Archbishop Fiorenza, Catholic Charities plea for help with unaccompanied immigrant children

October 14, 2014

HOUSTON — Catholic Charities of Galveston-Houston addressed Houston lawyers on Sept. 26 to urge them to help represent unaccompanied alien children (UAC) crossing the border of South Texas. “Unaccompanied Children on the Border: Vulnerability, Migration and the Legal System,” hosted by the Thomas More Society of Galveston-Houston, addressed the need for lawyers to help UACs through the legal process. 

Archbishop Emeritus Joseph A. Fiorenza spoke to lawyers about the impact this anticipated surge has on the court system and the Church’s social teaching. “Each human person has unlimited value that must be loved and respected by society,” Archbishop Fiorenza said. “And this is the heart of our Catholic social teaching.” He added that there are four basic principles that all persons that give an idea of how society should approach the human person: solidarity, subsidiarity, human dignity and the common good. These human rights include the rights to life, education, food, decent shelter and compensation for work. Included in these basic human rights is also the right to migrate from one’s own land in order to seek a more decent living.

According to the Children’s Commission, UACs are children 17 and younger who have no lawful immigration status in the United States, and are without a parent or guardian in the United States available to provide care and physical custody. By law, the U.S. Administration of Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, must provide for the custody and care of UACs. 

According to Catholic Charities, the children migrate from as far as Honduras, Guatemala and even El Salvador to escape crushing poverty, violence and gang threats or just because they want to see their family. The children are then picked up by Border Patrol and sent to a processing center where an immigration case is opened. Within 72 hours, by federal law, they are transported to shelter under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. There, they receive medical attention and basic needs, counseling, education and legal assistance if they are not able to be reunited with their families in the United States.

On average, 93 percent of the kids are reunified with their families. If not, the immigration case stays open.

Maria Mitchell, J.D., legal co-director for the Cabrini Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance with Catholic Charities, said the children are given a notice to appear, which contains the allegation, which is being in the United States without lawful status. A major problem, however, is that this documentation is in English and kids without representation cannot understand the process or the language. Sometimes, this results in a failure to “check in” with the court system and are given an order of removal in absentia. While the children have a right to counsel, it is not at government expense because it is a civil matter.

Sister Veronica Schueler, FSE, immigration attorney for Catholic Charities, said the process of family immigration, unfortunately, is not that simple. 

“There are only two kinds of people who can file immigrant petitions for family members. One is a U.S. citizen and the other is a legal, permanent resident. The U.S. citizen can petition for spouse, children, parents, unmarried children over 21 and also siblings,” she said. “A permanent resident can petition for spouse and children under 21 and unmarried children over 21. For the U.S. citizen petitioner, the process is a little bit easier, but they are still looking at six to nine months before immigration with adjudicate the petition. If the person is outside of the U.S. … then it’s up to a year after the Visa petition is approved for them to finish with the paperwork to be sent to the national Visa center.” 
Sister Schueler said that if there are any complications in the process, it could take up to another year.

Sister Schueler said those not in those categories fall into a migrant category. The wait time for a Visa is at least 7 years. As an example, for children over 21 who come from Mexico it takes around 20 years, and from the Phillipines, it is about 17. 

“So you can see it’s not just a simple matter of waiting in line, because the line may be up to 20 years long or 18 years long, depending on which category you fit into,” she said. “It’s not always as clear cut as saying that they should just wait for their turn.”

Archbishop Fiorenza said these reasons are why he, along with Mitchell, Honorable Michael Massengale, Justice, First Court of Appeals, and Sister Schueler decided to address members of the legal profession.

“… to see what you can do to help these children have due process in this country and provide them the appropriate help to keep them from being deported back to a land of violence and gangs and death threats,” he said.

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