The Trump administration says it can no longer afford to fund certain services offered in shelters for child migrants — including daily English classes, outdoor recreation, and legal aid — because the recent surge in underage migrants has put a “tremendous strain” on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which oversees the shelters.
Immigrants’ rights advocates say the ORR funding cuts, which were first reported by the Washington Post, violate the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 ruling that outlined the rights migrant children have in the U.S.
Meanwhile, the administration claims that under the Antideficiency Act, a Civil War-era spending law that bans federal agencies from spending money that hasn’t been allocated by Congress, ORR is forbidden from spending money once it gets close to running a deficit.
“What they’re saying is that they’re running out of money, and under the federal Antideficiency Act, they have to reduce their spending,” Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who served as the Assistant Secretary of the Administration of Children and Families, which deals closely with ORR, told VICE News.
The administration claims that the influx of child migrants has led to overcrowding in ORR shelters — but immigrant advocates say ORR’s financial woes are the result of the administration’s policies regarding underage migrants, not the recent uptick in children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.
To be clear, there has been a surge in child migrants in recent months. Customs and Border Protection officers apprehended 11,507 unaccompanied minors in May — a 29 percent increase from the previous month, during which 8,900 children were apprehended. That has undoubtedly contributed to overcrowding in the more than 100 shelters across the country, most of which are operated by nonprofit organizations that have contracts with ORR.
But advocates say children are also being kept in shelters for longer periods of time than they were during the Obama administration — and they say the unlicensed shelters the Trump administration is prioritizing are more costly to maintain than licensed shelters operated by nonprofits.
Melissa Adamson, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law who works on the Flores counsel team, told VICE News that an increase in processing times has forced children to stay in these shelters for nearly twice as long as in previous years. The average length of stay in an ORR shelter was 60 days during the 2018 fiscal year, according to government data, compared to an average of 34 days in 2016.
This delay, Adamson said, is partly the result of a policy implemented by the Trump administration last summer, which required migrant children’s prospective sponsors to provide the government with their biometric information. Their fingerprints and other information was then shared with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Those policies were later reversed.
“It was a dual issue where sponsors were afraid to come forward and those that did come forward experienced long delays in getting their fingerprints processed,” Adamson said. She also pointed out that since children are being kept in licensed shelters for longer periods of time, the Trump administration has increasingly begun sending new arrivals to unlicensed “influx shelters” that violate many of the rules laid out by Flores, like the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children outside Miami and the now-closed Tornillo tent city shelter in Texas.
It costs about $750 per day per child to run Homestead, compared to approximately $250 per day at licensed shelters, HHS spokesperson Mark Weber told Reuters in February. It cost $1,200 per night per child to house children in Tornillo, staff at two congressional offices told the LA Times in November 2018. That cost reportedly covered the pay of care workers, cooks, cleaners, teachers and emergency services workers.
Although Homestead is more expensive to run than licensed shelters, they also tend to offer fewer services than shelters run by nonprofits, several advocates told VICE News. Generally speaking, though, the schooling provided in these shelters is “not necessarily that good,” said Dr. Amy Cohen, a psychiatrist who interviews children in ORR-affiliated shelters and consults the Flores attorneys, partly because the shelters are only supposed to hold children for a short period of time.
Harm to kids
Cohen said cutting funding for educational and recreational services will be harmful to migrant children who are already struggling to cope with traumatic experiences. “From a physiological point of view, these children already don’t get enough time outside. There are certain facilities where they’re only given an hour a day to be outside,” the minimum requirement under the Flores agreement, Cohen said.
“This is going to affect their bone growth and their Vitamin D levels”
If shelters cut that time even further because of budget constraints, the lack of outdoor activity could be seriously detrimental to the children’s physical and mental health. “This is going to affect their bone growth and their Vitamin D levels,” Cohen said. “What you’re likely to see is more self-destructive behaviors — more cutting, more suicidality, particularly the longer their detention goes on,” she said.
“You’re also more likely to see more of these kids turning on each other, more eruptions of behavioral problems, because you’re not giving them healthy ways to manage the stresses that they’re experiencing,” Cohen said.
The budget cuts could also jeopardize the children’s legal cases. In addition to funding certain shelter programs, ORR allocates some money to attorneys who conduct Know Your Rights trainings for children in migrant shelters and, in some cases, represent them in court.
At least two shelter operators have said they plan to continue offering educational and recreational services. BCFS Health and Human Services, which operates a number of shelters including the infamous tent city Tornillo “influx shelter” in Texas, said it “has not and will not cancel or alter the services listed above, as doing so would be in violation of state licensing standards” in a statement to VICE News on Tuesday.
Private contractors resist
Bethany Christian Services, another ORR subcontractor, said it will also continue to provide these services. “We are a licensed childcare provider and we need to comply with state licensing rules for the care and placement of children,” Dona Abbott, Bethany’s vice president of refugee and immigrant services, told VICE News.
In an internal message to employees that was obtained by the Washington Post, Joella Brooks, the interim CEO of Southwest Key, the largest network of shelters for migrant children in the U.S., told employees that it is “working with our funding source to understand the reasons behind this decision and what, if anything, we can do to continue offering these vital services.”
Not every shelter has confirmed that it would keep providing migrant children with education and outdoor recreation time. Jim Van Dusen, the CEO of Caliburn International, the company that oversees the Homestead shelter, told the Miami Herald that Homestead “will ensure the continuation of our high level of care,” though he didn’t clarify whether the shelter would continue its educational and recreational services. Caliburn did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment.
Cohen, the child psychiatrist, described Homestead as a “powder keg.”
“Part of the issue is that ORR is expending an inordinate amount of money on these unlicensed military-inspired tent camps for children,” Holly Cooper, an attorney at the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California who is on the Flores counsel, told VICE News. “It’s this ironic twist: Here they are operating unlicensed shelters that violate the Flores Settlement Agreement, and then they turn around and say they don’t have enough money to provide for education.”
Additional reporting from Mimi Dwyer.
Cover: In this April 19, 2019 file photo, Migrant children play soccer at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on Good Friday in Homestead, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)