EL PASO, Texas -

Read full testimony of Bishop Seitz before Congressional committee on immigration of unaccompanied children below. Due to time constraints, he only read part of it before the committee but here is the full statement. Names of children mentioned in testimony have been changed to protect their identity:

I am Bishop Mark Seitz, bishop of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. I testify today on behalf of the Committee on Migration to give the Catholic Church’s perspective about the humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied child migrants arriving at the US-Mexico Border.

I would like to thank Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-VA), Ranking Member John Conyers Jr. (D-MI), Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC), and Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) and other committee members for the opportunity to comment on the current situation.

I note that the protection of migrant children is an especially important issue for the Catholic Church, as one of Jesus’ first experiences as an infant was to flee for his life from King Herod with his family to Egypt. Indeed, Jesus Himself was a child migrant fleeing violence. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were asylum-seekers and faced the same choice as the one facing thousands of children fleeing to the United States each year.

I am here to speak with you today about this special population of vulnerable children who are very close to my heart as I have met with many of them, some as young as five years old, while they were being cared for in Catholic Charities facilities in my diocese in El Paso. In addition to ministering to these youth in El Paso, in November 2013, I was privileged to lead a United States Conference of Catholic Bishops delegation traveling to Southern Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to examine and understand the flight of unaccompanied migrating children and youth from the region and stand in solidarity with these children and their families.

In January 2014, we issued our findings from the trip in a report entitled, “USCCB: Mission to Central America: Flight of the Unaccompanied Immigrant Children to the United States” (2014 USCCB Central America Report 2014).1 Mr. Chairman, I ask that 2014 USCCB Central America Report be included in the hearing record.

During our mission to Central America, we visited migrant children shelters, heard tearful stories from grandmothers waiting to pick up their recently repatriated grandchildren, and listened to children as young as six years old speak solemnly of trafficking and exploitation that was inflicted upon them along their migration journey.

The corresponding report that came out of our mission acknowledged that a new paradigm regarding unaccompanied children is upon us- namely it is clear that unaccompanied children are facing new and increased dangers and insecurity and are fleeing in response. As a result, this phenomenon requires a regional and holistic solution rooted in humanitarian and child welfare principles. Since our mission and report issuance, many of the humanitarian challenges facing this vulnerable population have persisted and increased. In my remarks, I will highlight and update our observations and recommendations from that report.

Mr. Chairman, my testimony today will recommend that Congress:

  • Address the issue of unaccompanied child migration as a humanitarian crisis requiring cooperation from all branches of the US government and appropriate the necessary funding to respond to the crisis in a holistic and child protection-focused manner;
  • Adopts policies to ensure that unaccompanied migrant children receive appropriate child welfare services, legal assistance, and access to immigration protection where appropriate;
  • Require that a best interest of the child standard be applied in immigration proceedings governing unaccompanied alien children;
  • Examine root causes driving this forced migration situation, such as violence from non-state actors in countries of origin and a lack of citizen security and adequate child protection mechanisms; and
  • Seek and support innovative home country and transit country solutions that would enable children to remain and develop safely in their home country.

I. Catholic Social Teaching
The Catholic Church is an immigrant church, as more than one-third of Catholics in the United States are of Hispanic origin. The Catholic Church in the United States is also made up of more than 58 ethnic groups from throughout the world, including Asia, Africa, the Near East, and Latin America.

The Catholic Church has a long history of involvement in child protection and refugee and asylum protection, both in the advocacy arena and in welcoming and assimilating waves of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who have helped build our nation. Migration and Refugee Services of USCCB (MRS/USCCB) is the largest refugee resettlement agency in the United States, resettling one million of the three million refugees who have come to our country since1975. MRS/USCCB is a national leader in caring for unaccompanied alien and refugee children as well. We work with over 100 Catholic Charities across the country to welcome unaccompanied alien children into our communities and provide for their care and general well-being.

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC), a subsidiary of USCCB, supports a rapidly growing network of church and community-based immigration programs. CLINIC’s network now consists of over 212 members serving immigrants and their families, including asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, in over 300 offices.

The Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person is created in God’s image. In the Old Testament, God calls upon his people to care for the alien because of their own alien experience: “So, you, too, must befriend the alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17-19). In the New Testament, the image of the migrant is grounded in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. In his own life and work, Jesus identified himself with newcomers and with other marginalized persons in a special way: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt. 25:35). Jesus himself was an itinerant preacher without a home of his own, and as noted above, he was a child migrant fleeing to Egypt to avoid violence, persecution, and death. (Mt. 2:15).
In modern times, popes over the last 100 years have developed the Church’s teaching on migration.

Pope Pius XII reaffirmed the Church’s commitment to caring for pilgrims, aliens, exiles, and migrants of every kind, affirming that all peoples have the right to conditions worthy of human life and, if these conditions are not present, the right to migrate.

Pope John Paul II stated that there is a need to balance the rights of nations to control their borders with basic human rights, including the right to work: “Interdependence must be transformed into solidarity based upon the principle that the goods of creation are meant for all.”

In his pastoral statement, Ecclesia in America, John Paul II reaffirmed the rights of migrants and their families and the need for respecting human dignity, “even in cases of non-legal immigration.”

