December 10, 2014 STATEMENT–LIRS Statement for the Record on “The Impact on Local Communities of the Release of Unaccompanied Minors and the Need for Consultation and Notification”

House Committee on the Judiciary

Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security

 December 10, 2014

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) appreciates the opportunity to submit this statement for the record.  LIRS has a 75-year history of serving refugees and migrants which includes over 30 years of experience welcoming and assisting unaccompanied migrant children from all over the world.  LIRS works alongside the U.S. government and with a national network of social service partners to address the needs of unaccompanied children and youth and prepare communities to welcome them. Our experience and expertise guides our policy positions and informs our advocacy to ensure that our immigration system aligns with our country’s proud history as a nation of welcome.

“These boys and girls have fled situations and experiences unimaginable to even our adult minds. They have made their way to our border seeking our help, compassion and protection” said Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO.  “When you meet a toddler or pre-teen girl who arrived alone and has been welcomed and cared for here in the United States, you realize that these are children, plain and simple, and that we must heed the biblical call to welcome and protect them in every way we can.”

Current Congressional concern with the impact of unaccompanied migrant children on local communities is unwarranted and newly introduced legislation reflects a knowledge gap of the federal government’s policies and procedures regarding their care and custody. Of particular concern are additional notice requirements, public hearings or pre-approval requirements for facilities contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).  These facilities are already state and locally licensed by child welfare agencies and, accordingly, must undergo state and county oversight and supervision to ensure they meet all state laws and regulations. Thus, the state licensing entity already has oversight over the location of the facility and pre-authorization before a program opens it is abiding by state and local child welfare standards. As such state and local governments also have constructive notice of ORR programs in their jurisdiction.

ORR is legally responsible for the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant children.  Under current law, ORR facilities must abide by state and local child welfare licensure requirements, ensuring their programs and staff comply with state and county laws and regulations for child welfare programs. ORR also abides by HHS regulations for healthcare of these children, ensuring that upon placement in ORR they receive vaccines and other health services. If an appropriate member of a child’s family in the United States is identified as a caregiver, ORR reunifies the child with that person for the duration of the child’s immigration proceedings.

In summer of 2014, ORR had difficulty finding sufficient, appropriate facilities for unaccompanied children arriving at our borders.  As a result, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was unable to transfer children from its short-term border facilities to ORR custody within 72 hours as required by law.  Thousands of children consequently spent weeks crowded in cement holding cells in CBP facilities on the border where they received insufficient food, inadequate health services and were often co-mingled with adults, violating laws on the protection of unaccompanied children.  By adding duplicative requirements to the ORR process for finding qualified locations to shelter children, Congress will inadvertently cause another severe backlog of children in CBP custody.  This is a significant burden on CBP, which is a law enforcement agency not equipped or trained in caring for or sheltering children.

Further, government procedures already exist to ensure unaccompanied migrant children receive health screenings and vaccinations and are placed in removal proceedings.  The only contact these children have with the public is when they are being transported to ORR shelters from the border, or leaving the shelters to be reunified with family who typically live in another location. As such, there is no burden or risk to local communities. The unaccompanied migrant children in ORR custody do not pose a risk to the safety of our communities. For example, the average age of children arriving at our border is falling and we are now seeing a significant rise in the numbers of toddlers among the children we serve.  Due to an increase in gender-based violence in Central America, more girls are fleeing for safety. We must not forget the vast majority of these children have fled violence, escaped trafficking and/or come to the United States to reunite with family.

LIRS works with communities and helps them prepare to receive newly released unaccompanied children. We also support families reuniting with their children.  Families are the building blocks of strong communities and are the most appropriate care-givers of their children.  Rather than “protecting” communities from the arrival of unaccompanied children, Congress should focus efforts on supporting these communities and ensuring they have the resources to adequately respond to their new members.  As we witnessed this past summer, many communities throughout the country banded together to welcome these children with energy and compassion.[1]  LIRS applauds these communities that answered the biblical call to welcome the stranger. This response reflects our values as a faith-based organization that stands for an immigration system that keeps families together, protects children, migrants, refugees and other vulnerable persons, and upholds the American value of justice for all.

We call on members of Congress to ensure that states and communities have the resources and support they require to compassionately receive and assist these vulnerable children.

[1] For example, see http://www.krgv.com/news/valley-mayors-lobby-washington-about-immigration-issues/ (The mayors of McAllen, Brownsville and Edinburg asked for money for aid and social services to welcome children).

For LIRS’s analysis of H.R. 5138 (“Our Communities, Our Choices Act”), H.R. 5409 (“Unaccompanied Alien Children Transparency Act”) and H.R. 5129 (“UAC State Notification Act of 2014”), please see http://lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/LIRS-Bill-Analysis-for-HJC-Hearing-on-UAC-12-10-Final.pdf

For LIRS’s community preparedness tool that outlines what states and communities can do to receive children, please see http://lirs.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/ LIRS_PreparingforUnaccompaniedChildrenFlyer_0914.pdf

If you have questions about this statement, please contact Jessica Jones, LIRS Child and Youth Policy Associate at (202) 626-3850 or JJones@lirs.org.

###

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), the national organization established by Lutheran churches in America to serve uprooted people, remains firmly committed to family unity and the humane enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws. In addition to serving the needs of migrant children travelling alone, migrants impacted by detention and resettled refugees, LIRS advocates for fair and compassionate reforms to our broken immigration system that welcome the newcomer, protect the vulnerable and honor family unity.