Addressing questions and concerns about unaccompanied children and transitional foster care

The crisis at the border is complicated and divisive. But helping unaccompanied children is a faith statement, not a political one.

Chris Palusky, President & CEO

We are in the middle of a profound crisis. Thousands of children from Central America, unaccompanied by a parent or guardian, are seeking refuge at the southern border of the United States. These children are being held in detention centers run by Border Patrol for days or even weeks while they wait to be transferred into the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), who works to reunite them with a safe sponsor — usually a family member. Unfortunately, due to the large numbers of children crossing the border each day, the detention facilities have become chronically overcrowded, and children are often staying there for much longer than the legal limit of 72 hours.

We believe children need to be in homes, not detention centers. That’s why Bethany is urgently expanding our transitional foster care (TFC) program, which gives unaccompanied children safe, temporary homes while they wait to reunite with family members.

The situation at the border is extremely complicated. Like all immigration-related issues, it is surrounded by emotionally charged political rhetoric. I’ve heard from a number of people in the past few weeks who want to help unaccompanied children but are confused by or concerned about our transitional foster care program. I take these concerns and questions seriously, and I’d like to address them directly in this article.

By participating in TFC, am I helping to make the border crisis worse? Isn’t the current policy encouraging families to separate from their children and use smugglers to traffic them across the border?

Most of the children coming across the border are fleeing unimaginable and unlivable conditions in Central America. In the past few years, political instability and gang violence have worsened in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. To make matters worse, multiple natural disasters have decimated the region, leading to poverty, malnutrition, and even starvation. It is vital to understand that the crisis at the border is being driven primarily by these conditions, not by a particular U.S. immigration policy. Many people feel they must choose between seeking asylum in the U.S. or death — even if it means giving their entire life savings to “coyotes,” people who specialize in human smuggling. In truth, this is a refugee crisis — even though our government has not labeled it as such.

In this context, any policy perceived as friendly to Central American asylum-seekers will lead to an increase in people coming to the border — and this is what is happening now.

It’s also true that the current policy of allowing unaccompanied children across the border, but stopping many families, is leading some parents to send their children across the border by themselves. This is a major problem. It further traumatizes innocent children and families who have already been through much hardship. I’ve co-signed an open letter by the Evangelical Immigration Table calling for the Biden administration to revise their policies to allow families to seek asylum at the border in a manner allowed by U.S. law.

The open letter also applauds the reopening of the Central American Minors program, which allows children in Central America with families in the U.S. to be reunited with them in a safe, orderly fashion that does not involve a dangerous trek to the border or spending time alone in detention facilities.

Ultimately, as long as people believe that fleeing to the border is their only hope in a life-or-death decision, this crisis will continue. That’s why I’ve also called for the U.S. to work collaboratively with our Central American neighbors to address the extreme poverty and organized crime that plagues the region. My prayer is that every child in every country would be safe and loved in their own families and communities, so they wouldn’t have to flee to a different country in search of protection.

I want to be very clear: Providing a safe, loving, temporary home to unaccompanied children is not a political statement. It is a faith statement. We are motivated first and foremost by the call of Jesus to serve the vulnerable and overlooked. Within the Bethany community, there are many perspectives on immigration policy. But the only viewpoint necessary to be a transitional foster parent is that all children — including unaccompanied children seeking asylum at the border — deserve to be safe, loved, and connected.

Read more about the border crisis and how we’re responding.

Is the TFC program taking homes and resources away from U.S. children who need foster care?

Our mission is to help vulnerable children. We believe that a child’s country of origin or immigration status does not make them less deserving of a safe and loving home.

We are currently expanding both our transitional foster care and domestic foster care programs across the United States. We are hiring new staff and expanding our resources in pursuit of our vision that every child would be safe, loved, and connected.

The reality is that, if at least one family in every church in America would open their home to foster children, there would be more than enough homes for every child who needs one. It’s time for the Church to step up and be the answer for children in need of a home.

If these children are coming across the border illegally, am I doing something illegal by having them in my home?

Unaccompanied children in the transitional foster care program are not illegal immigrants. In fact, it is illegal for them to leave the United States without the permission of the Federal Immigration Court. Every child we serve has been referred to us by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), and is represented by an immigration attorney who is processing their case through immigration court. We work alongside the federal immigration system to serve these children.

What if I want to foster unaccompanied children, but I don’t speak Spanish?

This is a common and understandable concern, but fluency in Spanish is not a requirement of the TFC program. If you don’t speak Spanish in your home, Bethany provides translators and interpreters to ensure the kids in your care receive the support they need. Many of our TFC homes are not Spanish-speaking and are still able to provide excellent care to unaccompanied children.

What about the pandemic? Isn’t it unsafe to have children in my home who could be carrying COVID-19, especially after being in close quarters with hundreds or thousands of other children?

COVID-19 vaccines are available now for foster parents and children in care. We will not place a child in your home unless it is safe to do so.

What if I don’t live in an area where Bethany offers transitional foster care?

Bethany has transitional foster care programs in Orlando, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, Nashville, Crofton (Maryland), and in the Michigan cities of East Lansing, Grand Rapids, Holland, Kalamazoo, and Muskegon. We are actively working to expand TFC to several new locations. Follow us on social media for updates.

We’ve heard from many people who want to foster unaccompanied children but don’t live near these Bethany locations. Please contact us to see if one of our future TFC locations is near you. If not, I encourage you to inquire with Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Services (LIRS) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), who have transitional foster care programs across the country.

The children in the river

Imagine standing on a riverbank and seeing a child drowning in the river. Wouldn’t you immediately jump in the river to save the child? Now imagine that, after saving the first child, you see more children struggling in the river. You would question why so many children are falling into the river upstream, and whether someone is throwing them in. These are good and important questions, but in this hypothetical scenario, I don’t think any of us would refuse to help the children in the river until our questions are answered. The immediate priority would be to make sure the children are safe.

This is a good metaphor for the current situation with unaccompanied children at the border. For a variety of tragic reasons, there are a lot of children “struggling in the river” right now. It is important to address the reasons why this is happening “upstream,” but in the meantime, our first and greatest priority is helping children who are alone, in danger, and afraid. To me, it is unconscionable that the welfare of these children would be used as a pawn in political debate. They deserve better.

The situation comes down to a simple question: Do children fleeing violence and poverty deserve a safe and loving home? From the perspective of my Christian faith, the answer is an unqualified yes. Bethany’s transitional foster care program is a tangible way that you can say yes to these children.

Learn how to become a transitional foster parent