HHS Plans to Strip Vital Programs of Funding to Hold More Immigrant Children in Custody

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehend undocumented immigrants in Campo, CA, March 2006.

According to recent reports, the Trump administration plans to reallocate $266 million away from critical public programs to help cover the growing cost of keeping more than 13,300 unaccompanied or separated immigrant children in government custody. Funding intended to support early childhood education, cancer research, maternal and child health services, and health care for uninsured people living with HIV/AIDS will be used instead to pay for the prolonged federal custody of immigrant children.

The need for additional funding is not the result of a sudden surge of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Rather, it is the direct and inevitable consequence of Trump administration policies that have stalled the transfer of immigrant children into the custody of appropriate adult sponsors. The administration, for example, began sharing the names of potential adult sponsors for children with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and required that ICE identify the immigration status of all sponsors. Because of this policy change, potential sponsors—many of whom are undocumented or live with others who are undocumented—are fearful that coming forward to take custody of children will result in their arrest. Last year, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) Director Scott Lloyd also decided that no child held in a secure custodial setting could be released without his personal approval. A federal court only recently enjoined that policy.

Together with the decision to separate families and render thousands of children unaccompanied—several hundreds of whom remain in ORR custody—these policy decisions explain why increasing numbers of immigrant children are being held for longer periods of time and released at slower rates than in recent years. In fact, an immigrant child’s average stay in custody is currently 59 days, compared with 48 days in 2017.

The administration has made it more difficult for immigrant children to be released from government custody

Facilitating the safe and timely release of immigrant children from government custody has historically been a key priority of ORR. A child in ORR custody can be placed into the care of an adult sponsor in the United States—a parent, family member, or other trusted adult that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) deems capable of providing for the child’s physical and mental well-being. Previously, HHS would vet potential sponsors with the child’s best interest in mind and would not consider a sponsor’s immigration status when determining whether or not they were fit to care for the child.

In April, however, the Trump administration established a new information-sharing agreement that calls upon ICE to vet adult sponsors and other adults living in a sponsor’s household by taking their fingerprints and providing to HHS their immigration status, name, date of birth, and other personal history. This new requirement has had a chilling effect on potential sponsors who are undocumented or live with someone who is undocumented because it could expose them to the fear of arrest. This fear is not unfounded: At a recent congressional hearing, a senior ICE official revealed that since the start of this information-sharing agreement, ICE has arrested 41 undocumented adults who came forward to take in immigrant children. Moreover, as the former head of ORR observed when criticizing the new policy, it was not hard to predict that families would be afraid to come forward, and children would remain in government custody for longer periods of time as a result.

What’s more, ORR Director Lloyd directly interfered with the release of children from more secure facilities by requiring that only he be permitted to sign off on each child’s release. Until a federal court blocked that policy, Lloyd was very slow to exercise this authority, which contributed to the increased numbers of children in government custody.

Rather than prioritize the release of immigrant children into the custody of caring adults, the Trump administration has turned the process of screening sponsors into a mechanism for immigration enforcement. This represents a clear shift in priorities—from child welfare to immigration enforcement—and is coming at the expense of important public programs.

The administration is taking money allocated to other programs to pay for keeping children in ORR custody

With more immigrant children spending longer periods of time in ORR custody, the government has scrambled to find additional bed space, often at tremendous taxpayer expense. HHS recently announced plans to more than triple the capacity of an emergency tent facility in Tornillo, Texas, and to keep the facility open for longer than originally planned. Beds in the Tornillo facility are nearly three times more expensive than beds in an average shelter, costing about $750 per person per night.*

In order to fund these exorbitant and entirely avoidable expenses, the administration recently decided to reallocate $266 million from critical health, education, and research programs. The funds will be taken from Head Start, the National Cancer Institute, the Ryan White HIV/AIDS program, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Medicare and Medicaid, maternal and child health programs, and the National Institutes of Health—all effective and positive programs that benefit the American public. This is not the first time the Trump administration has taken money from other programs to offset the costs of its increasing reliance on government custody of immigrant children and adults. In fact, this reallocation of HHS funds comes on the heels of a separate U.S. Department of Homeland Security reprogramming of tens of millions of dollars from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, airport security, and Coast Guard to fund immigration detention, including the detention of children with their parents.

Spending additional time in government custody puts immigrant children at risk

Information that has surfaced about the conditions and treatment that children endure in government-sponsored shelters is cause for concern. Reports of prison-like conditions, severe physical and psychological abuse at the hands of guards, dangerous health code violations, and even the forcible drugging of children have raised serious questions about how children are treated in ORR facilities.

And while ORR is still the agency best-suited to care for unaccompanied children, experts and advocates agree that the conditions of detention can be detrimental to children’s mental and physical health and well-being. Spending prolonged time in ORR custody exposes immigrant children to increased risk of assault and abuse, and evidence suggests that the longer children remain in residential youth facilities, the more likely they are to experience violence while in custody. Many immigrant children have fled dangerous situations, been separated from their parents due to President Trump’s family separation policy, or endured other forms of trauma upon entering ORR facilities, making them even more vulnerable to the consequences of detention.

Conclusion

Rescinding funding for programs whose exclusive missions are to promote health and well-being among vulnerable populations for the sake of prolonging the detention of immigrant children speaks volumes about where this administration’s priorities lie. Time and time again, the Trump administration has demonstrated that the well-being of children—particularly immigrant children and children of color—is not on its agenda. Congress should take steps to restrict the administration’s abuse of its transfer authority to ensure that critical programs that Congress has chosen to fund are not starved of support to feed out-of-control spending on the inhumane and prolonged detention of immigrant children and families.

Leila Schochet is the research and advocacy manager for Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Tom Jawetz is the vice president for Immigration Policy at the Center.

*Authors’ note: Authors’ calculation of a regular shelter bed is based on Administration for Children and Families, Justification of Estimates for Appropriations Committees, (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2018), available at https://www.acf.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/olab/acf_master_cj_acf_final_3_19_0.pdf.