Immigration crisis grows with unaccompanied minors

“Every human being is a child of God. He or she bears the image of Christ! We ourselves need to see, and then to enable others to see that migrants and refugees do not only represent a problem to be solved, but are our brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected and loved.”

– Pope Francis
The influx of unaccompanied migrant children crossing the U.S. borders and how the federal government is handling the situation has made recent headlines. The Catholic Church and others are calling it “a growing humanitarian crisis.”

Since October 2013, 50,000 or more women and children have crossed the U.S. border seeking safety and protection from the violence in their own countries. How these people are treated in the U.S. is of concern to the Catholic Church, said Mary Baudouin, Jesuit Provincial Office, Aug. 5 at a “Catholic Teach-In on Child Migrant/Refugee Crisis and Its Causes” held at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Orleans.

The session was sponsored by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, the Jesuit Social Research Institute and the archdiocese’s Office of Racial Harmony.

Where are these children coming from? Why are they fleeing their homeland? What’s happening to them once they cross the border?

Baudouin called it a complex problem. She hoped by exploring its causes and the Catholic social teaching on the treatment of migrants – as well as hearing first-person accounts from migrants who had rebuilt New Orleans after Katrina – attendees would gain a deeper understanding of why people flee their homeland.

Another goal was to have participants view newcomers in a more humanitarian way and take action by encouraging politicians to do something about immigration.

Old issue, new faces
The issue of immigration is not new. In fact, Jesuit Father Fred Kammer of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans said church teaching on migration and the treatment of refugees reflects the reality that the Holy Family became refugees while fleeing Herod.

In 2003, Catholic bishops from the United States and Mexico issued a letter on migration, listing five basic migrant rights:
   ►There should be opportunities in their homeland;
   ► People have the right to migrate if they can’t support themselves or their families in their homeland;
   ► Sovereign nations can protect their borders and impose reasonable limits on immigration without violating individual human rights of people;
   ► Refugees (fleeing due to religion, nationality or race) and asylum seekers (fleeing because their life is threatened) should be afforded protection by the global community;
   ► The human dignity and rights of undocumented migrants must be respected.

Louisiana bishops reaffirmed that letter with a statement Aug. 4 on unaccompanied refugee minors (see page 7). They stressed the need to continue to work toward comprehensive and compassionate immigration reform with a “spirit that honors the sanctity of the family and works to protect the vulnerable” while “affirming the right of our nation to secure our borders and enforce immigration laws.”

Sue Weishar, a fellow with the Jesuit Social Research Institute, said violence is the main reason people are coming to the U.S. There also is a misguided belief spread by the “coyotes” – paid by families for passage across the border – that once in the U.S. a special visa to stay will be issued.

“People are so naive they believe that the court document they are given at the border allows them to stay and work,” said Martin Gutierrez, vice president of Community Services for Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans, who fled Nicaragua with his family 35 years ago. “People are desperate and want to believe that.”

Weishar gave an overview of what basically happens once people cross the U.S. border. Mexicans almost always are returned home, she said. But unaccompanied children from noncontiguous countries such as Honduras, El Salvador or Guatemala in Central America have a chance at remaining here due to the 2008 Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) or if they can show they were abused or neglected by a parent. They  could possibly gain legal residency under the Special Immigrant Juvenile Program.

How local church helps
In recent months, Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans has been in contact with more than 200 families of the 1,071 unaccompanied migrant children who have come to Louisiana, according to the federal Office of Refugee and Resettlement that cares for child migrants. Louisiana ranks 10th in the nation in receiving unaccompanied children who have crossed the border, Gutierrez said.

“In a normal year, Catholic Charities will encounter approximately 20 unaccompanied minors who come to our office,” he said. “We normally provide guidance and referrals to them and try to connect them with an attorney, who will take their case pro-bono or at a discount.”

The age range is generally 12-17, but Gutierrez is aware of unaccompanied children as young as age 9, mostly Honduran, who live with relatives here while awaiting an immigration court date, if they were given one by the border patrol upon entering the U.S.

When Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans meets these families, it offers guidance, placement with relatives or sponsor families and pre-screening to determine their legal chances of staying in the U.S., Gutierrez said.

The process can be long. Right now, the immigration court in New Orleans is backlogged, and “the earliest court date we have heard is fall 2016. So in the meantime, what do these people do?” he asked. “They don’t know what is going to happen to them or what to do next.”

Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans and Baton Rouge and attorneys have collaborated on several information sessions to give newcomers an idea of their fate in the U.S. To encourage others to help, Catholic Charities is working with the law office of Ware|Gasparian to familiarize attorneys with Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) and Unaccompanied Minors by offering six hours of free Continuing Legal Education hours as part of Ware|Gasparian’s Pro Bono and Juveniles (PB&J) effort.

In exchange, attorneys take a case pro bono or serve as a mentor in immigration or family law. The session is Sept. 5 at the Archdiocese of New Orleans’ Hispanic Resource Center, 2505 Maine St., Metairie. Call 457-3462.

“In the past six months, we’ve seen a rise in numbers, and more and more of them (crossing the border) are kids,” attorney Kathleen Gasparian said. “I realized I could do something to help these kids. We will match them with kids who need representation to save some of them from being returned to abusive situations in their country.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at

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