Finally, Pope Francis defended the rights of migrants early in his papacy, traveling to Lampedusa, Italy, to call for their protection. Pope Francis decried the “globalization of indifference” and the “throwaway culture” that lead to the disregard of those fleeing persecution or seeking a better life. In Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father speaks particularly of the importance of work with migrants and notes that it is essential for Catholics “to draw near to new forms of poverty and vulnerability [including migrants and refugees] in which we are called to recognize the suffering of Christ. . .”

In their joint pastoral letter, Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope, A Pastoral Letter Concerning Migration, January 23, 2003 (Strangers No Longer), the U.S. and Mexican Catholic bishops further define Church teaching on migration, calling for nations to work toward a “globalization of solidarity.” In Strangers No Longer, the bishops stressed that vulnerable immigrant populations, including unaccompanied minors and refugees, should be afforded protection. To this end, the bishops noted that unaccompanied minors, due to their heightened vulnerability, require special consideration and care.6 Strangers No Longer also addresses the importance of families and notes that humanitarian considerations for families should also be a priority when considering migration issues.

Mr. Chairman, the Catholic Church’s work in assisting unaccompanied migrant children stems from the belief that every person has a unique and sacred dignity. This dignity is not bestowed by governments or by laws or based upon their wealth or where they happen to be born. It inheres within the human being. We seek to be consistent in acknowledging the implications of this, namely that from the time we come to be in our mother’s womb until the moment our life comes to an end we are deserving of respect and care. This is true of the unborn child, the person with disabilities, the immigrant, the prisoner, and the sick. The more vulnerable and weak a person is the more they are deserving of our love. This we understand to be the mark of the Christian and of a healthy society.

For these reasons, while the Catholic Church recognizes governments’ sovereign right to control and protect the border, we hold a strong and pervasive pastoral interest in the welfare of migrants, including unaccompanied children, and welcome newcomers from all lands. The current forced migration continuum of unaccompanied children traveling through Mexico and Central America and towards the U.S.-Mexico border frequently leads to severe traumatization and exploitation of children, violence, family separation, maltreatment and even death and must be closely examined. The aspects of reform that I will address today relate to addressing the root causes propelling children to migrate alone, implementing prevention and treatment programs in the home country and in transit countries and the dignified care and treatment of this vulnerable population while in the United States.

II. The Church Response and Care for Unaccompanied Children
As I mentioned, Mr. Chairman, USCCB has been a leader in the protection of and advocacy for this vulnerable population and the institutional Catholic Church in the United States has played a critical role in the care of unaccompanied children. By virtue of our organizational structure and geographical reach, the U.S. Catholic Church early on has assumed a strong leadership role in the treatment and service of unaccompanied children. Since 1994, USCCB has operated the Unaccompanied Alien Children or "Safe Passages" Family Reunification program.

The Safe Passages Family Reunification program serves undocumented children detained by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is an office within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The program provides for the family reunification assistance or long-term foster care of unaccompanied children who are in the custody of HHS. From the beginning of fiscal year 2011 (October 1st, 2010) through June 9, 2014, the USCCB/MRS Safe Passages program has served 3,457 youth who arrived as unaccompanied alien children—2,266 through its Family Reunification Program and 1,191 through its foster care programs.

A focus of the USCCB Safe Passages program is its home study and post-release services. During a home study, a community-based case worker assesses the safety and suitability of the proposed caregiver and placement, including the caregiver’s capacity to meet the child’s unique needs, any potential risks of the placement and the caregiver’s motivation and commitment to care for the child. Placing the child in the home of an intact family with a husband and wife is the ideal. Home studies result in a recommendation on whether placement with the proposed caregiver is within the child’s best interest. Post-release services include risk assessment, action-planning with families around areas of need and concern, systems advocacy with community providers, and culturally-appropriate services and community referrals for social and legal services. These services are integral to the successful and safe placement of children in child-appropriate environments. I will speak more about the importance of these services in my recommendations.

In addition to the work that USCCB undertakes within the United States to serve and care for unaccompanied migrant children, the Catholic Church in the United States has worked extensively on prevention programs in the countries of origin, most notably El Salvador, through our partner, Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Through its Youth Builders project, CRS (El Salvador) and its partners provide at-risk youth with peer support, vocational and entrepreneurial training, job-placement, life skills and leadership development, and community service opportunities. This project targets youth who are at risk of unemployment, of violence—as victims and as perpetrators—and of forced migration. CRS, in partnership with Caritas Internationalis, strengthens diocesan programs to work with at-risk youth through a network of community and government agencies. Through these projects, CRS has served more than 2,500 young people.8 I was able to visit and attend a Youth Builders session in San Salvador in November and saw firsthand the work that was being done to empower local children and give them the courage and skills to remain in their local communities, continue their education, and, in some cases, begin local businesses.

III. Overview of the Current Situation of Unaccompanied Children
Since 2011, the United States has seen an unprecedented increase in the number of unaccompanied migrating children arriving at the US/Mexico border.9 These children come from all over the world but predominately from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Whereas in fiscal years (FY) 2004-2011, the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by the US government averaged around 6,000-8,000 year, the total jumped to over 13,000 in FY 201210 and over 24,00011 in FY 2013. ORR initially estimated that about 60,000 unaccompanied minors would enter the United States during FY 2014. Recent government estimates have been revised, projecting 90,000 child arrivals in FY 2014 and 130,000 in FY 2015.