Catholic Institutions Integrate Services in Large-Scale Response to the Needs of Immigrant Children

Catholic Institutions Integrate Services in Large-Scale Response to the Needs of Immigrant Children

After months of hiding from gangs, Marcos finally decided to reunite with his mother in the United States. He fled Honduras in early April of 2015, and traveled through Central America and Mexico by bus. At age 17, he arrived alone at the U.S.-Mexico border and was arrested on the other side by the Border Patrol.

He spent his first night in the United States in a cold and filthy cell. During 24 hours in Border Patrol custody, he was fed only a small amount of bread, despite not having eaten much prior to his arrival. Without any clothing or blankets he shivered in the cold room, unable to sleep. “But it was much better than being back in Honduras,“ he said. “At least I wasn’t worried about being killed.”[1]

Marcos is one of the almost 94,000 unaccompanied children who have arrived in the United States in the last two years, beginning in the spring of 2014. The numbers of children Border Patrol encountered crossing into the United States increased from about 15,701 in fiscal year 2011 to over 63,000 in fiscal year 2014 (USCBP 2015). Protests over the arrival of these children in some US communities generated substantial press coverage. However, Catholic and other faith communities have warmly embraced them in many communities. The Catholic Church has responded to their needs in a variety of ways.

With support from the federal and local governments, Catholic Charities and individual parishes have met the immediate needs of thousands of children at the border for food, clothing, shelter, and assistance in contacting family members. Other Catholic institutions have provided legal and social support for the children and their caretakers around the country. Catholic parishioners have also come together to provide support for unaccompanied children through donations, volunteering, and providing foster care to children without a support network in the United States.

Many of the unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border have fled violence in their home countries. In the past, the majority of unaccompanied children came from Mexico, but most of the recent arrivals, like Marcos, have come from the Northern Triangle—the Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In the past decade, violence in this region has soared.

Many of the children have been threatened, assaulted, and pressured to join gangs. According to a 2013 delegation sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Central American children are particularly vulnerable to gang recruitment, and are often given the choice of joining the gang or being killed (USCCB 2013, 2).

“I left Honduras because I wanted to get away from the gangs,” Marcos explained. When he would venture outside his home, gang members would approach him, telling him that he would be killed if he did not join their ranks. As a result, he stopped running errands and gave up playing soccer. The threats increased to the point that he finally had to quit school. “I was imprisoned in my own home,” he said.

Many child migrants must cross through Mexico, risking extortion and violence along the way. The Border Patrol apprehends most of the children and transfers them from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR). USCCB, along with Lutheran Immigration Refugee Service, supports ORR with the resettlement of unaccompanied children and connects the children with family or caretakers throughout the United States (ORR 2015c and USCCB 2013, 6).

ORR placed Marcos in a youth center in San Benito, Texas, one of several throughout the country, where he received medical and mental health services, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) classes, and science and math courses in Spanish. He spent a month at the center until ORR cleared his mother as a custodian, and she made travel arrangements for him to fly to New York City to join her. In Chicago, the Sisters and Brothers of Immigrants, an interfaith advocacy group working closely with the Archdiocese of Chicago, runs a program to visit children in the centers. Many Catholic nuns pay monthly visits to the unaccompanied children.

Unlike unaccompanied children, the DHS holds immigrant children who arrive with their parents in family detention centers. Once released, DHS often drops off families at bus stations to make their way to their destinations on their own. In McAllen, Texas, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley has established a Respite Center at the Sacred Heart Parish to provide showers, food, clothing, and a place for immigrants to rest before continuing their journey. Since the Respite Center opened its doors in June of 2014, it has served more than 200,000 migrants—three-quarters of whom have been children.[2]

Soon after ORR places unaccompanied children with their family or custodians, DHS refers them to removal (deportation) proceedings. According to the University of Syracuse’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) immigration data, 61,585 juveniles entered into removal proceedings in the United States in 2014, up from 11,465 in 2012. Texas had the most cases in 2014 (33,797), followed by California (23,064) and New York (15,518) (TRAC 2015a).

