FAIRFAX, Va. – David Siegel takes a highly personal view of his job as acting director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in the Department of Health and Human Services.
He said that means he knows the names and personal stories of all 2,300 or so children in his care under the programs for unaccompanied minor aliens and minor refugees.
“If you ask me, I can tell you their names, where they came from, their ages and gender, their histories,” he told an audience at the Conference on Protection of Unaccompanied and Separated Children Oct. 22. “It’s an awesome responsibility.”
The three-day conference at George Mason University in Virginia dealt with topics such as returning immigrants and refugees to their home countries and their families, tracing family members and meeting international criteria for determining the best interests of a child.
At a session on the role of adults and advocates in caring for minors living on their own, Anne Sweeney, co-director and co-founder of Heshima Kenya described the organization’s efforts to protect some of the 3,000 refugee children living in Nairobi who are on their own.
Heshima Kenya offers case management, foster care, a safe house for children who are in danger and a children’s empowerment project, helping teens to gain life skills and get the assistance they need, explained Ms. Sweeney.
In the same session, Sarah Finke told of trying to aid hundreds of kids in refugee camps. She is a social worker currently with a program for children in refugee camps in Tanzania and former family resettlement specialist for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Tanzania is hosting more than 232,000 refugees, mostly from Burundi and Congo, including hundreds of unaccompanied minors, she said. Some of the children are orphans, others became separated from their families. Still others were sent by their families to refugee camps because it was the easiest way to get them into a school, Finke said.
Yasmine Malebranche, a field coordinator for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in a third presentation during the workshop described the problems of trying to care for unaccompanied children in Haiti, where child slavery is common.
“Children as young as 3 and 4 years old do chores that in the U.S. a 15-year-old wouldn’t do,” Malebranche said. Typically, children are sent by their parents to live with someone who is supposedly in a better financial situation than their own families, in exchange for money for the parents.
“These are not slaves of the rich, but of people whose living conditions are sometimes worse than they were at home,” typically lower middle-class families, she said. Rich families can afford to hire adults, she added.
In his talk to the whole conference, Mr. Siegel said his work with unaccompanied minors for the U.S. government is “an absolute joy.”
In 2003 the responsibility for caring for minors who were apprehended in the United States without a legal right to be in the country was transferred to the Administration for Children and Families, where Mr. Siegel works. This office had since the 1980s been the caretaker for minors who came into the country as refugees without family or guardians.
But before 2003, children or teens picked up by the Border Patrol were put into the care of the federal immigration agency, which was inadequately prepared for dealing with children’s needs. Young teens were commonly held in county jails and detention centers with adults, with no access to school or social workers, for example.
By going through Health and Human Services, managing those kids’ situations is now “the equivalent of a state child welfare program,” Mr. Siegel said.