Refugee Service Calls for Immediate End to Ongoing Family Separations
Outlines Series of Recommendations to Congress on Safeguarding the Psychological and Physical Well-being of Unaccompanied Migrant Children
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Washington, D.C. – Amid widespread reports of negligence, abuse and deaths of migrant children in U.S. detention facilities, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president & CEO of Lutheran Immigration & Refugee Service (LIRS), today addressed the U.S. House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, calling for immediate action to ensure the safety and well-being of unaccompanied migrant children under the care of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Vignarajah unveiled a series of recommendations, including urging Congress to require all large-scale influx shelters, such as the notorious Homestead facility in south Florida, to adhere to strict, well-established child-welfare standards, including employing appropriate child-welfare professionals who are vetted and licensed.
“State-licensed professionals specially trained in the screening and care of children—not Customs and Border Protection officers —should evaluate children’s needs and conduct all relevant screenings that occur before a child is released or sent to HHS via the Office of Refugee Resettlement,” Vignarajah warned.
She also urged HHS to prioritize putting children in the least restrictive settings possible per the Flores Agreement, that HHS ensure sibling unity, and that it make placement decisions based on the best interest of each child. The default placement for migrant children, she noted, should be in small group homes or with foster families, until they can be reunited with family members or other appropriate sponsors.
LIRS’ expertise in the field stems from its decades of serving unaccompanied migrant children through its national network of community- and faith-based organizations that offer transitional foster care that is “safe, small and family-centric at half the cost of for-profit facilities like Homestead,” Vignarajah told the legislators.
“Our model of community and family-based care could render massive influx shelters, like Homestead, a resort used last – not first,” Vignarajah said.
Vignarajah also recommended the immediate termination of a May 2018 Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between the Department of Homeland Security and HHS, which has been credited with deterring viable sponsors from coming forward to sponsor children held in detention, due to a fear of immigration enforcement action against them.
“So long as the MOA exists,” Vignarajah warned, “it will continue to frighten away sponsors and leave children to languish for longer periods of time in influx detention facilities like Homestead.”
Vignarajah also testified that, “Based on what we’ve seen firsthand, we know the gold standard for unaccompanied migrant children should be small, safe and family-centric transitional or long-term foster care.”
The full list of recommendations is available here.
Founded in 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) is one of the largest immigration and refugee resettlement agencies in the United States. LIRS is nationally recognized for its leadership working with and advocating for refugees, asylum seekers, unaccompanied children, immigrants in detention, families fractured by migration and other vulnerable populations. Through 80 years of service and advocacy, LIRS has helped over 500,000 migrants and refugees rebuild their lives in America.