The Diocese of Los Angeles is “ready and waiting” to aid unaccompanied children fleeing Central American violence by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to Diocesan Bishop J. Jon Bruno.
But, he added, there are no quick fixes.
“We need to look at the long term for the young people who have arrived in Southern California and have been reunited with family members here,” said Bruno. He has been meeting with representatives of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and other community and faith leaders to help map a strategic plan to assist the unaccompanied children.
Public officials have said an estimated 50,000 unaccompanied minor children have already been apprehended at U.S. borders; they expect the number to reach 90,000 by year-end. About 4,000 have been released to family members in California.
“This is an area in which faith communities and philanthropy are working with government officials to determine the best path forward for assistance with legal aid and medical care, as well as necessities including school supplies, new clothes and shoes,” Bruno said.
“We are ready and waiting to respond to these needs as soon as we learn that government agencies have set delivery procedures in place. These youths will continue to be part of our society for years to come, and we want to help them and all young people to have opportunities to succeed.
“I am also aware that needs and responses will continue to vary among the six counties of our diocese. We will continue to monitor the needs of the immigrant children both locally and regionally. We are also working on an interfaith basis with various judicatories and denominations.”
Vigils and prayer
The Rev. Melissa Campbell-Langdell, rector of All Saints’/Todos los Santos Church, Oxnard, said members of her congregation and other faith groups had collected Spanish-language bibles and fans to donate to children initially housed at a former military base near the church.
“That was our way of trying to speak to their physical needs,” she told the Episcopal News. The base shelter, which has since been closed, “was very tightly run … to protect the children, but it also made it very hard to figure out how we could work together to assist them.”
All Saints and others have been collaborating with other communities of faith and local networks and “we plan to do prayer vigils every Friday” near the base, even though the children are no longer housed there, she said.
“Whether they have been relocated to family members or to other shelters, they are now going through the legal process of deportation and their needs continue even though we don’t know where they are,” she added.
“We’ve been trying to support them from a distance, through prayer and vigils.”
What communities of faith can do: a fund to help
Meghan Tumilty, executive director of the Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), a ministry of the diocese, also agreed that “this is not a short-term issue.”
IRIS “has established a fund to help the children with costs associated with their medical, housing and/or legal needs and [we] are asking congregations looking to get involved to make donations to this fund,” she said.
For the moment, she said, there is little, if any, opportunity for hands-on assistance because “this is a very, very complicated issue.”
Some of the children who have arrived locally have been placed in temporary shelters, while others have been “given into the hands of relatives within 14 days and given a court hearing that could happen two years from now,” she said.
“It’s not like these kids are actually getting the legal help they need yet because the immigration court system is so backlogged.”
Because they are children, she says, “there are a lot of safeguards in place for them” and, in many cases, the location of the shelters is confidential.
Tumilty said the unaccompanied children are included within “the umbrella of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) from which IRIS receives a large portion of its funding and programmatic direction.
“The number of children in need of immigration assistance is overwhelming and IRIS is attending training and certification in order to provide assistance to help the population.”
The arrivals have added to an already overwhelmed immigration system, she said. IRIS has also been working with local and national partners, like the Episcopal Migration Ministries to share resources and offer a coordinated response.
“It is a very complicated issue with many layers that need to be evaluated,” Tumilty added.
IRIS also has been distributing bilingual materials to the community for children and teens on how to keep safe in the United States. IRIS is available for “community outreach and education, legal, advocacy and coordination of assistance and those interested in helping out in some way,” Tumilty said.
IRIS will accept donations of clothing and shoes; school supplies (dictionaries for English learners are helpful); blankets and pillows; toys, books and hygiene products, as well as sports equipment (such as soccer balls and baseball gloves).
“Another more direct way that people can help is through sponsoring a family,” Tumilty said. “This would address any particular needs that the child might have whether it is a basic need or perhaps a need for mental health services or simply friendship. We can create a system for this for churches looking to get involved.”
For information, interested individuals and congregations may contact IRIS at 323.667.0489 or the diocesan Office of Community Relations, 213.482.2040, ext. 240, or at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions and for referral to IRIS programs as applicable.
–Bob Williams, canon for community relations, contributed reporting for this story.