The U.S. bishops’ migration committee, headed by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, is urging Congress to take new measures to protect migrant children from human trafficking.

According to the bishops’ letter, which was sent to both the Senate and the House of Representatives, unaccompanied migrant children are “most vulnerable” to exploitation, forced labor, and human trafficking. The number of these vulnerable children, the bishops said in their letter to Congress, “has increased significantly in recent years.”

“In recent months,” Seitz wrote in the letter, “several concerning reports have emerged regarding incidents of migrant children in the United States suffering exploitative labor conditions and other harmful situations.”

“Exploitation in its various forms is most likely to occur,” the letter went on, “when an individual is isolated from support or confronted by systemic barriers in accessing assistance.”

The letter added that “this is especially true for unaccompanied children as an inherently vulnerable population.”

New measures to combat human trafficking of children 

To address the influx of vulnerable children crossing the border, the U.S. bishops urged Congress to take 10 new measures focused on removing the children from dangerous situations and placing them in the safest places of care possible.

The bishops’ suggestions included increasing the funding, scope, and trafficking prevention training of the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for the care and placement of unaccompanied migrant children.

According to the bishops, Congress should clarify that the ORR has the authority to intervene in cases where a child’s safety or well-being is at risk, even if that child has already been released to his or her U.S. sponsor. The letter also said that Congress should establish a dedicated position in the ORR directly responsible for tracking and preventing child trafficking and advising the head of the ORR.

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The bishops called for Congress to establish an independent review board of relevant nonprofits to advise the federal government on how to best protect migrant children from abuse.

They also pushed for the passage of the Vulnerable Immigrant Youth Act, a bill that was introduced in both the Senate and House earlier this year. According to the letter, the new law would make it easier for especially vulnerable migrant children, classified under the law as “special immigrant juveniles” (SIJ), to gain permanent legal status in the U.S.

Currently, these children can only be considered for U.S. visas along with employment-based migrants (EB-4), of which there is a five-year backlog, according to the bishops’ letter.

The bishops said that “it has never been a logical or just arrangement” for vulnerable migrant children “to be included among other groups within the EB-4 visa category” because SIJ status “is decidedly a humanitarian benefit, and children deemed eligible for that status are not accurately described as employment-based immigrants.”

“Delaying the resolution of their legal status exacerbates the vulnerabilities already faced by these youth,” the letter said. By passing the new law the letter said that especially vulnerable migrant children “would be treated more like other humanitarian populations within U.S. immigration law, such as those granted refugee status or asylum, neither of which are subject to annual visa caps, and would ensure more timely access to legal residency for those deemed eligible, thereby reducing the potential for exploitation.”