President Donald Trump's administration is canceling English classes, recreational programs and legal aid for unaccompanied minors staying in federal migrant shelters nationwide, saying the influx at the southern border has created critical budget pressures.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement has begun discontinuing the funding stream for activities that have been deemed "not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation," said U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Mark Weber.
Federal officials have warned Congress that they are facing "a dramatic spike" in unaccompanied minors at the southern border and have asked Congress for $2.9 billion in emergency funding to expand shelters and care. The program could run out of money in late June, and the agency is legally obligated to direct funding to essential services, Weber said.
The country has been seeing a record number of families and children arriving from Mexico, overwhelming the U.S. immigration system and fueling the budget strain at Health and Human Services facilities. On Wednesday, U.S. authorities said more than 132,887 migrants were taken into custody in May, including 11,507 unaccompanied minors.
The move to curtail services for unaccompanied minors -- revealed in an email that a Health and Human Services Department official sent to licensed shelters last week and that has been obtained by The Washington Post -- could run afoul of a federal court settlement and state-licensing requirements that mandate education and recreation for minors in federal custody. Carlos Holguin, a lawyer who represents minors in a long-running lawsuit that spurred a 1997 federal court settlement that sets basic standards of care for children in custody, immediately slammed the cuts as illegal.
"We'll see them in court if they go through with it," Holguin said. "What's next? Drinking water? Food? ... Where are they going to stop?"
The Health and Human Services Department official sent an email last Thursday to shelters notifying them that the government will not pay for education or recreational activities retroactive to May 22, including related personnel costs. The official characterized those costs as "unallowable."
Holguin said schooling and exercise are "fundamental to the care of youngsters."
A shelter employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the internal government directive, said the Trump administration's cuts have alarmed workers who fear the quality of care for the children will suffer. The employee said educational classes and sports activities are crucial to maintaining physical and mental health while the children are in custody.
"What are you going to do all day?" the shelter employee said. "If you're not going to have any sort of organized recreation or physical activity, what are you going to do, just let them sit in their rooms?"
Democratic lawmakers and advocates for migrants blasted the decision.
Mary Meg McCarthy, executive director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said she fears the cuts are an effort to pressure Congress to fund the Trump administration's broader immigration agenda. She called it "another ploy to secure tax dollars to lock people up." Amnesty International USA called the cuts "unconscionable."
U.S. Rep Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., decried the cuts that would affect facilities like the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Homestead, Fla., where many unaccompanied minors go after they are apprehended. She and others this week called on the Health and Human Services Department to close the Homestead site, urging the agency to send minors to smaller nonprofit facilities. The agency has said it plans to expand Homestead from 2,350 to 3,200 beds.
"These are children that are going through tremendous suffering," Mucarsel-Powell said. "If the Trump administration does cancel these basic necessities like education, exercise and legal services, they are robbing them of their humanity."
Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders said his agency has detained more than 680,000 border-crossers in the past eight months, noting that the total is "more than the population of Miami."
"We are in a full-blown emergency, and I cannot say this stronger: The system is broken," he said.
Health and Human Services Department officials said they have warned Congress for months that the border influx is straining its budget and that the federal Antideficiency Act requires them to prioritize essential services.
"As we have said, we have a humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system that is putting tremendous strain on the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its Unaccompanied Alien Children Program," Weber said Wednesday.
Information for this article was contributed by Nick Miroff of The Washington Post.
A Section on 06/06/2019
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