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Bishop asks local Catholics to house migrant children

Bishop Robert Lynch: “My goal would be to keep them only as long as is necessary.”
Bishop Robert Lynch: “My goal would be to keep them only as long as is necessary.”
Published Aug. 2, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Catholic Bishop Robert Lynch appealed to his flock to help shelter the child migrants pouring across the Mexican border from Central America on his blog Wednesday.

A day later, almost four dozen families had responded.

Lynch also directed his Catholic Charities office to work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' migration and refugee services to determine how many children the diocese might be able to temporarily resettle.

"The 'humanitarian quotient' of the unaccompanied minors we see coming our way cries out to heaven for a humanitarian and not a politically timed or motivated response," he wrote.

One Tampa Bay agency, Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services, has already taken in boys at its 16-bed shelter in Pasco County through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement program.

The Children's Home in Hills­borough County will begin accepting unaccompanied children through the same program this fall, said Lisa Brock, a Gulf Coast spokeswoman.

Catholic Charities, though, faces bureaucratic hurdles before it can do anything. Providing help to the children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras fits with the organization's Catholic tradition, but "it gets complicated from there," executive director Mark Dufva said.

Agencies like Gulf Coast Jewish Family and Community Services are authorized by the government to shelter unaccompanied children, he said. Catholic Charities works with people officially designated as refugees, but the unaccompanied Central American children have no official status.

"It's the federal government who will determine their status," Dufva said. "That's the core of the debate right now: Are they, or are they not, refugees?"

Customs and Border Protection figures show that 57,525 unaccompanied minors were apprehended at the Southwest border between last October and June. That's a 106 percent increase from the same period a year earlier, which was 27,884.

Lynch wants his diocese, which spans Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, to be prepared.

"If the situation is such they're going to ultimately try to find some temporary homes for these kids, I would hope that people of this diocese would be willing to step up and provide that living opportunity, " he told the Tampa Bay Times.

"My guess is that the government will grant them some sort of temporary refugee status. My goal would be to keep them only as long as is necessary, until the situation improves in the country they are fleeing from to the point where they can be returned to their families. I'm not favoring starting some giant orphanage. We can't solve the geopolitical problems, but we may have to provide some type of help to the innocent victims."

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Other Catholic dioceses across the U.S. also are rallying to help, like the Diocese of Brownsville in Texas, which serves the Rio Grande Valley, an area that has seen an increase in the apprehension of unaccompanied children.

Ofelia de los Santos, who works with the Texas diocese's Catholic Charities office, said it ministers to children at centers operated by other agencies.

"Most of them are Catholic, so we pray the rosary with them. We provide the communion service. We provide prayer booklets," she said.

In the Tampa Bay area, Catholic Charities is preparing to help, which will include locating shelters, finding and preparing host families, and gathering money, food and clothing, Dufva said.

"The point of bishop's message is we are a loving and welcoming community and to be ready …"to love and welcome them here," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.