weekend, Catholic Charities of San Antonio, which has also worked for years along the border, sent a request asking for volunteers before the group was sure how they will be used, according to a spokesperson. Catholic Charities already has a presence at the city’s Freeman Coliseum, where 500 unaccompanied migrant minors, ages 13 to 17, arrived on the evening of 29th March.

Volunteers “may be setting up or serving lunches, or helping make beds for instance, or interacting with the children", the spokesperson said.

Bill Canny, head of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services office, said volunteers have also led Catholic Mass for migrant youth and offered pastoral care.

“That was very well received,” he said, adding that Lutherans have also offered worship services.

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Unaccompanied minor Kaylee Samantha, seven, who said she came alone from Mexico, gets off of a small inflatable raft onto US soil after being delivered by a smuggler in Roma, Texas, on Wednesday, 24th March. She claims she is trying to reach relatives in the US. A surge of migrants on the Southwest border has the Biden administration on the defensive. The head of Homeland Security acknowledged the severity of the problem but insisted it's under control and said he won't revive a Trump-era practice of immediately expelling teens and children. PICTURE: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills/File photo.

The Biden White House has reached out to faith groups for help through the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. A recent email by the office highlighted an “increased need for safe, state-licensed beds for unaccompanied children” and encouraged religious organisations to explore “a funding opportunity” for “state-licensed residential, group or foster care services.”

Matthew Soerens, US director of church mobilisation for World Relief, said in an interview posted on the organisation’s website  that some of the increase in unaccompanied children at the border is being driven by families seeking asylum who are now slowly being allowed into the US after waiting in informal camps or church-based shelters for a year or more under the Trump administration’s “remain in Mexico” policy. After being tested for COVID-19 and having their claims processed, they are sent to join relatives in the US to await court dates.

Other analysts also point to a predictable seasonal increase of migrants, heightened by another factor: The new administration has largely stopped turning away unaccompanied minors under a policy known as Title 42 that closed the border due to COVID-19. The policy appears to have largely delayed entry to the US, rather than stopped it, and Biden's shift in approach has led to an increase in crossings.

Despite being understaffed, several faith groups framed the government's shift in approach to unaccompanied minors as a positive step, arguing that it's safer for children to be admitted.

“The Biden administration has recognised the humanitarian imperative to allow children into the country rather than sending them back to the same dangers they fled."

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah.

“The Biden administration has recognised the humanitarian imperative to allow children into the country rather than sending them back to the same dangers they fled,” said Vignarajah of LIRS.

Once admitted, Vignarajah explained, children must be transferred out of US Customs and Border Protection facilities, which weren't built with them in mind, within 72 hours. The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement cares for the children through its providers until they can be reunited with a US sponsor - oftentimes, a parent or family member.

“No-one disagrees with the fact that CBP settings are no place for a child,” Vignarajah said. “It breaks my heart to think of children of a tender age having to spend several nights in jail-like settings, confused and scared after an already incredibly dangerous journey.”

Connecting children with their sponsors can take weeks or months, she added, “because it's critical to vet the sponsors and ensure the home will be a safe environment for children". "No-one wants to see children released too quickly and fall victim to trafficking".

HHS' resettlement office has also seen cuts over the past few years, further slowing the intake of migrant children.

US border Central American migrant caravan

Honduran migrants hoping to reach the US border walk alongside a highway in Chiquimula, Guatemala, on Saturday, 16th January. Guatemalan authorities estimated that as many as 9,000 Honduran migrants have crossed into Guatemala as part of an effort to form a new caravan to reach the US border. PICTURE: AP Photo/Sandra Sebastian/File photo.

At Bethany Christian Services, one of the local partners LIRS works with to resettle children, Dona Abbott said that foster care currently makes up about 15 per cent of the Office of Refugee Resettlement's permanent bed capacity for unaccompanied child migrants.

“We do our best, within 30 days or sooner, to get the children to the family member that they were coming here to join,” said Abbott, Bethany’s senior adviser for global, refugee and immigrant services. “Well over 95 per cent are coming to join another family member.”

Bethany has also been facing staffing difficulties. Another Trump policy capped staff at unaccompanied children programs at 50 per cent of their normal staffing capacity because so few children were being admitted into the country.

"Because children were unable to be kept safe in Bethany’s programs, we lost staff that we weren’t allowed to replace, and foster parents looked elsewhere to help vulnerable children in need. Bethany is working hard to hire qualified staff and recruiting new foster families," read a statement from the group. "Not only are we trying to expand our services to meet the great need, we are rebuilding programs."

Even so, Bethany CEO Chris Palusky said his group has reached out to church partners and received at least 1,000 requests to become foster parents. Not all applicants will make it through the process - “Do we need more? Oh, sure,” said Abbott - but Palusky expressed optimism about the work ahead.

“We see it as just such a great opportunity for followers of Jesus to be the hands and feet of Christ,” he said. “It's just so tangible.”