Testimony on Behalf of The Episcopal Church on Unaccompanied Alien Children and Refugee Populations
TESTIMONY OF ALEXANDER D. BAUMGARTEN AND KATIE CONWAY ON BEHALF OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH
JUNE 25, 2014
We thank Representative Goodlatte, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and Ranking Member Conyers for the opportunity to submit this testimony. Today we express our concern for the violence in Central America pushing tens of thousands of vulnerable immigrant children to flee, and recommend that Congress and the Administration continue to provide appropriate, child-centered care for these children, while maintaining access to protection and services for all refugee populations. The Episcopal Church has been engaged in the work of providing humanitarian aid abroad and refugee resettlement domestically since the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief was established in 1940, and we continue those services today.
The Northern Triangle of Central America, comprised of the countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, is one of the most dangerous regions in the world. Honduras boasts the world’s highest murder rate, with El Salvador and Guatemala also within the top five. In Honduras alone, violence against women and girls has risen 346% since 2005, while the murder rate for men and boys has risen 29%. In all three countries, gangs, transnational criminal organizations, and narcotraffickers commit acts of violence with near impunity, while local police forces are either unable or unwilling to offer protection to the public. Stemming from this pervasive and inescapable violence, asylum claims from the Northern Triangle to the neighboring countries of Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Belize, have risen 345% since 2009, mirroring the rise in asylum claims at the U.S. Mexico border.
Within these communities of diminishing protections and escalating violence, children, single women, and women heads of household with young children are the most vulnerable and are therefore prime targets for violence and exploitation by the organized crime syndicate, gangs, and security forces. The widely acknowledged tactic of targeting young children for gang recruitment, and the lack of citizen security for civilians to seek protection or resolution when persecution or violence occurs, has triggered a regional humanitarian crisis years in the making, and has driven tens of thousands of children from their homes. Over the past three years, humanitarian aid, human rights organizations, churches, refugee resettlement agencies, and children’s rights advocates have watched as more and more children have been forced from their homes, exchanging the known dangers at home for the unknown dangers of a journey to the United States, in a desperate search for peace and protection.
Once children arrive at the United States border, the mandate for their care resides with Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Established in 2003, the purpose of the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program is to provide holistic, child-centered care for children from noncontiguous countries who arrive alone at U.S. borders. Since 2012, however, ORR has served ever-growing number of UACs that have stretched both the UAC program and the refugee program as a whole to its financial and capacity limits. Arrivals nearly doubled from FY12 (13,625) to FY13 (25,498), and UAC arrivals for FY14 are projected to reach nearly 90,000. In addition to serving 25,498 UACs in FY13, ORR also served 70,000 newly arriving refugees, 2,871 Iraqi and Afghan Special Immigrants (individuals who aided U.S. government efforts in those countries), an estimated 46,000 asylees and Cuban and Haitian entrants, over 500 victims of human trafficking, 6,750 survivors of torture, and continued services to some clients who arrived in previous years.
The financial burden of caring for vulnerable children should not rest with ORR alone. Our nation has made a laudable commitment to providing these children with child appropriate care and with compassion, but that care requires increased funding and resources beyond the scope of one single office or agency. Given the unique and international aspects of this crisis, the funding burden should be shouldered by multiple agencies and should not be obtained at the expense of ORR services to other vulnerable populations to whom the United States has made a commitment. We must address overseas crises and crises in our hemisphere with the same dedication to protection and commitment to keeping borders open to vulnerable refugees, or risk damaging our ability to react effectively and humanely to other emerging refugee situations and protracted refugee situations where partners like Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon are hosting millions of Syrian refugees.
As we do abroad, the United States must lead by example regionally, providing child-centric approaches to this crisis and demonstrating effective burden sharing with other nations in the region able to assist such as Panama, Costa Rica, and Belize. Like our responses to humanitarian emergencies around the world, however, responding to this crisis should in no way diminish our capability to address the needs of refugees elsewhere, and we must uphold our commitment to domestic refugee resettlement.
We support the Administration’s interagency response to the international scope and unique protection needs of this humanitarian migration crisis, and look to Congress to provide the federal government with the necessary resources to implement child-centered solutions that address the immediate needs of unaccompanied immigrant youth and the root causes that force vulnerable children to undertake this perilous journey alone. The Episcopal Church stands ready as a partner in service to vulnerable refugees, and is prepared to welcome the newest generation of refugees to a life a of peace and safety in our communities.
Thank you for carrying the costly burden of public service, and for the opportunity to submit these views to the Committee.
 Alexander D. Baumgarten is the Director of Government Relations, and Katie Conway is the Immigration and Refugee Policy Analyst for The Episcopal Church, a multinational religious denomination based in the United States with members in 15 other sovereign nations.