Hundreds of migrant children being transferred from squalid, overcrowded Border Patrol detention centers are heading into the custody of a federal refugee agency that’s already struggling to feed and care for tens of thousands of minors.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is so swamped with new arrivals that it is burning through cash to house children in military bases around the country, including one in Oklahoma that interned Japanese-Americans during World War II. On Tuesday, the agency even had to send 100 children back to a much-criticized Border Patrol station in Clint, Texas, saying it lacks the room to take them.
The result: Already-traumatized children are being thrust from one agency in crisis to another, while Congress has been wrangling over a $4.5 billion emergency border funding measure. Two-thirds of that money would go to the refugee office, which has warned that it will run out of funds as soon as this month.
The refugee office’s shelters have taken in more than 52,000 children since October — a 60 percent jump from the previous year, driven by a record influx of migrants and complicated by the Trump administration’s aggressive border policies. Its parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, is pursuing strategies to cope with the surge, which include freezing money for anti-trafficking efforts and services for survivors of torture, and possibly furloughing employees.
The crunch is also slowing HHS’s oversight of shelters, efforts to expand the number of beds and attempts to unite migrant children with sponsors in the United States.
And it is adding to a growing crisis surrounding the federal government’s detention of migrant children. The Border Patrol is under fire following disclosures that some of its detention centers lack soap, toothbrushes, clean bedding or other necessities for the children, some of them infants, in conditions that doctors, lawyers and public health experts call a potential breeding ground for disease. At least seven children have died in U.S. custody since September.
“These kids are really suffering,” said Jennifer Podkul, senior director for policy and advocacy for KIND, which provides legal services to migrant children. “If you put all of these changes together, I think this is a moment when kids have had less protection than they have in the past.”
The HHS-funded refugee shelters — where kids may live for weeks under the supervision of social workers, usually in small standalone structures, until they’re placed with U.S.-based sponsors — are distinct from the Border Patrol facilities that cannot legally hold children for more than 72 hours.
The latest escalation of the border crisis comes as Congress is trying to complete the long-stalled border aid package. HHS Secretary Alex Azar for weeks has pushed Congress to fund an emergency $4.5 billion package that would provide nearly $3 billion to shore up his agency’s services for migrant children.
“This historical influx is challenging the capacity of the federal government to shelter UAC [unaccompanied alien children] and presents child welfare concerns beyond the treacherous journey that these minor children take across the southern border,” said an HHS spokesperson in an emailed statement.
But the Trump administration has also taken steps that worsened pressure on the HHS refugee office.
Some would-be sponsors have been scared away from taking custody of children, fearful that they’ll be deported under an administration policy requiring them to share information with immigration authorities. Some states and nonprofit shelters have repeatedly rejected HHS’s efforts to expand capacity, because of the cloud hanging over the refugee program. Congressional investigations are taxing the refugee office’s personnel and morale, according to department officials who spoke on the condition they not be identified.
“It’s a very difficult time,” an HHS official told POLITICO. “The program grew faster than we were ready.”
House and Senate versions of a border funding bill would boost oversight of the facilities, but the House version goes further, for example by imposing strict standards on unlicensed influx shelters and requiring that all unaccompanied children receive comprehensive legal services. The House package had faced resistance from progressive Democratic lawmakers, who fear the administration would use the funding to accelerate enforcement efforts against immigrants.
“We do not provide a ‘blank check’ to the administration to continue its punitive and failed immigration policies,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a senior appropriator who supports the bill, said at a House Rules Committee meeting on Monday. “This bill includes an unprecedented level of legal conditions to ensure the safety and protection of children in federal care.”
But any new funding would subsidize HHS refugee operations only through September — setting up another spending fight almost immediately.
Meanwhile, the refugee office is reeling from staff shortages and lack of experience placing migrant children in the United States, say former agency employees and shelter workers familiar with its operations.
“There are fewer staff to oversee and manage these processes,” said Bob Carey, who was a director of the office in the Obama administration. “That is a significant risk posed by lack of funding, not to mention the demoralizing effect on staff who have worked in a crisis situation for a long period of time.”
HHS recently ordered educational and recreational activities in shelters to be scaled back to save money, including English classes, leading to weeks of confusion and harsh headlines. The refugee office reversed the decision when it realized that licensed shelters had to provide those services to comply with state law, one shelter staffer told POLITICO.
HHS said in an email that federal law requires it to scale back all activities not required for direct care and the safety of children because of the funding shortage. Three nonprofit shelter operators said they were also relying on emergency donors to provide funding for additional services.
The administration in May 2018 also began requiring shelters to share immigration information on the children’s sponsors with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a policy that has deterred some sponsors from coming forward to claim children. While Congress in February directed the refugee office to temporarily halt the policy, the office delayed informing shelter operators until a June 10 email, which was obtained by POLITICO.
Bracing for a surge, the health department for months has been overhauling the personnel dealing with migrant children’s care. Lynn Johnson, the HHS assistant secretary who joined the administration last fall and oversees children’s and family services, has imported a new team of advisers in recent months and brought more rigor to running the refugee office, say three officials who have worked with her.
Meanwhile, several political appointees who were involved in last year’s family separation crisis have left the agency. Maggie Wynne, the HHS counselor who helped oversee family and children’s services, was recently detailed to the White House’s domestic policy council, say four people with knowledge of the move. Scott Lloyd, who ran the refugee office during last year’s crisis and was effectively removed from the role for mishandling family reunifications, transferred to a different office in December and left the administration this month.
Some shelter officials say the refugee office has improved its operations since last year’s crisis. “There has been progress,” said Dona Abbott, of Bethany Christian Services, which helps place migrant children with foster families until they move in with sponsors. The number of days that children spent in refugee office custody has decreased to 44 days in May from 90 days in November, as HHS finds homes for the children more quickly.
However, the damage from the Trump administration’s defunct family-separation policy — beyond the harm to the families themselves — is lingering as states reject efforts to help HHS boost shelter capacity and some nonprofits have backed away, too.
That means HHS is relying more heavily on for-profit operators to house the children, a more expensive approach that is forcing the department to spend its limited funding faster. The temporary shelters cost at least three times as much as regular shelters. The temporary shelters also aren’t subject to state oversight, unlike licensed facilities that normally contract with the refugee office to operate shelters. And it means thousands of children being house together, compared with the more individualized attention they would get in foster care or smaller shelters.
“I think it’s unfortunately one of those situations of last resort,” Carey said.