Catholic Charities Fort Worth helping in crisis of unaccompanied alien children

By Juan Guajardo

Correspondent

North Texas Catholic

U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar, who represents South Texas which includes Laredo and McAllen, provided this photo of unaccompanied children in a South Texas detention center. (CNS / Reuters photo)

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW) is ahead of the times in responding to an “urgent humanitarian situation”: The thousands of unaccompanied children who are pouring over U.S. borders are picked up by border agents.

While President Barack Obama only recently called attention to the crisis, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth is marking in June the first anniversary of its Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. In that time CCFW has come to the rescue of 198 refugee children and is in the midst of increasing its capacity to house and serve more children.

The Fort Worth Catholic Charities humanitarian help came about when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and Catholic Charities USA saw the number of unaccompanied refugee minors surge last year and asked CCFW to uses its already well-versed skills in providing refugee resettlement, child welfare, and international foster care services to typical refugees to help by starting a UAC program in Fort Worth, with the aid of federal funding.

U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar provided this photo of unaccompanied children in a South Texas detention center reuniting with relatives. (CNS / Reuters photo)

“We said, ‘Great! Let’s get this started,’” recalls Catholic Charities of Fort Worth CEO Heather Reynolds who is considered a national authority on aiding refugees,  Reynolds who serves as a consultant to the USCCB Pastoral Care for Refugees, Migrants, and Travelers Subcommittee, was in New Orleans last week to meet with bishops who serve on the subcommittee.

Today, CCFW is one of the two agencies in Texas leading the charge to meet that huge need. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston has a UAC program in Texas. Other centers are operating or are being erected in other regions of the country.

Most of the children who are receiving desperate help from Catholic Charities Fort Worth come from Latin American countries rife with violence and poverty, like El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, and Columbia.

Filled with hopelessness and despair, the children enter into the U.S. alone, said Katelin Cortney, director of public relations for CCFW. The majority of the unaccompanied are teens, but a growing number are preteens or younger. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), 24 percent of last year’s migrant children were younger than14.

The U.S. refugee resettlement recently estimated that 60,000 unaccompanied migrant children are expected to cross into the U.S. this year, up from 24,000 who were apprehended last year at the border which prompted the Obama administration to call for a unified response from federal, state, local, and nonfederal agencies in to address the crisis.

The reasons for these children leaving their countries are many. The overarching stimulus for their migration is to escape communities with widespread violence, murder, extortion, kidnappings, and gang activity, according to the USCCB Migration and Refugee Services Office. Consequently, parents of these children make the difficult option of sending the children away in hope of find a better and safer life. The decision to have their children undertake a long, dangerous journey to unite with family or friends in the U.S. and a better future is seen as “a more appealing option” for the families of these children, Cortney said.

When unaccompanied children make it to the border — usually with the help of an escort called a “coyote,” the street name for smugglers — they are usually quickly taken into custody, placed in detention centers, and are classified as “asylees,” in most cases, by the federal government. An asylee is a person who is classified by the federal government as someone who is eligible to adjust to lawful permanent resident status after one year of continuous presence in the United States.

Federal officials at the detention centers determine which children are eligible for the Unaccompanied Alien Minor program and they assign them to Fort Worth Catholic Charities or other agencies.

That’s when a fortunate few are sent to agencies like CCFW. Catholic Charities takes the reins at that point and provides the unaccompanied children who meet the asylees criteria with safe shelter at its Children’s Assessment Center, health services and vaccinations, therapy counseling, and schooling, Reynolds said.

Since many of the children are from Latin American countries, Catholic Charities’ federally-funded UAC program has a team of Spanish-speaking staff, including program managers, social workers, therapists, interpreters, and Fort Worth Independent School district teachers.

The goal of the program, though, is to reunite the children with their families or friends in the U.S. Most often, they stay only a couple of weeks with CCFW, Cortney said.

For those children who have no family in the U.S., Catholic Charities finds adults who will sponsor the children or the agency will transition them into long-term programs at CCFW, often allowing them to stay until they are college-age.

Reynolds believes the program has made a positive impact thus far.

“It has been a success to be able to do this for a couple of different reasons,” Reynolds explained. “Number one, we are very proud of the large number of kids we’ve been able to shelter. Second, if you take human dignity into account, it is completely disheartening to look at what these kids are dealing with and what they’ve been through.”

Indeed, at a time where the influx of unaccompanied children into the U.S. is only trending upward, the positive impact of the Catholic Charities of Fort Worth’s UAC program of welcoming and serving the stranger goes beyond the politics of a hot-button-issue, said Bishop Michael Olson and Reynolds.

“The recent surge in the number of unaccompanied minor children fleeing as refugees to the United States should not be a cause of controversy for Catholics and other men and women of good will,” Bishop Olson said. ”These children are most vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Jesus teaches us that we have an obligation in charity and justice to welcome them as the poor and the stranger among us. Jesus further reminds us that we will be judged accordingly (Matthew 25:31-46).

“As the Bishop of Fort Worth, I ask our faithful and good people to support with their prayers and resources the work of Catholic Charities of Fort Worth to offer shelter and hope to these vulnerable children who are truly Christ among us.”

Reynolds echoes the Bishop’s call.

“The fact that if it wasn’t for what Catholic Charities of Fort Worth does, these kids would be sitting in detention centers on the border, taking turns to lay down to sleep at night. That is not a very dignified way to live for any human and particularly a child,” she said. “So the fact that we’re able to step in and help is really a blessing to us as an agency.”

Because of the growing number of unaccompanied immigrant child who desperately need help, Catholic Charities of Fort Worth has emptied office space to make room for more children. The renovations to their assessment center, located on the main campus of CCFW, are enabling it to care for 32 children at a time — double the capacity it had in the first year of the program. 

Click here for a February 2014 Fort Worth Star Telegram article about Catholic Charities of Fort Worth’s efforts to help the helpless unaccompanied refugee children.

http://www.star-telegram.com/2014/02/22/v-print/5591937/children-fleeing-central-america.html

Click here for federal government information on programs and resources that are in place to deal with the unaccompanied alien minor children.

http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/divisions-unaccompanied-childrens-services

Catholic Charities of Fort Worth (CCFW) is ahead of the times in responding to an “urgent humanitarian situation”: The thousands of unaccompanied children who are pouring over U.S. borders are picked up by border agents.

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