An Open Letter From a Counselor at the Office of Refugee Resettlement: Is This Really What the US Stands For?

Jun 20, 2018
6:00 am

Image issued by the federal government of detention facility in McAllen, Texas, June 17, 2018. (US Customs and Border Protection)

I work for the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) with children who are coming to live here in the United States. The process goes like this: when a child comes to the United States by crossing the border and gets apprehended by immigration officers, he or she eventually comes to live in one of the many shelters across the United States funded by ORR.

ORR is responsible for providing basic care to the child, such as food, clothes, caretaker supervision, shelter, school, medical care and love/care/respect. At the same time, ORR undergoes a process of finding a sponsor with whom the child wishes to live in the United States. This sponsor is usually a family member, and ORR is responsible to verify that the sponsor’s home is a safe place for the child to live. For instance, the sponsor should be able to provide adequate supervision, access to a nearby school, parenting capability, as well as any basic care needs for the child.

ORR is a good organization doing good work, even though it resides in the midst of a broken and inhumane system. Despite all the hardships within the immigration process, I have witnessed incredible care and support shown to children within the ORR system. I have been proud to play a supportive role in the children’s lives as they continue on their journey to live in the United States.

However, things are changing. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is turning its back on the children for whom they are responsible.

Right now, ORR is working with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS, which oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE) in a way that will very likely lead to an increase in deportations and more children being stuck in government programs. ORR signed an agreement with DHS to provide them with the personal information of potential sponsors for the children with whom I work. These sponsors are often undocumented themselves. The children they hope to sponsor are often their biological children, nieces, nephews or family friends.

Now our case managers are obligated to inform the sponsors that by sponsoring a child, they have to give their personal information and location to DHS, and therefore, to ICE as well. If they surrender their personal information to ICE, they could potentially get deported.

Personally, I believe that the deportation of sponsors is a very possible outcome. I cannot understand why else DHS would be asking for their information. According to DHS, the purpose is to safeguard against the children being sent to would-be human traffickers, but that’s surely a lie. We already do a very large amount of checks, including background checks, fingerprints, and continual case management services. This is all done in order to prevent a situation such as human trafficking from occurring, and the involvement of ICE does not appear to add any extra protections to the process.

This situation provides a moral conundrum for the sponsors: either they abandon a child who is placing their hope in them, or they put themselves at a high risk for deportation, in which case the child would be left alone in the United States without their family, unless they are deported as well.

There’s more: sponsors will inevitably be far less likely to sponsor children with this new policy in place, and foster programs usually have a long waiting list. This means that there will not be any open beds in the ORR-run shelters because kids won’t be leaving. Meanwhile, children continue to cross the border every day.

The border is already filled with children waiting to get moved into a shelter. Do you know what’s happened in the past when ORR shelters have been full? Children get sent to military bases which have been opened up as emergency “shelters.” This practice, which began during the Obama administration, has been rekindled under the Trump administration. Sleeping on cement floors, aluminum foil for blankets and very minimal food for the children…

Is this really what the United States stands for?

My coworkers and I want to fight back, but as employees of ORR, our hands are tied. That’s why I’m reaching out to the community. I view it as my moral responsibility as a citizen, but more simply, as somebody who cares about children.

Family separation is a form of child abuse. While this may or may not be true in the legal sense, research shows (and every counselor agrees) that the separation of children from their parents has a devastating emotional and developmental impact on a child. This practice is a new form of family separation which we will now be witnessing, in addition to the well-publicized family separations which have been happening at the border.

Please share this letter with your community, or post articles yourself, or if you can think of any other way to help, please do it. Call your representatives. Make sure the Attorney General for your state is aware that this is happening, and aware of your strong opposition. Talk to your friends and family and spread the word, because we’re grasping at straws. We need media attention and massive pushback.

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The author wishes to remain anonymous for protection. This letter was obtained and edited by William Lopez, Ph.D, MPH. Lopez is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and National Center for Institutional Diversity. He can be reached at wdlopez@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @lopez_wd.

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