June 24, 2021

The Migration and Refugee Services (MRS) department of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has partnered with Catholic University Law School’s Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Clinic (IRAC), on an urgent new report calling attention to the needs of unaccompanied migrant children without sponsors in the United States.

The report, entitled “A Vision Forward: Policies Needed to Protect the Best Interests of ‘Category 4’ Unaccompanied Immigrant Children,” explores the current system for protecting unaccompanied children whom the government has determined do not have viable sponsors. Unaccompanied children enter the United States to escape violence, trafficking, gang recruitment, extreme poverty, and natural disasters in their home countries — often enduring long, dangerous journeys along the way.

As immigration restrictions at the U.S. southern border slowly have begun to ease, immigration officials have seen increasing numbers of unaccompanied children entering the country. Government data shows that there were 17,847 children in ORR custody as of May 26, 2021. The Department of Health and Human Services has opened influx care facilities and emergency intake sites since February 2021 to accommodate these unaccompanied children, including the previously closed Carrizo Springs influx care facility in Texas.

According to the report, “[t]his situation is reminiscent of the migration of unaccompanied children that occurred in 2014 and 2019 and is likely to continue given the ongoing violence, poverty and natural disasters afflicting the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The response to the current increase once again highlights the flaws in the system of care for unaccompanied children, particularly those who do not have family sponsors or other available guardians in the U.S.”

Upon arrival in the United States, many unaccompanied children — most of whom are between the ages of 15-17 — are placed in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Though federal law requires ORR to place children in the least restrictive environment suited to meet their best interests, unaccompanied children without sponsors in the U.S. (referred to as Category 4) remain in large-scale government shelters for extended periods of time. Others simply age out of the ORR system and risk homelessness or detention in adult facilities.

Stacy Brustin is professor of law and director of the Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Clinic who has traveled to the United States border with groups of students to provide legal assistance to migrant families. She and her students worked in collaboration with MRS to conduct a survey of long-term foster care and unaccompanied refugee minor program providers serving Category 4 children. The survey results, which are included in the report, highlight ways in which the federal custody system for Category 4 children departs from foundational child welfare principles underlying the U.S. child welfare system.

“Decades of research shows that children in the care of the state need small, family-like settings to recover from the trauma they have endured,” Brustin said. “Yet unaccompanied immigrant children without sponsors, many of whom have experienced extreme violence in their home countries and have valid legal claims to stay in the U.S., spend too much time in large, congregate settings where they are at risk of being traumatized again.”

The report recommends policy changes for strengthening foster care programs including independent living support for unaccompanied youth ages 18-21. “These changes are not only in the best interests of immigrant children but in the best interests of our country,” said Brustin. “Children who make it unaccompanied to the U.S. are extremely resourceful and resilient young people. With care, stability, and legal status they can make significant contributions to our economy and society. Time and again during our interviews, we heard stories of unaccompanied children who, when placed with supportive foster families, attended school, acquired legal status and went on to finish high school or college, obtain employment, pay taxes and contribute meaningfully to their communities.”

The report’s recommendations urge policy makers to better protect the best interests of Category 4 children in U.S. government care. Recommendations include improving data collection, reducing reliance on large-scale congregate housing, streamlining the process of referring children into family- and community-based care, increasing funding to meet the educational, social, and health needs of Category 4 children, streamlining the process for determining legal status, ending detention of youth who age out of foster care at 18, and expanding supportive independent living opportunities for unaccompanied youth ages 18-21.

To read more about and download this report, visit bit.ly/AVisionForward.