US law does not provide for government-funded counsel for indigent immigrants who are facing removal. In 2014, unaccompanied children without lawyers were about four times more likely to be removed than those with representation. Eighty-five percent of the children without an attorney were ordered removed in 2014 (TRAC 2015b). Furthermore, in July of 2014, the US Justice Department placed recent migrants, including children coming from Central America, on the priority, or “surge,” docket (USDOJ 2014), affording them far less time to prepare a legal claim than is typical in removal proceedings. Working under tight time restrictions can be an especially daunting challenge for legal counsel, given the trauma that many of these children have experienced. “It often takes time for people to begin being able to open up about their experiences, and this can especially be the case with children,”[3] explained Sharone Schwartz Kaufman, an attorney with Catholic Migration Services, a non-profit established by the Diocese of Brooklyn that works with unaccompanied children.

Catholic service organizations throughout the country have mobilized to address the legal needs of unaccompanied children. On the national level, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) granted $9 million to support a partnership between the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) to provide legal and other services to more than 1,000 unaccompanied children facing deportation across the country.

Jesuit law schools, “rooted in the Catholic tradition of welcoming the stranger,” initiated a project to provide pro bono legal services to unaccompanied children and recently-arrived immigrant families, often in partnership with other Catholic legal organizations (McPherson and Cashin 2015, 5).

CLINIC, the Archdiocese of Chicago, and Catholic Migration Services of Brooklyn have sent representatives to provide services to families and children at immigration detention facilities in remote areas like Karnes and Dilley, Texas.[4] Without support from these organizations, finding representation and legal advice in these sparsely populated communities would be nearly impossible.

In New York City, home to the immigration court with the highest number of pending priority docket cases for unaccompanied children (ABA 2015), Catholic organizations have expanded their work to address immigrant children’s legal needs. Fordham University School of Law began the New York Unaccompanied Immigrant Children Project in 2012. Through the project, law students partner with legal service organizations throughout New York City, such as Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, to help with research and legal support for immigration cases (McPherson and Cashin 2015, 6).

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York has played an integral role in several New York City municipal government initiatives to provide legal services to unaccompanied children. In August 2014, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) began a program to provide space for legal service providers to connect immigrant children with legal services on-site in immigration court (MOIA 2014). The New York City Council launched the Unaccompanied Minor Children Initiative, which provided $1.9 million in funding for legal representation for unaccompanied children at court (NYC Council 2014). Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York and other agencies provide attorneys to screen children at the court in order to ensure these children receive legal representation.

Three months after arriving in New York, Marcos had his initial removal hearing in front of an immigration judge. His older sister and young niece accompanied him to court, but he did not have a lawyer. Lined up in the hallway with the dozens of other people scheduled for hearings with the same judge that morning, he strained to hear, fearful of missing his name being called. After the judge read the charges to Marcos and he answered questions through the court interpreter, lawyers with the Unaccompanied Minor Children’s Initiative screened him for possible legal relief.

In 2014 and 2015, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York screened more than 3,900 unaccompanied children for potential legal relief, both at court and at their offices. Their attorneys also:

  • Represented 344 unaccompanied children in court in 2014 and 380 in 2015;
  • Provided presentations to more than 1,500 parents and custodians in 2014 and 885 in 2015.
  • Had about 150 active cases in their Safe Passages program, which provides follow-up services and case management, as of the Fall of 2015.

Carmen Maquilon, the Director of Catholic Charities Immigration Services of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, explains that because of the large Salvadoran population in Long Island, the program began to see Central American unaccompanied children arrive in 2005, but says that “compared to the last years, it was a trickle.”[5] In 2014 and 2015, Long Island received over 3,500 unaccompanied children, making up about half of all unaccompanied children resettled in New York State (ORR 2015a and ORR 2015b). Their legal orientation program had grown from 150 consultations in 2011, to more than 1,500 consultations with children and their custodians in 2014. That same year, Catholic Charities lawyers represented approximately 125 children, and connected about 100 more children to low-cost or pro bono private attorneys. They also provided legal training to pro bono lawyers who agreed to represent unaccompanied children, setting-up a mock hearing at the federal immigration court in Manhattan so that these attorneys could better understand the process and talk to immigration officials one-on-one.

