The plight of migrants at the southern border of the U.S. and the Trump administrations zero-tolerance policy seemingly has engulfed the nation’s attention.
More than 2,300 children were separated from their parents as they tried to enter the country during the course of six weeks, with many of those detained children being bused as far as New York City. Meanwhile, millions has been raised for the defense of the detainees.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracts human services nonprofits to operate the shelters for children who enter the country without a parent.
About half of the shelters care for fewer than 50 unaccompanied children, according to ORR, but it’s unclear how many shelters there are precisely. The average length of stay of a child in shelter care is less than 57 days, according to ORR. The federal appropriation for the program this year is $1.3 billion.
Southwest Key Programs is one of many nonprofits around the nation contracted by the federal government to provide shelter for unaccompanied minors. It operates programs — including youth justice, charter schools and immigrant youth shelters — in seven states. Some 1,500 boys are being housed at the shelter it operates in a former Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas. Many are unaccompanied minors who crossed illegally and some were separated from their family under the administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy.
“We’re not the bad guys,” Southwest Key CEO Juan Sanchez told KRGV-TV, in Rio Grande, Texas. “We’re the good guys. We’re the people that are taking these kids, putting them in a shelter, providing the best service that we can for them and reunite with family. And, that’s what this is all about,” he said. The average stay is 49 days until they are reunited with families.
The Austin, Texas-based organization reported total revenue of $95 million from government contracts as recently as 2013, a figure that has grown each year to $286 million for 2017.
The Southwest Key Program’s website was inundated with traffic. In a statement released via Twitter, the organization said it does not support separating families at the border. “For 30 years, our work in offering youth justice alternatives, immigrant children’s shelters, and education has served to improve the lives of thousands of young people. We believe keeping families together is better for the children, parents, and our communities, and we remain committed to providing compassionate care and reunification. For every child who has come through our shelter doors, we start on day one to reunite them with their parents or a family sponsor and to provide the kind of service that will help them thrive. This has been our priority for decades.”
As many 700 children are being housed in nonprofit foster-care facilities in New York state, including more than 200 at Cayuga Center in the East Harlem section of Manhattan, which seemed to come as a surprise to New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio during a press conference last week.
Syosset, N.Y.-based MercyFirst is another human services agency contracted by the federal government. Originally founded as an orphanage during the 1800s by Sisters of Mercy, it provides shelter and care to children feeling Central America.
A statement from 14 members of the Leadership 18, a coalition of chief executives of the nation’s largest human service nonprofits, called on President Donald Trump and members of his administration to “immediately stop this wrong and immoral policy,” adding that separating immigrant children from parents “should never be a part of American policy.”
The coalition also urged the administration and Congress to “immediately put into place the laws, processes and resources that will ensure the health, safety and well-being of children and not be harmful and traumatizing to them, and stand ready to work with them to implement such policies.” The ORR should take steps to restore connections between children in custody and their family members awaiting processing, including visitation and communication.
“We must ensure all of our actions are grounded in the humanitarian values we have long held as a nation,” the coalition’s statement concluded.
Some organizations issued their own statements and others did not make Leadership 18’s release deadline, according to Director Danielle Powell. An American Red Cross spokesperson said the organization offered assistance to federal authorities, however, without permission, “it does not have access to places for detention for migrants.”
Some already have questioned the executive order (EO) that was signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon. Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles described the latest EO on family separation as “unconscionable” and “unacceptable,” adding achieving just one thing: “further harming already vulnerable children.”
The EO “simply replaces family separation with indefinite family detention — this unconscionable order does not once mention the best interest of children,” she said.
The Fairfield, Conn.-based organization has “zero tolerance for policies that do not put children’s interests first,” Miles said. “We know from our nearly 100 years of service that family detention has significant adverse effects on a child’s development and psychosocial well-being.”
Save the Children works around the world with children who are separated by natural disasters and war, in places like Yemen, South Sudan and Syria, Miles said. “Never have I seen children forcibly displaced from parents or families indefinitely detained,” she said. “We cannot stand by and watch this suffering be inflicted on children by our own government.”
A Facebook fundraiser for Refugee And Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) reached $15 million in just three days and today surpassed $20 million from more than 500,000 donors. The fundraiser was started by a California couple on June 16 with a goal to raise $1,500 to reunite a parent with their child and then went viral. The $1,500 is the minimum amount to cover bond fees for one person.
RAICES reported total revenue of $7 million in its most recently-available federal Form 990, for the year ending 2016.
The RAICES bond fund hadn’t been as necessary in the past year or two but family separations have reignited the need, Manoj Govindaiah, director of family detention, said during a Facebook Live session. RAICES has bonded out 75 to 80 families using donations through its existing bond fund during the past four years. In the past week, Govindaiah said they bonded three separate parents.
The San Antonio, Texas-based organization was started in 1987 as a response to a wave of refugees fleeing civil wars in Central America. It has a staff of more than 100 and provides direct legal services to unaccompanied minors, detailed adults and detained families in federal custody. It closed some 51,000 cases of free legal representation for people throughout Texas last year, according to Govindaiah.
The executive order would end the separation of families but allow for holding them indefinitely in family detention centers, according to Govindaiah. Family detention centers have been in place for quite a few years but really in the past four years, the use of family detention centers really ramped up, he said in a webinar the organization hosted.
“Family detention is not the answer – at all. I think that’s a hard line we stick to; children should not be incarcerated. Children need to be with their parents and families should stick together. It’s absolutely not a workable or viable solution to the administration’s treatment of children,” he said.
Govindaiah questioned whether the executive order will pass muster under the 1987 Flores agreement, which governs the detention and treatment of children in federal custody. Also, the executive order is policy, it’s not law, so “it’s really just the start of another fight.”
Nationally, numbers have dropped but the refugee resettlement program is on pace and likely to surpass its numbers for June, according to RAICES assistant director of outreach, Barbara Pena.
“It all started with the zero tolerance policy the administration announced,” prosecuting people with criminal charges as a way to try to justify separating families, RAICES Associate Executive Director Justin Tullius said during a Facebook Live broadcast. The problem with the executive order is that it will keep families together but keep them detained, he said, describing it as a way to “criminalize asylum seekers” and continue to prosecute parents.
He sees no end to the zero tolerance policy under the executive order and the concern now is “the entire family gets lost.” The EO also calls for the Department of Defense (DoD) to use existing facilities to detain families. “It’s hard enough to find someone in regular immigration detention facility,” he said.
RAICES hopes to use the influx of donations to centralize data management and help like-minded organizations manage parents and children who have been separated, locate parents of children, and refer parents and children to pro bono counsel, according to Govindaiah. There’s been overwhelming interest in volunteering and providing support of whatever means regardless of expertise, he said, but one thing nonprofits don’t have a lot of capacity to do is manage, train and supervise volunteers or oversee logistics.
The organization already has started recruiting and hiring staff, with help of another nonprofit, Rising Together, to increase internal capacity to help take on more cases. It’s also strategizing on how to use the donations most effectively, not just in the short term but also long-term planning. It recently produced a series of podcasts featuring asylum seeking family and a refugee family.