TRAVERSE CITY — As a child, Kaylee Erlewein never thought much about the way her family grew or of the diversity each new addition added to the mix.
She was 6 when her parents began adopting, and it was exciting — if not more difficult to find quiet space — each time a new sibling arrived from whichever country they’d been born in, Erlewein said.
It was her normal, she said.
Early exposure to foster care and adoption drove her desire to be a part of those systems as an adult, Erlewein said.
“Every kid needs a home,” she said. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from, kids all need security.”
When the chance came in 2016 to provide those things for refugee children, Erlewein and her husband, Joe Erlewein, took it.
The Traverse City couple — then in the process of working with Bethany Christan Services’ local branch to get their foster care license — opted to go through extra training to be able to take on children in the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors Program, Kaylee Erlewein said.
The URM program is a federally-funded foster care program operated by participating states that serves youth fleeing persecution, violence or abuse and who entered the United States without a guardian. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement oversees the program.
About 13,000 minors have entered the URM program since its creation in 1980, according to ORR’s website.
Two national resettlement agencies — the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services — coordinate with ORR and local URM providers to place children in foster homes. Providers are state-licensed child-placing agencies.
In Michigan, the URM program is offered in Traverse City, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Madison Heights by Bethany Christian Services and in Lansing by Samaritas.
Traverse City joined the line-up in 2016 and the office currently has six girls, aged 15 to 18, in the program, said Chelsea Hill, Traverse City branch director. Five of the girls are from Africa — three from Eritrea, one from Nigeria and one from the Ivory Coast, she said.
The sixth is the Erleweins’ foster daughter, an 18-year-old from Guatemala.
“She came to us because we did respite care for a family downstate,” Erlewein said. “We knew that she was in a temporary place at that point and we’re like, ‘Hey, we think she might fit.’”
That was 2017 and their foster daughter, now a high school senior, has been with them for 2.5 years, she said.
They’ve bought a lot of red pepper flakes in that time, Erlewein said. Her daughter pours them on her food and drinks them with water for flavor, Erlewein said.
“You have to learn from your kid what the little things that make them a little more comfortable are, even if it seems a little weird,” she said.
Erlewein’s foster daughter — who crossed the southern border — didn’t start out in the URM program, said Nathan Bult, Bethany’s vice president of public and government affairs.
She originally was in the Unaccompanied Children Program, but later was “reclassified” and placed in the URM program, Bult said.
The URM and UC programs both are foster care programs ORR oversees — URM placements are long-term and UC placements short-term. Bethany’s Traverse City branch doesn’t offer UC services.
Many people get the programs confused, but there are two key differences — the child’s legal status in the U.S. and the likelihood of reunification with family, Hill said.
Those enrolled in the URM program are in the country legally, while those in the UC program are not, she said. Children crossing the southern border, for example, are placed in the UC program, Hill said.
About 98 percent of UC kids are reunited with some form of family, either in the U.S. or in their home country, so reclassification to a URM-eligible status isn’t common, Bult said.
The URM program originally served only minors with refugee status, but Congress eventually opened it to other populations, ORR’s website states. Today, asylees, Cuban and Haitian entrants, victims of human trafficking, kids with Special Immigrant Juvenile Status and U-Status recipients also are eligible.
Bult wouldn’t say which status Erlewein’s foster daughter has.
Reunification between a child and their family is a goal of the URM program, but the chance of success is minimal, Hill said.
Most youth are referred to the program while in refugee camps overseas and often were abandoned or have parents who are dead, untraceable or can’t be reached for reasons such as war or other civil unrest, she said.
Some have contact with relatives back home, but “close by, our foster parents are all that these children have,” Hill said.
Erlewein said she enjoys the sense of permanency and stability she can offer as a URM foster parent. They’re things most of the youth haven’t had before, she said.
“It’s a different beast than just adopting. It’s a different beast than regular foster care,” Erlewein said.
“You need to think of it as adoption in the way that this is a permanent home,” she said. “You’re supposed to be here for this kid and you’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re your family.’”
Whether more URM kids will be placed in the Grand Traverse area is uncertain at the moment.
President Donald Trump on Sept. 26 issued an executive order that requires states and municipalities to opt-in to allowing refugees to be resettled there.
“It essentially means that we can’t resettle any refugee minors from overseas without the expressed written consent of the locality,” Bult said. “We’ll need to get approval from the cities in northern Michigan where our foster families live to continue resettlement.”
Refugee status only is granted to people who have not yet entered the country, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. Those who meet the definition of refugee but already are in the U.S., or are seeking admission at a port of entry, can apply for asylum status, the website states.
U.S. law defines a refugee as someone outside his or her country of nationality who is unable or unwilling to return home because of persecution or a “well-founded fear” of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.
Also on Sept. 26, the Trump administration gave Congress a report proposing capping refugee admissions at 18,000 for fiscal year 2020. The U.S. fiscal year runs Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 of the following year.
The official cap will “be issued following consultation with Congress,” according to a press release from the U.S. Department of State.
The U.S. House of Representatives’ and the U.S. Senate’s judiciary committees — on Sept. 13 and Sept. 20 respectively — sent letters to the Trump administration calling for consultations.
Both asked to have information at least 14 days ahead of in-person discussions. The House’s letter additionally noted that the presidential determination is supposed to be made before the start of a new fiscal year.
In the last 45 years, the lowest number of refugees admitted in a single year was 19,946 in fiscal year 1977, according to data from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The second lowest was fiscal year 2018, when 22,491 refugees were admitted.
The URM program historically has been mentioned in the report to Congress and its new enrollees included in the cap, but it wasn’t in this year’s proposal, Bult said.
Bethany still is seeking clarification on what, if anything, the absence means for the program, he said.
“Was it an oversight? We just don’t know,” Bult said. “We’ve got emails out trying to learn what the impact is.”