Representatives from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Rockville Centre visit 30 Catholic parishes per month to provide information sessions and legal consultation to immigrants in their own communities, particularly in locations on Long Island that lack access to reliable public transportation. The work at parishes serves as an opportunity to provide outreach, public education, and volunteer training. These activities are particularly important in supporting the integration of immigrants. Without a welcoming and a positive relationship with receiving communities, immigrants can often feel marginalized and be denied or fail to access services vital to achieving long-term integration and well-being (Ager and Strang 2008).

Aside from legal support, many Catholic organizations seek to meet the long-term integration needs of immigrant children. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York provides social services to unaccompanied children housed in 12 shelters throughout New York. It has 10 counselors on staff to address their psycho-social needs. In 2014, their staff members met with thousands of children and provided training for caretakers to whom the children are released (Catholic Charities 2014). Mario Russell, Director of the Immigrant and Refugee Services Division at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, emphasizes the importance of the Gospel message of welcoming the stranger in his organization’s work with immigrant children. He explains that, “it’s not always what we say but how we say it, and show that we are with them through the process.”[6]

Brett Stark, an attorney with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, helped to launch Terra Firma in 2014 in partnership with the Montefiore Medical Center and the Children’s Health Fund in the Bronx to provide holistic services for immigrant youth. The program has worked with 150 unaccompanied children since its inception. At Terra Firma, which is located in the Bronx, children are able to receive vaccinations for school, consult with lawyers, and meet with psychologists to work through any trauma they may have experienced. Terra Firma also organizes summer programs that offer English classes, weekly soccer games, and classes with a nutritionist on how to cook healthy meals with affordable ingredients. An important aspect of the work is connecting children with their peers to show them that they are not alone and to provide an opportunity to learn from one another about their experiences navigating the legal and educational systems in the United States.[7]

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York is also broadening its programs initially designed for unaccompanied children to meet the needs of children who arrive with families. While unaccompanied children most often come to the United States to join family who are already established in the country, parents who migrate with their children have often experienced trauma and are themselves in need of legal, health, and psychosocial services. In many ways the increase in unaccompanied children has served as an incubator for work both with immigrant families and immigrants more generally. As Russell put its, “the situation has really highlighted and forced the articulation and response to the non-legal needs of all immigrants.”

Being part of the larger Catholic community is also a huge asset to many Catholic service providers. Catholic organizations commonly receive referrals from and are able to conduct outreach in parishes. Father Patrick Keating, CEO of Catholic Migration Services of Brooklyn, points out that “we rely on our network of parishes and the credibility we get from being connected to the Church. Some of the most vulnerable feel comfortable reaching out to their faith community.”[8] In 2014, children represented more than 50 percent of Catholic Migration Services’ caseload. The agency has also increasingly leveraged partnerships with private attorneys to provide pro bono representation for children, enabling it to serve a greater number of people.[9]

Parishes also support the work of Catholic immigrant service through donations and volunteer work. In the summer of 2014, parishioners from the Archdiocese of Chicago expressed concern about the unaccompanied children arriving in the United States. That summer the Chicago Archdiocese launched a media campaign to bring attention to the issue of children crossing the border and gathered 2,000 stuffed animals and other donations for unaccompanied children. Elena Segura, the Director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs and Immigrant Education of the Archdiocese of Chicago, explained that while Archdiocesan programs serve immigrant children from all over the world, fewer than 450 Central American unaccompanied children who crossed the border in the summer of 2014 ended up in the Chicago area. After speaking with her counterparts at the Archdiocese of New York, Segura arranged for 1,200 stuffed animals to be sent to unaccompanied children in New York. In addition, through a network of 353 parishes and their innovative Pastoral Migratoria program, the Archdiocese of Chicago raised $40,000 to support unaccompanied children on the border and throughout the United States.[10]

The work of Catholic organizations supports the integration of unaccompanied children on many levels. Much of this work is on the front lines, addressing housing, health, legal, and psycho-social needs. Such programs lay the groundwork for the years ahead, when Catholic organizations will help new residents to advance in other ways, with the ultimate goal being to allow them to give back to their new communities.

