Ever since 2014, when the number of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border surged, federal officials have struggled to adequately care for them. One of the most controversial practices has been the use of temporary shelters, some on military bases, to house children while they waited to be placed in state-licensed facilities funded by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Officials in both the Obama and Trump administrations have argued for an increase in the number of permanent shelters, where children can live until sponsors for them are located and vetted.
But in the Trump era, advocates have become increasingly wary about plans to expand the shelter network, given the administration’s horrific treatment of migrant children, its assertion of a right to detain children indefinitely, and the chilling effect its immigration policies have had on potential sponsors coming forward. The issue became particularly controversial in the Washington, DC region this summer, when HHS awarded a $20.5 million grant to private contractor Dynamic Service Solutions (DSS) for a new, permanent co-ed shelter housing up to 440 immigrant children ages 12 to 17.
First, the agency tried to locate the facility in Northern Virginia, but was stymied by bipartisan opposition based on issues ranging from not wanting to enable an administration more focused on warehousing children than reuniting them with their families, to concerns about the size of the facility and potential for abuse, to unwarranted fears of communicable diseases. After rebranding the project as ChildrenFirst DC and downsizing the proposal to 200 beds, DSS applied for a license to open the shelter in the Takoma neighborhood of Washington, DC, a sanctuary city.
The reaction was swift. Local advocates opposed the facility on account of its size, which they said would retraumatize children and be ripe for abuse, and also because the contractor is a for-profit company with little to no experience working with children. The contractor’s website says that it was “established to provide exceptional engineering, and staffing services to support critical operations and support innovative technology,” and lists training Iraqis on “electrical transformer maintenance equipment” in its recent news. In 2017 DSS received $8.7 million from HHS for “shelter care for unaccompanied children,” and posted jobs to work with “unaccompanied alien children” in Homestead, Florida, home of an infamous detention center for immigrant children run by another private contractor. (HHS and DSS did not respond to questions about the details this contract or the company’s experience working with children.)
In response to public outcry, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser issued emergency regulations declaring that the City would not provide a license to any facility housing more than 15 people. Most local advocates celebrated the outcome. But others expressed concern that an opportunity was missed to house the children in a city where local NGOs could provide services, monitor the children, and more readily find them sponsors.
As the Trump administration continues to weigh its options in the District, advocates on both sides of this issue are raising a vital question: In the age of Trump, how should the government care for immigrant children who are now alone in the United States?
In the wake of Mayor Bowser’s opposition to the shelter proposal, six former Obama administration officials—current DC residents who had helped run the UC program—wrote a letter urging the mayor to reconsider her position.
The group described the Trump administration’s policies as “appalling, cruel, and inhumane” and wrote that “we are called upon to oppose those policies through any means available.” However, they argued that opposition to the shelter could result in harm to more children, “forcing longer stays in crowded Customs and Border Protection facilities or in massive temporary shelters” that are unlicensed by state or local child welfare agencies—the kinds of facilities, the letter’s authors wrote, that are the source of “many of the disturbing pictures and stories of children being held behind bars without clean clothes, enough food, or even toothbrushes.” At an HHS facility, they argued, the District could use the licensing process “to ensure that any shelters meet the highest child welfare standards for care and safety.”
Local advocates who are opposed to the shelter panned the letter. “I believe the Obama people have their heart in right place,” said Maria Gomez, the founder and chief executive officer of Mary’s Center, which has provided health care, education, and social services to the Latino community in DC for 31 years. “But what they need to be putting their energy into is to stop this nonsense—stop housing children, stop detaining children—protect them, give them refugee status, and put them with their families or people who will care for them.”
Sharon Murphy is cofounder and program director of Mary House, a community-based organization that provides shelter and support services to immigrant and refugee families. (I serve on the board of Mary House.) She too feels that the Obama officials’ position enables an immoral detention system to continue. “Let’s start with the first issue, which is we are arresting children and holding them indefinitely,” said Murphy. “Stop normalizing the incarceration of children. Then we can move away from this capacity-building question to insisting that children 17 and younger be granted temporary political asylum which would make them immediately eligible for social services.”
