Bishops Olson, Farrell address unaccompanied immigrant children crisis in joint press conference

Story and Photos by

Joan Kurkowski-Gillen


July 21, 2014

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth addresses members of the press during a press conference held at the Catholic Charities of Dallas headquarters July 21. Looking on is Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas. The two bishops held the joint press conference to address the unaccompanied immigrant children crisis.

Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth discussed the collective response of local Catholics to the Texas border crisis and appealed for more volunteer attorneys to represent unaccompanied minor children in immigration court during a joint press conference held July 21 in Dallas.

As Catholic leaders voiced their concern for the more than 57,000 unaccompanied minor children who entered the U.S. since October 2013, Governor Rick Perry announced plans to deploy 1,000 National Guard troops to curb the flow of immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

“I can’t say that’s a good thing or a bad thing,” said Bishop Farrell, responding to a reporter’s question. “I do say it doesn’t resolve the problem. And that’s what we need to focus on.”

The U.S. Catholic Bishops always have advocated for protecting the border and reforming immigration policy. But the welfare of thousands of young children entering the country without a parent or guardian is a humanitarian — not political — issue, he emphasized.

“The position we take in the Catholic Church is that these are our brothers and sisters,” the Dallas bishop said. “We need to take care of them, and we will do the best we can to do that. We will collaborate with people of good will to do that.”

Children coming to the U.S. are fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador where violence, drug wars, and murder are rampant.

“They come to our nation hoping for some good, honest living,” Bishop Farrell added. “We need to open our hearts and arms to these young people who are faced with death and violence every day of the week. They want peace.”

Catholic Charities Fort Worth is currently sheltering 32 unaccompanied minor children. Youngsters often arrived at the undisclosed location tired, hungry, and contaminated with lice.

In addition to a warm bed and nutritious meals, Catholic Charities provides counseling, emotional support, and works to resettle minors younger than 13 with other relatives living in the U.S. or with foster families.

Donations of clothing, toys, and personal care items continue to pour into Catholic Charities headquarters. There is also a need for Spanish prayer cards, Bibles, picture books, and rosaries.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response from Catholics and all men of good will,” Bishop Olson told media representatives. “They’ve been very generous in their support and willingness to help.”

Bishop Olson said the humanitarian aspect of the crisis is urgent and distinct from the immigration issue.

“We need to respond with a generosity of heart, which we are called to do by Jesus,” he added.

When asked whether local dioceses will provide an education for immigrant children, Bishop Olson told reporters many are not ready for a school setting.

“In our shelters in Fort Worth, we are finding that many of these children do not know how to write Spanish, let alone speak English,” he said. “For those already in the relief process, education is just starting.”

Getting the children to a safe environment is the primary concern right now.

“We’re dealing with children who have been traumatized and have specific humanitarian needs. These have to be addressed first, along with education,” Bishop Olson added.

Providing unaccompanied minor children and their custodians with legal help through the Department of Justice’s Legal Orientation Program for Custodians (LOPC) is the primary focus of Catholic Charities of Dallas. The agency began working with unaccompanied children from Central America in 2010 when a growing number of youngsters began reuniting with family members living in North Texas.

Arne Nelson, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Dallas, was one of the community and faith leaders who briefed President Obama on the border crisis during a July 9 meeting in the city called to discuss the Obama administration’s response to the influx of foreign children entering the state illegally.

“I asked him not to overlook the short-term challenges of families and children on the border. That’s where the misery lies,” he said.

The Catholic Charities administrator also asked the president to accelerate the detention process.

“I asked him to get children onward to shelters as quickly as possible and to shorten the time of immigration courts hearings,” Nelson added. “The current waiting period is 450 days.”

He said Catholic Charities will continue to contact and assist the current population of minors to ensure each child is represented in Dallas immigration court.

“We need to recruit attorneys — preferably those who speak Spanish — who are willing to learn family and immigration court procedures involved in representing these children,” Nelson stated.

Spanish-speaking non-attorneys are also needed to help the legal department screen each child to see if they qualify to stay in the United States.

Approximately 30 to 40 percent of unaccompanied minors have remedies available to them under immigration law, according to Vanna Slaughter, director of Immigration and Legal Services for Catholic Charities of Dallas. Most of these cases would qualify for legal relief under Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. These are children who were abused, abandoned, or neglected by one or both parents.

A smaller group of cases may qualify for asylum in the U.S. based on fear of persecution or family immigration.

Last year Catholic Charities of Dallas legally assessed 392 children. It currently receives no funding to defray court fees.

Bishop Farrell addresses members of the press.

“Very few children go into immigration court with an attorney,” Slaughter said, noting that immigration proceedings do not enjoy the Sixth Amendment right to appointed counsel at government expense.

Increasing the number of attorneys in court, “will make an enormous difference,” she said.

The Dallas Hispanic Bar Association is supportive of Catholic Charities efforts, and 160 attorneys from the Dallas community have responded to the request for volunteers. But more are needed.

“The majority don’t have a background in immigration or family law,” explained Rocio Christina Garcia, a Dallas attorney and member of the Dallas Hispanic Bar Association. “With training we’ll be able to represent these children.”

Garcia told the North Texas Catholic she comes from an immigrant family and wanted to get involved because, “I realized, as an attorney, I have a special gift to be able to speak to the courts.”

Attorneys in her organization saw the crisis building in mid-June.

“It’s not a new issue but a larger issue,” Garcia pointed out. “The concern and need is greater. Seeing these stories has made a lot of attorneys come forward and want to do pro bono work.”

Bishop Farrell said the ongoing border crisis tests the moral character of the United States. People always want to know how they can achieve eternal life. Jesus provided a simple answer 2,000 years ago, he explained.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” the bishop said, quoting from the Gospel of St. Matthew. “I think that summarizes why we do what we do and why we care about these children.”

See Also

Catholic Charities Fort Worth helping in crisis of unaccompanied alien children

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.

Catholic Charities Fort Worth leaders discuss efforts to help unaccompanied immigrant children

BUTTON-uac.jpgHundreds of minor children are crossing the border into the United States without a caregiver, but it was the story of one youngster that captured the attention of reporters covering a press conference at Catholic Charities Fort Worth (CCFW) headquarters on June 20. Armed with cameras and microphones, media representatives heard how the faith and service-based agency is addressing the humanitarian crisis on the border by expanding its federally funded Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program. At the request of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities Fort Worth will increase the capacity at its shelter from 16 to 32 beds by June 30.

Catholic Charities and Bishop Olson share ways to assist unaccompanied immigrant children

Tom Strittmatter knows the importance of opening your heart and home to a young, parentless refugee. The St. Rita parishioner and his wife, Sharon, have welcomed three children into their family since joining Catholic Charities Fort Worth’s International Foster Care program four years ago.

Dallas_Press_Conference_BUTTON.jpgBishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas and Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth discussed the collective response of local Catholics to the Texas border crisis and appealed for more volunteer attorneys to represent unaccompanied minor children in immigration court during a joint press conference held July 21 in Dallas.

Published (until 7/21/2114)