Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2019 / 04:00 pm (CNA).- Amid of a surge of migrants, many of them minors, seeking to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, federal officials have called for emergency funding to address a growing humanitarian crisis. While reports differ, budget constraints have led to cuts to legal aid and educational programs for detained migrant youths.
“We continue to experience a humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border of the United States, and the situation becomes more dire each day,” Alex M. Azar II, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Human Services, and Kevin McAleenan, Acting Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said in a June 12 letter to Members of Congress.
Massive numbers of migrants, often fleeing gang violence and extreme poverty in Central America, are seeking to cross the U.S. border. In May an average of 4,650 people per day crossed into the U.S. or arrived at ports of entry without proper documentation, said Azar and McAleenan in their letter.
There were over 144,000 total enforcement actions on the border, a 32 percent increase over April and the highest monthly total in more than 15 years.
“We urge Congress to take swift action to provide the necessary funding to address the severe humanitarian and operational impacts of this crisis and enact reforms to the root causes of these problems so that they do not persist into the future,” the Trump administration leaders said in their letter.
They warned of “rapidly depleting funds caused by the border surge.” Third-quarter funding is already being withheld in almost all U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Budgetary constraints mean the HHS has started to defund education services, legal services, and recreation for unaccompanied minors in federal migrant shelters on the ground such activities are “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety.”
Safety of children in federal care is “the primary concern” of both HHS and DHS, Azar and McAleenan said in their letter. As of June 10, over 2,500 unaccompanied children were among the 17,000 people in Customs and Border Protection custody. On May 1 they numbered only about 870. The number of arriving children “greatly exceeds existing HHS capacity.”
Catholic leaders are also concerned about the funding shortfall.
Kathryn Kuennen, associate director of children’s services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Children and Migration Office, told CNA that the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services serves about 2,000 unaccompanied children per year, though programs could serve more children in coming months. These services work through a national network of licensed unaccompanied refugee minor foster care programs until children in its care are approved for release and reunification with a vetted sponsor in the U.S.
At present these Catholic-run services have not been mandated to cut their budgets.
“We are working within the funding and resources available to cover those expenses,” said Kuennen. “We certainly would be concerned if there is not supplemental funding available.”
Catholic migrant services leaders are confident that their educational programs can continue to cover costs “for a short time,” but they are concerned over long-term funding.
“We are at risk of placing programs in jeopardy with their own state licensing requirements for the children in their care,” Kuennen said June 20.
Melissa Velarde Hastings, a policy advisor to the U.S. bishops, said that the USCCB and its Migrant and Refugee Services have been advocating for Congress to appropriate $2.88 billion for HHS supplemental funding that would ensure funding through the rest of the fiscal year and to provide adequate care for children.
The appropriations process is an important way to ensure better treatment for minors in federal custody or care, especially given concerns about some large-scale facilities which detain undocumented border crossers.
“From our perspective we see these facilities as being an important tool to have available in times when the referral numbers are quite high and it needs the additional capacity,” Hastings told CNA. “However, we are advocating for increased oversight and heightened standards for those facilities.”
She encouraged those concerned to visit the USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants website at justiceforimmigrants.org.
Kuennen saw a need to ensure adequate bed capacity for children and more child-friendly options for migrants.
“There’s absolutely a need to continue to increase available foster home placements or smaller-scale placements for children so that there are alternatives to some of the large-scale facilities that we see and hear about often,” she told CNA. “We continue to support the work in building up a network that is more safe and appropriate for children.”
Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that HHS funding cuts could violate a federal court settlement and state licensing agreements that require education and recreation for minors in federal custody.
One shelter employee, speaking to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, said the cuts have worried workers who think the care for children will suffer. The educational classes and sports are crucial for the children’s physical and mental health, the employee said.
Unless criteria are met, the Anti-Deficiency Act requires HHS to reallocate up to $167 million to the unaccompanied children program and away from Refugee Support Services, trafficking victims and survivors of torture.
Almost 85,000 people who were part of a “family unit” were apprehended on the Southwest border, with another 4,100 deemed inadmissible. at the border’s ports of entry. The “vast majority” of those apprehended were released into the U.S. “due to a lack of space and authority to detain them,” said Azar and McAleenan’s letter.
In all of fiscal year 2012, the border patrol apprehended just over 11,000 people who were part of a family unit.
Border patrol agents now spend most of their time caring for families and children, providing medical assistance, transportation, and food service “instead of performing law enforcement duties.”
Azar and McAleenan’s letter to Congress cited flu outbreaks at the Centralized Processing Center in McAllen, Texas and other facilities. These outbreaks require separate quarantine facilities to reduce the risk to children and other vulnerable people.
“While agents are providing the best care possible, these groups need more appropriate care, and they need it now,” they said.
Cuts to legal services have also drawn criticism. Such services are necessary for many unaccompanied minors to contest possible deportation.
“We are deeply troubled that these services are being cut for children, who are among the most vulnerable population of immigrants in detention,” Kica Matos, director of the Center on Immigration and Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice, told the Washington Post. Matos’ center manages legal aid programs for the U.S. government.
For decades the U.S. bishops have been active on immigration issues, and recent developments were a focus of their annual spring meeting in Baltimore.
Bishops like Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles said there were serious challenges facing the Church’s mission to migrants and refugees, criticizing the “inhumane” and “immoral” treatment of migrants, asylum-seekers, and others seeking to enter the U.S.
The bishops cited the Trump administration’s lowering of refugee intake caps for a third straight year to 30,000 for FY 2019, as well as the ending of the Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program in 2017, and the ongoing non-renewal of Temporary Protected Status designations.
Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas said U.S. policy puts “vulnerable people in harm’s way” by forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their request is processed. He also criticized increases in family detention, rules “to further restrict access to asylum and due process,” and an “enforcement-only approach to migration.”
Religious ministry to detained migrants is also a concern.
With thousands of undocumented immigrants in detention centers throughout the country, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said last week, “we as pastors should be concerned that we have our priests there celebrating Mass for them, that the Church is present to them in this area.”
“We have to respond to them and not let the Church be invisible to them,” said Wenski.