Carmen Maquilon, describes their approach in Rockville Centre, “All the kids want to join soccer. But there are only so many spots on the team. What we try to do here is have them experience new things. Join the swim team. And not only that, become a lifeguard.” These are the steps that entice the children to integrate into their new homes, and empower them to take leadership roles in their communities. As Marcos awaits his next court date and the judge’s decision on whether he will be allowed to remain or will be removed to Honduras, he has joined the Saturday afternoon soccer games with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. When asked if he thinks he may join the swim team when he starts school this fall, he replied, “I think for now, I’ll stick to soccer. I’m just happy I can play, but” he added, “we’ll see.”


[1] Name changed to protect identity, interview by Kyle Barron, August 3, 2015.

[2] Sr. Norma Pimentel (Executive Director, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of the Rio Grande Valley), interview by Kyle Barron, July 31, 2015.

[3] Sharone Schwartz Kaufman (Catholic Migration Services), interview by Kyle Barron, June 15, 2015.

[4] Lorelei Salas (Director of Legal Services, Catholic Migration Services), interview by Kyle Barron, June 15, 2015.

[5] Carmen Maquilon (Director of Catholic Charities Immigrant Services of the Diocese Rockville Centre), interview by Kyle Barron, July 20, 2015.

[6] Mario Russell (Director of Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Services of the Archdiocese of New York) interview by Kyle Barron, June 25, 2015.

[7] Brett Stark (Legal Director, Terra Firm, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York), interview by Kyle Barron, July 22, 2015.

[8] Fr. Patrick Keating (Chief Operating Officer, Catholic Migration Services), interview by Kyle Barron, June 15, 2015.

[9] Lorelei Salas (Director of Legal Services, Catholic Migration Services), interview by Kyle Barron, June 15, 2015.

[10] Elena Segura (Director of the Office of Immigrant Affairs and Immigrant Education of the Archdiocese of Chicago), interview by Kyle Barron, August 18, 2015.


Ager, Alastair and Alison Strang. 2008. “Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework,” Journal of Refugee Studies. (21)2.

ABA (American Bar Association Commission on Immigration). 2015. “A Humanitarian Call to Action: Unaccompanied Children in Removal Proceedings Present a Critical Need for Legal Representation.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York. 2014. “Confronting Dramatic Increase of Unaccompanied Children, Catholic Charities Takes Charge.”

McPherson, Giulia and Madeleine Cashin. 2015. “A Fair Chance for Due Process: Challenges in Legal Protection for Central American Asylum Seekers and Other Vulnerable Migrants.” Jesuit Refugee Service/USA.

MOIA (New York City Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs). 2014. “Mayor Bill de Blasio and Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs Nisha Agarwal Announce Unprecedented City Educational and Health Support for Unaccompanied Migrant Children at the NYC Federal Immigration Court.”

NYC Council (New York City Council). 2014. “NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Robin Hood Foundation and New York Community Trust Announce New $1.9 Million Unaccompanied Minor Initiative.”

ORR (Office of Refugee and Resettlement) 2015a. “Unaccompanied Children Released to Sponsors by County FY14.” June 2.

____ . 2015b. “Unaccompanied Children Released to Sponsors by County.” June 2.

__ . 2015c. “About Unaccompanied Refugee Children.”

TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse). 2015a. “Juvenile–Immigration Court Proceedings: Court Data Through May 2015.” Syracuse University.

TRAC (Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse). 2015b. “Representation for Unaccompanied Children in Immigration Court.” Syracuse University.

USCBP. 2015. “Southwest Border Unaccompanied Alien Children.”

USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). 2013. “Mission to Centeral America: The Flight of Unaccompanied Children to the United States.”

USDOJ (US Department of Justice). 2014. “Department of Justice Announces New Priorities to Address Surge of Migrants Crossing into the U.S.”