At Issue: American Foster Care for Syrian Orphans

A problem, a possible solution and advice on next steps from reliable sources.

The Problem:

The multi-sided civil war in Syria has evolved into a grotesque entanglement of complex humanitarian and political issues.

Vladimir Putin’s brazen escalation of the conflict has eroded America’s standing in the Middle East. Leveling the geo-political scorecard will in part require America providing dramatic humanitarian assistance to Syrians, and that starts with children.

We have all seen the photo of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, lying dead on a Turkish beach. The photo so shocked me that I started weeping at a San Francisco car wash.

In a September press release, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, reported that “more than 4 million Syrians – half of them children – have fled the country since the conflict started nearly 5 years ago.” Back in 2014 — an eon ago, considering the intensifying violence there — the agency reported that 8,000 children had fled Syria without their parents.

In this case, the morally appropriate response also happens to be the politically expedient one. America should make a significant commitment to repatriate Syrian orphans in the United States.

And, thanks to another recent humanitarian crisis, we have the infrastructure in place to do so. I’ll explain how.

The Opportunity:

In 2014, the news was awash with stories about a flood of Central American unaccompanied minors streaming across the U.S.’s Southwest border. In December of last year, Congress passed an appropriations bill that included $1.6 billion “for Refugee and Entrant Assistance Programs for” the current fiscal year, according to an August report by the Congressional Research Service.

The lion’s share of that money was allocated for the Unaccompanied Alien Children Program (UAC), overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement. The goal of the unaccompanied children’s program is to provide housing and foster care-like services for minors who arrive in this country alone.

The number of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border was under 10,000 per year until 2012. By 2013, it was over 26,000. In the 2014 fiscal year, which runs from October to December, U.S. Customs and Border Protection turned 66,115 children detained at the Southwest border over to HHS. The surge left Health and Human Services scrambling to find youth services agencies to house all the children.

But then, the surge slowed. In fiscal year 2015, which closed just last month, the number of detentions had dropped by 46 percent to 35,494.

The Plan:

Despite the drop in numbers of unaccompanied minors crossing the Southwest border, the Obama Administration’s proposed 2016 budget includes $948 million in base funding and $400 million in contingency funding for Health and Human Services programs focused on unaccompanied children, primarily from Central America. House and Senate budget bills have lower base funding levels and no contingency funds.

Health and Human Services’ vehicle for serving children from war-torn countries like Syria is the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program (URM). But that program is underfunded, according to Kimberly Haynes, director of children’s services for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, one of the largest private agencies receiving federal dollars to administer programs for children and refugees from other countries.

I am suggesting that Congress honor the president’s budget request for contingency funding for programs designed for UAC but allow Health and Human Services to transfer those funds to house Syrian children in American foster care.

There remains a substantial hurdle in getting those orphan children out of Syria and refugee camps in bordering countries, but it appears that there is an infrastructure to serve them if they are brought to our shores.

The Response:

 As recently as six months ago, there were unused beds in the UAC program, according to Haynes of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services. But then, unaccompanied minors found new routes into the country, once again straining existing placements.

Instead of taking monies from the UAC program, Haynes said that Congress should expand the Unaccompanied Refugee Minor Program, which takes in hundreds, not thousands, of children. But, she added, the number of families who were willing to step up and foster children crossing the Southwest border suggests that there would be ready homes for those fleeing war-torn Syria.

A Washington D.C. source with intimate knowledge of HHS operations said that while the department is willing to serve Syrian children, Congress remains a major obstacle.

Despite the president’s call for contingency funds for the UAC program, legislators have shown resistance to disbursing flexible dollars to Health and Human Services for undocumented minors. With budget deliberations looming on the Hill, serious advocacy would have to be done to change their minds.

But these obstacles are not insurmountable. In September, the president called for his administration to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees into the country during the current fiscal year. He did not specify how many would be children, but he should. The refugee resettlement community has shown an ability to find homes for unaccompanied children streaming in from Central America, and is ready to do the same for children from Syria.

America has a unique opportunity to lead with magnanimity. We should take it.

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Daniel Heimpel
About Daniel Heimpel 181 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.