Published reports about the federal government’s Unaccompanied Children Program have caused confusion about the role that Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Nashville plays in immigration issues.
In recent months there has been an increase in the number of people from South and Central America arriving at the U.S. southern border seeking asylum. Among them are children under 18 years old unaccompanied by their parents.
The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has been taking steps to address the humanitarian needs of the unaccompanied children as the nation’s immigration system responds to their requests for asylum.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement operates the Unaccompanied Children Program separate and apart from the longstanding Refugee Resettlement Program that is familiar to many in Middle Tennessee.
Among the federal agency’s steps to care for the unaccompanied children is finding housing for them until they can be placed with relatives or sponsors or have had a hearing on their asylum status. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been bringing unaccompanied migrant children to Tennessee since 2014.
In recent months, some of the children have been housed temporarily at a facility in Chattanooga that has been licensed by the state.
Although resettling refugees fleeing persecution and violence has been part of Catholic Charities’ mission since its founding, it has no involvement with the foster care or shelter services provided under the Unaccompanied Children Program.
The only limited contact any departments of Catholic Charities have with the Unaccompanied Children Program is related to an anti-human trafficking measure that has been in place since the Trump administration.
Every person in any household seeking to foster or sponsor an unaccompanied child must submit fingerprints for processing by the federal government. Some of Catholic Charities’ refugee and immigration services offices are collection points for those fingerprints. Once collected, the prints are forwarded to the federal government for processing.
When the State of Tennessee gave up responsibility for administering the refugee resettlement program in the state in 2008, the federal government invited Catholic Charities to take over administration of the program. Catholic Charities established the Tennessee Office for Refugees (TOR) to administer the statewide refugee resettlement program under the direction of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The nation’s Refugee Resettlement Program, also under the auspices of ORR, brings thoroughly vetted people from specifically designated zones around the world into the country as legal residents. Those zones are typically related to war zones or major humanitarian disaster areas. People fleeing those conditions typically spend time in refugee camps and often take about two years to go through the vetting process.
The Refugee and Immigration Services Department of Catholic Charities is one of several agencies across the state that does the boots-on-the-ground greeting and settling of refugees placed in the state under TOR oversight at the direction of ORR.
“It is a core Catholic teaching that every human being is created in the image of God and is therefore entitled to dignity and respect,” according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website. “The Catholic Church views assisting those in need as a fundamental Christian duty that is derived directly from the words and the life of Christ, who himself was a migrant and part of a refugee family. We as Christians are called to welcome our new neighbors with the same love and compassion we would want ourselves to be shown in a time of persecution. We must remember that refugees from all over the world are sent to our communities and are fleeing danger, exploitation, and persecution.”
Serving refugees and immigrants has been a major part of Catholic Charities’ operations since it was founded in 1962. In fact, its first task was finding foster homes for unaccompanied Cuban children sent to the U.S. by their parents as Fidel Castro rose to power.
The goal of Catholic Charities’ refugee resettlement program is to help the refugee families become as self-sufficient as quickly as possible. That goal is often reached within their first year in this country, but the agency offers support to refugees for up to five years after they arrive in the United States. Studies show that after 10 years refugees are as well off as native-born Americans, working, starting new businesses, and contributing to their communities.
Asylum seekers and refugees share some characteristics but differ in other ways. Like refugees, asylum seekers must demonstrate a well-founded fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The main difference between an asylee and a refugee is largely the process through which an individual ultimately attains protection status,” according to the USCCB. “Refugees, for instance, are granted protection when they are abroad before they enter the United States. An asylee applies for protection once they have entered the United States, as an asylum seeker.”