Advocates also take issue with federal money going to a private contractor. Both Gomez and Murphy feel it would be more prudent, effective, and in the interest of the children for resources to go to an organization such as Catholic Charities that has a proven track record serving children, and that the nonprofit entity could in turn contract with service providers that have experience running smaller family shelters and finding sponsors for the children, including foster families, so the children can live in communities while awaiting their immigration proceedings.
“A private contractor is not going to answer to the District of Columbia,” said Murphy. “It will be accountable only to an administration that recently lost an appeal to deny children soap, toothpaste, and toothbrushes, refuses to provide flu shots, wants to hold children indefinitely, fingerprints families that would take the children and turns those over to ICE, sends kids to adult detention centers for deportation when they turn 18, and now wants to collect immigrants’ DNA.”
Gomez said that the letter also fails to take into account the health impacts of detaining children, which include untreated illnesses, lack of appetite and weight loss, suicidal ideation and chronic depression, and the long-term effects of toxic stress and repeated traumas to cognitive, physical, and mental health. According to the Center for American Progress, “Research has shown that even spending less than two weeks in detention can be detrimental to children’s mental, physical, and emotional health, and development.”
“At the end of the day this is about humanity,” said Gomez. “You are doing such harm to children who will grow up with tremendous scars because no one reached out to give them a hand at the moment that they needed it.”
The Obama administration also faced public opposition in 2014 when it tried to expand the shelter network, said Mark Greenberg, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute who was then the acting assistant secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) which oversees the Unaccompanied Children’s (UC) program. “It was often based on things like, ‘The children will bring disease, they will be in gangs, they will be a burden on the community,’” said Greenberg. “There is opposition now [too], but from very different groups for very different reasons.”
Jeff Hild and Kate Wolff, two of the former Obama administration officials who signed the letter to Mayor Bowser, said that the signatories share many of the concerns of the local advocates, and that an opportunity was missed to address them. They told The Nation that issues such as the size of the facility, children’s having access to legal, educational, health, and other services, and the record of the private contractor all could have been explored during the DC licensure process.
“These questions and more could have been part of this discussion if it hadn’t been just cut off at the start,” said Hild, who served from 2014 to 2017 as chief of staff for ACF. “You could have required any shelter to meet the highest standards of care, and [mandated] services for the children provided by District-based organizations.”
Wolff, who worked on the UC program from 2014 to 2016, agreed. “State licensed shelters are the best option we have available given the current legal framework for unaccompanied kids,” she argued. At the large temporary facilities where most of the horrific treatment is occurring, “There’s nobody who can go in and say, ‘We’re revoking your license because you are not meeting all of these requirements’.” She noted that “seasonal waves” of unaccompanied immigrant children will continue, “So a decision at the local policy level to not even consider having a state-licensed shelter will have ripple effects down the system for the next kids who will be coming from Central America next spring.”
As of September 16, a record 67,000 unaccompanied had arrived in the United States so far this year. Greenberg said when there are sharp increases in the numbers of arriving immigrants, “You just can’t fully accommodate the needs with 24-bed shelters.”
Last week it was reported that HHS has scrapped its effort to build a facility in Virginia. Instead, it will look to open new shelters in Arizona and Texas, and expand an existing one in Texas as well. But the status of the DC proposal remains unclear. (HHS did not respond to a request for comment.)
“It’s unfortunate that there’s been categorical opposition to efforts to expand shelters in communities outside border areas,” said Greenberg. “It’d be better for children and their parents and relatives if children could be placed in shelters closer to where their families are.” He noted that over the past five years, DC, Maryland, and Virginia combined had more unaccompanied children released to sponsors than in any single state, and three of the top 10 counties in the nation with unaccompanied minors released to sponsors were in the Washington metropolitan area.
But to Murphy, the latest news about Virginia is evidence that “the campaign to shut down the incarceration of children—whose only sin is that they fled for their lives—can be successful.” She said, however, that such a campaign can’t be solely about stopping detentions in urban areas where there are the resources and infrastructure to organize opposition.
“It becomes ‘Not in My Backyard’ when those of us who have the capacity to organize now move on to the next thing in front of us,” she said. “We need to mobilize in these other areas—particularly rural areas and areas where there is high unemployment—we need the interfaith community and other NGOs that are watching to respond with numbers and money. And we need to pressure politicians to hold hearings on this, and remind them that while they are in impeachment mode they need to be paying attention to this continuing crisis of normalizing the detention of children.”