The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Catholic Charities USA have a longstanding relationship when it comes to natural disasters, according to Salvatorian Fr. David Bergner, executive director of Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

So, it’s only natural that FEMA would contact Catholic Charities USA for help with what has been termed a humanitarian crisis – the more than 57,000 unaccompanied alien children (UAC) from, primarily, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that have flooded the U.S.-Mexico border since the start of the new fiscal year, Oct. 1, hoping to unite with family, or seek refuge from poverty and violence in their homelands.

The arrival of so many UACs – defined by the Office of Refugee Resettlement as children who lack lawful immigration status in the U.S., are under age 18, and without a parent/legal guardian in the U.S. or no parent/legal guardian in the U.S. that can provide care and physical custody – has overwhelmed U.S. agencies and the system that’s designed to handle 6,000 to 7,000 such people a year, according to Catholic News Service.

Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki told the Catholic Herald last week that Catholic Charities is where it should be in a time of crisis – reaching out to humanity and to the human concerns.

“The only thing we can do is lend assistance to individuals, but we can’t control the strategy that individuals are going to use on the border, and there are good concerns, on all sides, about how this issue should be resolved,” he said. “Apart from the resolve, there are children who are hungry, there are children who need shelter, and that’s what Catholic Charities should be doing and is doing.”

Catholic Charities Milwaukee has been asked by Catholic Charities USA, its parent organization headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, to identify three potential sites where 100 to 300 children could stay until they are adequately processed, and to pre-position staff to assist at one of the sites, if called upon.

Fr. Bergner said they have identified three potential sites – two former schools and a former office complex – where children could be temporarily housed, and have six bilingual Catholic Charities staff members who can assist with counseling and case management, on standby.

“One of the reasons we were chosen in Milwaukee is our proximity to the immigration court in Chicago, so I’m sure directors around the country that are in proximity to an immigration court were asked,” Fr. Bergner told the Catholic Herald in an interview last week, noting there are few immigration courts in the Midwest. Others close to Chicago include Bloomington, Minnesota; Kansas City, Missouri and Omaha, Nebraska.

“The other thing that we have that some Catholic Charities do not have is our own legal services to immigrants program, so we already have immigration attorneys on our staff who can assist with processing of immigrants including children in this kind of situation,” he said of the services Catholic Charities Milwaukee offers, outlined on the website,, as information sessions, legal counsel and assistance to newcomers to the U.S. seeking to become citizens or reunify with family members living in the U.S., trying to secure asylum or temporary protection in the U.S., and immigrant victims of domestic violence.

Fr. Bergner also pointed out that whether Milwaukee becomes a site depends upon a few things, including whether Congress approves President Barack Obama’s request for $3.7 billion in emergency funds to address the influx of immigrants illegally entering the country.

“A lot of this is contingent on funding from the federal government and a special appropriations bill which was the president’s request to Congress. They might do some of it and not all of it, depending on the amount of the appropriation,” Fr. Bergner said, noting that FEMA would identify the most appropriate sites and invest in them to bring them up to code to handle a certain number of children.

Fr. Bergner said resources directed to Catholic Charities from donors will continue to go to its current services – the 10 programs it supports through contributions in the Milwaukee Archdiocese; a potential shelter would be government subsidized, and if the need arose, Catholic Charities would develop a targeted campaign for the children.

“The other possibility is the staff that we have identified who are bilingual and have skills to contribute, both in terms of behavioral health and case management, would be requested to go to another site to provide those services, and I would think that’s almost more likely, because that’s an easier accomplishment than putting together a shelter from scratch.”

Fr. Bergner said if Catholic Charities Milwaukee is called upon, the best-case scenario would be to prepare one site for 100 children.

“We would, of course, have our bilingual staff engaged at the site, but also, we would receive professional help from other Catholic Charities around the country, who would come in to provide the necessary staffing levels, but I think there would also be room for volunteer help and help from other institutions within the community,” he said.

While some people have contacted Catholic Charities concerned about its potential involvement, Catholic Charities has received many positive responses, according to Fr. Bergner.

“Already we’ve had a number of lawyers who called and volunteered their services on the legal side. We’ve had doctors and nurses call to volunteer their services, so the overwhelming response to this, so far, has been positive,” he said.

He said that in one respect, no laws have been broken, and, if that’s the case, these children deserve their day in court.

“I think the law has, as we can tell, both looking at international law and the laws of the United States relative to immigration, that there appears to be a loophole for unaccompanied minors from Central America, and if that’s the case, then they deserve their day in court,” he said, comparing it to the way the law is written regarding unaccompanied alien children from Mexico. “We’re under no illusions here; the vast majority of these youngsters will be repatriated, but they should still have that day in court in order to see if they have a case for asylum, and that’s my limited understanding of the law.”

Children from Mexico are looked at differently because of the way the law is written, and because U.S. immigration officials can talk to their immigration officials at the border to come to an informal resolution with the child, Fr. Bergner said, adding this isn’t the case with the governments of Central America that not only seem to be more fragmented but are farther away.

“There may be no one best approach; we may have to take a look at it, more holistically, more comprehensively, in terms of our national policy regarding Central America,” he said. “It makes sense to me for our country and through organizations like AID (the U.S. Agency for International Development) and other NGOs (non governmental organizations) already in Central America that we create, we work with their government to create safe havens for kids and families because otherwise this flow of children may continue for some time without any, if none of the problems in Central America are effectively addressed.”

This year, an estimated 90,000 UACs are expected to enter the U.S., from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – which has a homicide rate topping 90 per 100,000 residents, according to Catholic News Service – looking for refuge from poverty and gang violence.

While it hasn’t been confirmed that children will be sent to Milwaukee, Catholic Charities has made it clear that, if called to help, it “will do so with compassion.”

“We believe in treating these children with dignity and respect, care and compassion …” Fr. Bergner said. “Our faith mandates us to welcome the stranger and care for the vulnerable.”

On a side note, Archbishop Listecki said he found the government’s request for assistance and support from the church “strange.”

“I find it very strange that this same government who basically is attacking the church on the basis of religious freedom finds no problems with the ability of the freedom for the church to reach out and assist again when the government is befuddled and can’t come to some type of conclusion,” he said. “This is historically the way the church has always been. It, the government, is not able to do something; Catholic Charities comes in, Catholic Relief Services or Catholic schools or Catholic hospitals.”