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Unaccompanied Minors and Refugees: Humanitarian Crises in Need of Protection and Support

Statement of HIAS Pennsylvania, June 26, 2014


The surge of unaccompanied children, mostly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, crossing the border into the United States has created a humanitarian crisis where it is critical that the U.S. respect existing U.S. and international law. It is estimated that 90,000 children will arrive between October 2013 and September 2014. This exodus has been building for years against a backdrop of the breakdown of government protection and the weak political and social systems of the sending countries where violence perpetuated by gangs reaches epidemic proportions. Honduras, for example, has the highest murder rate in the world. A global approach must be taken that alleviates the conditions that push child migrants out of their homelands, as well as supports for children seeking protection in the United States from abuse, violence and exploitation.

Why Children Flee

HIAS Pennsylvania has provided immigration legal assistance to unaccompanied, abused and vulnerable immigrant youth for 8 years; in the past year we interviewed over 500 youth ranging in age from 4 to 17 in Pennsylvania. The reason many of these children give for coming to the United States is fear of gangs and abusive situations at home, including a significant number of girls who report sexual assault. Many of these youth have no parents who can protect them in their home countries, and their governments lack the capacity to do so. Additionally, children come seeking to reunite with their parent(s). Many of these adults are in the U.S. in lawful status known as Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and while this status allows the parent to work legally, it does not allow them to petition for their children. Efforts to reform the law, which has resulted in years of parent-child separations, have stagnated in Congress. 

Need for Protection and Representation

Our immigration laws contain certain humanitarian provisions designed precisely to protect those children whose return to their home countries would result in persecution, abuse, or other significant harm. Expedited and mass deportations of children to a place where they face danger or persecution is contrary to U.S. and international human rights law. We call upon public officials and stakeholders to recognize that each child is deserving of an individual determination as to whether they are eligible for asylum or other immigration relief that would protect them from violence and oppression.

Children who are apprehended at the border face deportation. They are placed under the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in shelters or foster care or, when possible, released to parents or responsible adult caretakers during the pendency of their deportation cases. The Department of Justice has taken a step forward in allocating funds to support a corps of attorneys who can represent unaccompanied children, but additional resources must be identified to ensure quality legal services are provided. It is difficult enough for an adult to navigate our complex immigration system, and impossible for a traumatized child who speaks no English.

The Stress on the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)

While the number of children under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement has grown exponentially, its budget has not. As a result, ORR has informed Congress that it will reallocate funds that would have been used to support refugees resettled in the United States. These cuts will severely undermine resettlement programs which seek to provide much needed support to new refugees, many of whom face loss of home, state, and identity and have witnessed violence, including the death of a loved one. We know from experience that early support provided to refugees pays many dividends in the future, including early employment and upward mobility that increase our tax base and economy.

Action Needed

Newly arrived refugees cannot be made to suffer because another deserving humanitarian group is also in need of support. We call upon Congress to allocate $200 million to the Office of Refugee Resettlement in FY 2014 so it can provide the services under its mandate. America’s proud history is one that has protected refugees and welcomed those fleeing from oppression and seeking a new life. We urge our government leaders to maintain that tradition and ensure that international law and humanitarian protection are maintained.

Steps You Can Take

1. Call, write or tweet your Representative and both your Senators. You can call the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, find their direct office lines and addresses on their websites at and and their Twitter handles here.

Sample Text/Phone Calls:
I'm your constituent from [city, state] and I care about refugees and other vulnerable populations.
•        I urge you to increase funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) by $200 million so they can meet the needs of both unaccompanied children and refugees. ORR faces a shortfall and will have to cut services for refugees in FY2014 if Congress does not increase its funding. These critical services help refugees find jobs so they can support themselves and their families and better contribute to their new communities.
•        The U.S. must show leadership in helping these children while maintaining our commitment to refugee resettlement. I urge you to ensure that ORR receives a total of $3.367 billion in FY15.

Sample Tweets:
@[their twitter handle] Please increase FY 15 funding for ORR by $200 million so they can meet the needs of unaccompanied children #UACs and #refugees. #ChildrenOnTheRun
@[their twitter handle] I urge you to increase funding for ORR by $200 million to maintain integrity of the U.S. #refugee resettlement program and meet the needs of unaccompanied children #UACs
@[their twitter handle] HHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement needs more funding for FY14 AND FY15 to ensure that unaccompanied children #UACs& #refugees receive the services they need and deserve

2. Share HIAS Pennsylvania's Facebook updates about advocacy efforts.

3. Find out more about the situation by attending a Forum sponsored by the Philadelphia Bar Association and many partners on Thursday, July 24, 2014, 8:30 AM, 1101 Market Street, 11th Floor. RSVP here.