Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program

The Defenseless Youth and their Journey of Hope

Taylor Butler, December 2018

Introduction

Have you ever experienced a “journey of hope”? Nau, a Burmese orphan who fled religious persecution, went on her own “journey of hope”. She entered the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program at age twelve, learned English, and graduated valedictorian of her eighth-grade class. Nau graduated high school with top academic marks and even got accepted into Georgetown University on a full scholarship. In the fiscal year 2016, the URM program only resettled 203 children, less than one quarter of one percent of total refugees resettled in the United States. Nonetheless, the URM program has a tremendous impact, as seen through Nau’s success story. If the URM program can help only one child reach their full potential, in my opinion it will have been worth it. [1] 

Eligibility

Unaccompanied refugee minors are youths identified as refugees and eligible for resettlement, without any relatives available to take care of them long-term. As refugees, these children are unable to return home due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, nationality, political opinion, etc. Participants in the URM program tend to range in age from fifteen to seventeen years old. This program encompasses victims of human trafficking, victims of certain crimes in the United States, those awarded the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, and “unaccompanied alien children”. [2]

Purpose and Administration

Although the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program has several drawbacks, it is generally effective. The program achieves its purpose; providing aid to underprivileged children. The URM program is essential, because it vastly improves the lives of defenseless youths by providing opportunities they’d never otherwise receive. This program makes an organized effort to address the problem of unaccompanied refugee minors. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) identifies eligible unaccompanied alien children (UAC) before referring them to the URM program. The URM program is administered jointly by the Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI) and the Department of Children and Families (DCF). [3] The purpose of this program is to ensure that eligible unaccompanied minors receive the full range of services accorded to all foster children. [4]

Unaccompanied alien children are the responsibility of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Custody is transferred to the ORR by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Prior to March 1, 2003, unaccompanied alien children were the responsibility of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). This transition was the result of the Homeland Security Act of 2002. ORR has cared for more than 175,000 children since 2003; incorporating child welfare values and provisions established by various acts. These acts include the Flores Agreement of 1997, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2005 and 2008. ORR attempts to make decisions that are in the best interest of the child, when making placement decisions and managing the child’s case. The ORR considers the dangers the child poses to the community, the danger the child poses to themselves, and the danger that the child is a flight risk. [5]

The U.S. Resettlement Program (USRP) incorporates American humanitarian aid for refugees through both the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and State and Health and Human Services (HHS). At DHS, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers conduct interviews and determine admission for all refugee cases recommended by the United Nations and U.S. embassies. The State Department’s Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) is responsible for coordinating admissions and the allocation to resettlement agencies and specific cities. The PRM works in conjunction with nine national voluntary agencies. They oversee a network of 250 affiliates in forty-nine states, as well as the District of Columbia through the Reception and Placement Program. The local affiliates greet the refugees at their final destination and provide help with housing and other resources. After the refugees arrive, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at HHS provides medical assistance, short-term cash, ELL classes, employment services, and case management services. The purpose of ORR is to facilitate a successful transition to the United States and help refugees become self-sufficient. [6]

According to international law, a refugee is “a person outside the country of his or her nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution based on his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” The Refugee Act of 1980 created the Office of Refugee Resettlement, as well as the Reception and Placement Program. The U.S. Resettlement Program encompasses various agencies/programs including USCIS, PRM, the Reception and Placement Program, and ORR. The ORR then refers the eligible unaccompanied minors to the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program. [7]

The Catholic Church is one faith-based voluntary resettlement organization which works to assist unaccompanied migrant children. In fiscal year 2016, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services (USCCB/MRS) helped 166 unaccompanied children through the URM program. On January 15th, 2017, Pope Francis stated “I feel compelled to draw attention to the reality of child migrants, especially the ones who are alone. I ask everyone to take care of the young, who in a threefold way are defenseless: they are children, they are foreigners, and they have no means to protect themselves.” [8] Unaccompanied alien children are extremely defenseless. They are in an unfamiliar country, where they may not speak the common language. They are by themselves, and possibly without anyone they can trust. They are forced to rely on the charity of government organizations and affiliate voluntary organizations. They are unable to protect themselves legally and physically, due to lack of knowledge or a young age. Nevertheless, these youths embark on a journey of hope, despite having every reason to be filled with despair.

Case Study

A case study of how the URM is implemented in the state of Massachusetts is through the state administration of ORI, which is a subsidiary of ORR. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) primarily funds the Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI). State funding is also given to ORI; this supports employment services and citizenship for refugees in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The purpose of ORI is to assist refugees in becoming self-sufficient. ORI programs are administered via a network of voluntary resettlement agencies, ethnic community-based organizations, and faith-based organizations. These organizations are able to serve the linguistically and culturally diverse needs of refugees and other immigrants. Eligible beneficiaries include refugees, asylees, human trafficking victims, legal permanent residents, Afghani & Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Holders, Cuban/Haitian Entrants, and Amerasians. The Massachusetts Office of Refugee Resettlement was established in 1985. In 1992, the Massachusetts state legislature established the Office for Refugees and Immigrants. According to state law and the Refugee Act of 1980, the ORI Executive Director is also the State Refugee Coordinator. [9]

