The Welcome Wagon

JCCA's unaccompanied minor program helps asylum-seeking youth feel at home.

by Represent Staff

Esther and Juan travelled to the U.S. on their own. They both landed in the Jewish Child Care Association’s (JCCA) long-term foster care program for unaccompanied minors. The JCCA program accepts youth up to age 18 who have a good chance of getting asylum—or another form of legal relief that allows them to stay in the U.S. (for example, a T-Visa for victims of trafficking).

This program is not regular New York City foster care; it is unconnected to the city’s Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The JCCA program is funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and has only been around since 2017. The program can accommodate 30 youths, but fewer than that are enrolled now. All are between 15 and 17 years old; some are young moms with babies.

The teens are referred to JCCA from ORR shelters all over the country. About 12,500 children and youths were in federal shelters in April. Shelters sometimes try to connect a minor with a sponsor, but if a relative or friend doesn’t come forward and the minor qualifies for asylum or some other form of relief, they may end up in an ORR long-term foster care program.

At JCCA’s Bronx office, I talked to Emmie Surinach, Youth Skills Builder and Acculturation Specialist, and case manager Dalia Johnson about their work with young immigrants. The rest of their team includes a second case manager, a therapist, a nurse, and the director.

This dedicated team helps the youth with their foster homes, school, and general preparation for life in a new country. The teens come in weekly to meet with their case manager, for therapy and skill building, and for extracurriculars like field trips and group meals. JCCA staff coordinate with the teens’ lawyers, who are from another agency but work closely with JCCA. Everyone’s aim is to get the minors asylum (or the right visa) and find them someplace to live after they turn 18.

Young Adults in 9th Grade

Emmie came to this job straight out of graduate school. Dalia worked for 10 years at ACS, so she had to adjust to the stricter rules for unaccompanied minors. ORR youth are more closely monitored than foster children and can’t hang out unsupervised after school. They can’t have cell phones until after they’ve been in the program a while. The youth are not in a detention center—and they haven’t done anything wrong—but they’re detainees. If they AWOLed, they could be deported.

Youth in the program are automatically placed in freshman year of high school, even if they’re 17. Back home, meanwhile, many of them were parenting and working. Youth tell Emmie, “I’m a freshman, but I’m going to be 18 soon, and I still have to support my family back home.”

There are other clashing cultural expectations to sort out, too. One girl told Emmie, “My mom keeps asking me when I’m going to have children, but here in the U.S., my classmates ask if I’m going to college.” The adult responsibilities of these minors set them apart from adolescents in the U.S.

Given that the youth lack supports their U.S. peers have, the JCCA team tries to help them balance short-term and long-term needs for money and for education. They teach them how to apply for a job, how to prepare for an interview, and how to advocate for themselves and know their rights.

Some of the youth feel guilty for having enough to eat and for having their own bedroom. “Back home, that might not be the case for their family members,” Dalia says. “It’s sort of like survivor’s guilt.” (See Be a Bridge for other psychological issues young immigrants may struggle with.)

Dalia and Emmie and the others help the youth stay connected to family. They answer parents’ questions, Dalia says, like: “‘What’s going on in their legal case? How are they feeling? Are they going to school? Are they eating? Where are they? Where are they going?’” JCCA staff arrange phone calls for the youth from the agency to their families and help the teens’ lawyers get documents needed to make the case for asylum.

The Journey Continues

The majority of the youth are from Central America, but a few came to JCCA from Africa and Asia. A world map in the therapist’s office is studded with pushpins marking everyone’s home country.

Emmie tries to make the acculturation part of her job fun and bonding. She has the kids prepare food from their home countries to share. She has taken them to a Spanish play, to museums, apple picking, and the Statue of Liberty. Because so many of the youth play soccer, Emmie, who’s from the Dominican Republic, is learning it so she can join their games in the park. Both women say the New York City’s International High Schools, which enroll most of the unaccompanied minors, are part of the team and also work hard to make the kids feel at home.

YC-Art Dept.

Dalia and Emmie speak with motherly/big-sisterly affection about their clients. “We’re family,” says Dalia. “We support one another and we help each other out any way possible. That is our pride and joy, which is why we are so good at the work that we do.”

The path from JCCA’s program differs from ACS in several ways. For one, the youth “age out” at 18 rather than 21, meaning they need to get asylum before their 18th birthday. If they don’t, they could be locked up again unless they get housing with a family member, a sponsor, or in an unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) program. Fourteen states have URM programs, and some states let people stay in the program (and their foster home) until they’re 24. Those programs provide a case planning team similar to what JCCA provides: a social worker, a therapist, and education, job, and independent living help. The URM programs offer youth a choice of a foster home or a group home.

If they do get asylum, young people can reunite with a relative or friend who couldn’t sponsor them because they themselves are undocumented and afraid of ICE. Once they’re not applying to be a sponsor, that undocumented person isn’t at as much risk of deportation.

Diversity Helps

Both Dalia and Emmie think the youth benefit from being in New York City. They hear Spanish and other languages at school and outside. They see people who look like them. Most of the foster parents are Hispanic and specifically signed up to help immigrant youth. Emmie and Dalia worry about the culture shock for the teens who end up in a URM in a less diverse state. Emmie’s advice to young immigrants: “Try to have one really strong adult relationship, one adult you can go to for things. Someone who can guide you.”

Before they get asylum, some teens choose voluntary departure. Emmie describes that as “I don’t want to stay in the United States and fight this legal case anymore. I’m ready to go home.” If a youth opts for this, JCCA takes them to court and contacts their home country’s consulate. And then they leave.

A third option is to get legal status through OTIP (Office of Trafficking in Persons) for youth who have been labor trafficked or sex trafficked. They get yet another set of benefits and protections.

I asked both women what people most often get wrong about unaccompanied minors. Dalia said, “Some people think that unaccompanied minors are all affiliated with gangs. They’re not.”

Emmie says people are too quick to feel only pity. “Not to diminish the trauma that they’ve been through, but they’re really resilient. So many things they’ve been through are going to be useful. We have minors who back home were driving trucks and they’re really good with direction. Some speak three, four languages, plus their dia- lect. Their cultural competency is great because they have so many different perspectives. If things are different from their own culture, they accept it because they’re used to difference.”

The youth are not in a detention center and they haven't done anything wrong but they're detainees. If they AWOLed, they could be deported.
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