The number of unaccompanied immigrant minors crossing into the United States has increased nearly five times over during the last three years. In the 2012 federal fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2011 – Sept. 30, 2012), the Office of Refugee Resettlement assisted 13,625 children. That number nearly doubled in 2013. Projections for the current fiscal year (2014) estimate 60,000 referrals to ORR by Sept. 30.
The majority of these children come from Guatemala (37 percent), El Salvador (26 percent) and Honduras (30 percent). Only 3 percent are from Mexico. Most are older than 14 and approximately three-quarters of them are boys. Pictures posted on Facebook and Twitter have now become familiar, showing border shelters where young children are kept in kennel-like environments and sleep on cement floors with only Mylar blankets for warmth. We can—and must—do better.
On Tuesday, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to support further exploration of ways to bring some of these unaccompanied immigrant children (UIC) from the border shelters and place them in licensed host homes. I applaud their efforts to help alleviate the crisis. In response to a request by Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, the county executive brought department heads and nonprofit human services agencies together to discuss what we could do at the local level. A modest proposal has been put forward that would bring up to 50 unaccompanied immigrant children from the shelters and place them with host families in Santa Clara County while they await reunification with their families.
Federal law states that UICs must be served “in the least restrictive environment,” and host homes are less restrictive and more family-like compared to detention centers. This is especially important when it comes to younger children, for whom stable, trusting relationships are even more central. Should this proposal be given the green light, the county will seek federal funding to cover the cost of services.
Bill Wilson Center has provided residential care and services for runaway and homeless youth for over 40 years. For the UIC proposal, Bill Wilson Center will recruit new host homes and license them as foster homes. All costs would be paid for by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County and Bill Wilson Center have submitted a joint proposal to ORR to request funding for the program.
In addition to housing, children will receive case management services focused on reuniting with family members either here in the US or back in their home country. Each child in the program has the right to a hearing in federal court to determine whether they qualify for refugee status. A more detailed plan will be brought back to the Board of Supervisors for approval later this month. While most of the cost of the program will be borne by the federal government, a modest amount of funding could help begin the process of screening and certifying host home families.
It is important that residents understand that this new program will not affect our current services to runaway and homeless youth. Additionally, recruitment of new host home families may benefit our long-term foster care program. There is always a need for new foster parents.
If you are interested in serving as a host home please email Debbie Pell: DPell@bwcmail.org.