Historical Background

The historical background of the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program only goes back a couple of decades. In the 1980s, the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) program was originally developed. Since 1980, a total of 13,000 minors have entered the URM program. During the program’s peak in 1985, the ORR provided protection to 3,838 children in care. Direct services included in the URM program are foster care, case management by social workers, medical services, and legal services. Additional services may also be provided. These services are provided by community organizations contracted by DCF and ORI. Children in the URM program may be placed in licensed foster homes, therapeutic foster care, group homes, residential treatment centers, or independent living programs. [10]

Facts and Data

The Office of Refugee Resettlement receives referrals of eligible unaccompanied refugee minors from the Department of Homeland Security each fiscal year. A fiscal year is the period from October 1st to September 30th, with the last fiscal year being 2017. Last fiscal year, almost 41,000 referrals were given, which is about three times more than five years ago. As the URM program matures, more potential youths are given referrals to the program. At the end of a five-year period, the program received tens of thousands more referrals than it did in the beginning. [11]

The four most common origin countries for unaccompanied refugee minors are the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Burma. Other unaccompanied immigrant children who may later become eligible for the URM program come from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Participants in the URM program must enter before the age of eighteen, though they may remain in foster care until they are twenty-three. Of course, that may depend on the specific state child welfare guidelines. [12]

The top three countries of origin for UACs are Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Last fiscal year, the country of origin for the highest percentage of unaccompanied alien children was Guatemala, at 45%. There has been a decrease in male UAC arrivals, as well as an increase in female UAC arrivals. However, there is still twice as many male UAC arrivals than female UAC arrivals. It is most common for UACs to be in the fifteen to sixteen-year-old range. [13]

Last fiscal year, there was an increase of home studies conducted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, with more than 3, 000 home studies administered nationwide. Home studies are screenings of the homes and lives of potential sponsors determining whether they are able to care for the health, well-being, and safety of UACs.[14] Last fiscal year, there was an increase of post-release services conducted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, with more than 13, 000 post-release services administered nationwide. Post-release services provide ongoing assistance for UACs and their sponsors.[15] Last fiscal year, the average stay of a child in shelter and transitional foster care was forty-one days. This rise in home studies and post-release studies is reassuring because safety and well-being of the UACs increases as a result. [16]

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program is an asset for disadvantaged youths from foreign countries. Not every child is lucky enough to have a family member able to accompany them to the United States, or a family member already in the United States willing to take them in. People immigrate to the U.S. in search of a better life. The URM program ensures that children of all ages can pursue that dream, by providing them with the resources to do so.

 

Notes

[1] “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Justice for Immigrants. 2017.

https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/refugees/unaccompanied-refugee-minors-backgrounder/

[2] “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Justice for Immigrants. 2017.

https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/refugees/unaccompanied-refugee-minors-backgrounder/

[3] “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program.” Mass.gov.

https://www.mass.gov/service-details/unaccompanied-refugee-minors-program.

[4] “About Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Office of Refugee Resettlement.

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/urm/about.

[5] “Unaccompanied Alien Children.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/ucs.

[6] “The U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program – an Overview.” Office of Refugee Resettlement.

September 14, 2015. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/the-us-refugee-resettlement-program-an-overview.

[7] Cepla, Zuzana. “Fact Sheet: U.S. Refugee Resettlement.” National Immigration Forum. May 14, 2018. Accessed December 05, 2018. https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-u-s-refugee-resettlement/.

[8] “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Justice for Immigrants. 2017.

https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/refugees/unaccompanied-refugee-minors-backgrounder/

[9] “Office for Refugees and Immigrants.” Mass.gov.

https://www.mass.gov/orgs/office-for-refugees-and-immigrants.

[10] “About Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Office of Refugee Resettlement.

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/programs/urm/about.

[11] “Facts and Data.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. June 25, 2018.

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/about/ucs/facts-and-data.

[12] “Unaccompanied Refugee Minors.” Justice for Immigrants. 2017.

https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/refugees/unaccompanied-refugee-minors-backgrounder/

[13] “Facts and Data.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. June 25, 2018.

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/about/ucs/facts-and-data.

[14] “Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied: Section 2.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. January 30, 2015. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/children-entering-the-united-states-unaccompanied-section-2#2.4.2.

[15] “Children Entering the United States Unaccompanied: Section 6.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. June 15, 2016. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/resource/children-entering-the-united-states-unaccompanied-section-6.

[16] “Facts and Data.” Office of Refugee Resettlement. June 25, 2018.

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/orr/about/ucs/facts-and-data.

 

Further Reading

Bachmair, Johanna Kathrine. “INS v. Cardoza-Fonseca.” Legal Information Institute. January 20, 2015.

By the Numbers: The United States of Refugees.” Smithsonian Institution. April 01, 2017.

Park, Jie Y. “Responding to Marginalization: Language Practices of African-Born Muslim Refugee Youths in an American Urban High School.” SAGE Journals, January 2017, 1-13. doi:10.1177/2158244016684912.

 

Worcester State University Fall 2020