This story is about a journey of two groups of young people from outside the United States who may enter foster care in the U.S. They are unaccompanied refugee minors (URM) and unaccompanied alien children (UAC). I would characterize this group of young people as vulnerable by definition and determined by necessity. Living in the United States is already hard—navigating taxes, living expenses, education, and employment etc.—imagine if you had just arrived in this country, unable to speak the language, and then you are asked to do all these activities. Hard, right? Despite all these challenges, these energetic young people get things done. They learn the language, they pay their taxes, and some attend post-secondary schools. Let’s go back and see how these groups enter foster care.
The URM program was first created in the 1980s to address the refugee crisis of unaccompanied children in southeast Asia by the State Department through the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Ever since with escalation of refugee population, particularly unaccompanied minors, ORR has continued this program. Through this program, ORR resettles unaccompanied refugee minors in the United States and enrolls them in foster care in 15 different states in collaboration with Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services (LIRs) and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Since creation, ORR has resettled and enrolled about 13,000 URMs in state foster care systems. ORR guidelines restricts URM eligibility to minors with certain statuses or experiences. More info can be found here.
The other group is classified as UAC (Unaccompanied Alien Child). They are minors who seek asylum in the United States – without yet holding legal immigrant status –and don’t have any guardian/parent/relative in U.S. the Homeland Security Act of 2002 requires ORR to take the responsibility of operating the UAC program. UACs are usually apprehended at the border by border patrol and then referred to the ORR. That is when, some UACs are provided services including foster care. Since establishment, ORR has provided services for about 340,000 UACs.
These young people, like myself, are forced to leave their family, school, and friends behind due to violence and war. Often times a backpack contains their only belongings. When they leave, they lose many things, including stability in life. On the path to safety, many have to run from becoming a victim of sexual solicitation, abuse, or drug trafficking. While surviving they are committed to life and finding a way to thrive, always focused on their hopes and dreams.The main reason that these young people accept the U.S. as their home is because of their hope of achieving the promised American dream and all that comes with it.
Not only did my peer refugees and I survive, we are thriving! It is incredibly hard to overcome such difficult journeys that URMs and UACs experience. Completing that journey to escape violence and have a brighter future in the United States is the embodiment of the American dream. Our communities are stronger because of the diverse experience and determination these young people bring with them.
Unfortunately, in recent years the number of URM and UAC resettlements have declined because of changing refugee and immigration policy as well as program funding cuts. Immigrants are being treated unfairly, being detained in cages, and waiting years for resettlement. Those who are here may get denied for accessing Extended Foster Care or not receive the adequate services they need to thrive. For me, extended foster care was a crucial resource as I learned the language, navigated the education system, and identified community-based resources that would make up my network for success. Decreasing resources for immigrant minors is a denial of the American dream for young people who are seeking opportunities for safety, stability, and success.
Many of my peers face significant barriers, one of which is a lack of educational opportunities. English is not mother tongue of these young refugees, yet many would like to resume education and climb higher on the education ladder. Despite schools providing designated services for English language learners, they often don’t meet the added needs of URMs and UACs. They need more support, mental health counselling, as well as housing and financial stability.
However, oftentimes I have seen my peers forced to prioritize one basic need over another. In order to become financially stable, they must work more hours; this helps with housing stability, too. On the other hand, working more hours means less time for education and learning English. Despite this challenge, I have seen some of these young refugees achieving their goals of education, employment, and housing. And that is one of their unique strengths; their commitment and optimism. I don’t think you can get more American than being committed to something and being optimistic.
June 20th is World Refugee Day. In honor of those young refugees who enter foster care, let’s feel gratitude on this important day. Let’s be grateful for their optimism, passion, drive, and unique experiences that have always been the life blood of America. Together, let’s hope for an inclusive child welfare system that addresses the needs of each individual. Let’s advocate to not put young people in cages, and not part them from their families. Let’s be grateful of our community that welcomes unaccompanied refugees and asylees.