NEW YORK – Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, who leads the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Migration, has written a letter to Congress urging action to better protect unaccompanied migrant children.

The letter, sent on Nov. 9, recommends ten actions Congress can take to better protect migrant children, with a particular emphasis on preventing human trafficking and safeguarding the children once they have been released to a sponsor in the United States.

Seitz wrote that the letter was spurred by “several concerning reports” in recent months regarding incidents of migrant children in the United States suffering exploitative labor conditions and other harmful situations.

“Exploitation in its various forms is most likely to occur (or continue) when an individual is isolated from support or confronted by systemic barriers in accessing assistance,” Seitz wrote. “This is especially true for unaccompanied children as an inherently vulnerable population.”

The recommendations Seitz makes are mostly related to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) which is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant children in the United States, according to the Homeland Security Act of 2002.

From the outset, he highlighted that exploitation is often the result of a lack of support.

“The scope of these recommendations reflects the reality that exploitation is most likely to occur when children lack access to support and become isolated from their local communities,” Seitz wrote. “Among migrants, unaccompanied children constitute the most vulnerable group.”

As outlined in the letter, Seitz first recommendation to Congress is for it to “fully fund post release services and grant ORR authority to provide post-release services whenever it is determined to be in a child’s best interests.”

Seitz argues that fully funding post-release services, as in the services provided to the child once they are released to a sponsor, supports the child’s integration to society, strengthens the families, and helps the office maintain continuous contact with them to ensure they’re not exploited. He also suggests that the funding include partnering with community-based providers as a bridge between the children/their sponsors and the agency.

Another recommendation Seitz makes is for Congress to clarify the Office of Refugee Resettlement’s authority to intervene in cases where a child has already been released to a sponsor, but finds themselves in a situation where their safety or well-being is at risk.

“Unfortunately, there are instances where a sponsor placement ‘breaks down’ or unforeseen circumstances arise, and the state or local domestic child welfare agency is unwilling or unable to intervene,” Seitz wrote. “In such cases, because placement has already occurred, ORR may also decline to intervene and resume care of the child, citing statutory limitations.”

“Congress should clarify ORR’s authority to resume care of unaccompanied children, particularly when local welfare agencies are unable or unwilling to intervene and a child’s safety is at risk,” Seitz added.

In Fiscal Year 2023, which ran October 2022-September 2023, the Office of Refugee resettlement released 113,495 unaccompanied migrant children to sponsors in the U.S., Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, according to the office’s data. It’s the third straight year the number has surpassed 100,000.

Other data published by the office is only updated through Fiscal Year 2022, which ran October 2021-October 2022. Historically, the data shows that the majority of the unaccompanied migrant children are 15-16 years old males from Guatemala.

Other recommendations Seitz made include robust funding for legal services, establishing a trauma-informed and child-centric process for immigration proceedings, establishing an officer for child trafficking prevention within the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and mandating training for the office staff to be able to identify the signs of child maltreatment and human trafficking.

Another recommendation is for Congress to support state-level coordinators for unaccompanied children. Seitz argues that the coordinators “could assist these children with the services for which they are eligible, provide a vital point of contact between the states and federal grantees who provide post-release services, and foster community awareness to ease the transition of these children from ORR care.”

In the letter, Seitz also suggested Congress pass the Protect Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act, which would exempt tens of thousands of undocumented migrant children from annual employment-based visa caps, allowing them to continue life in the United States as lawful permanent residents.

Seitz wrote a separate letter to Congress in July, focused on the need to pass the legislation, which he also said would ease backlogs and free up visas for people such as religious workers.

“With this small change, you could uphold the right to religious exercise, a foundational American principle, and empower vulnerable young people to flourish in their new country, contribute to our nation, and reach their full God-given potential,” Seitz wrote to Congress on July 12.

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