As nearly 57,000 unaccompanied minors flood the U.S.-Mexico border and D.C. stalls over Obama’s request for supplemental funding, states are grappling with exactly how to respond to a mounting crisis.
Washington state’s extensive network of refugee and legal agencies make us an ideal place to house some of those minors, who are known by the unsightly acronym “UAC,” short for “Unaccompanied Alien Children” on official documents.
Preparations are underway for local organizations to provide support for the 600 minors who may arrive in coming weeks. Joint Base Lewis-McChord has been approved as a housing site, though the transfer has yet to be confirmed.
As of last week, longstanding programs established for the many refugees we already have under our care are facing devastating funding cuts, as the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) scrambles to accommodate an unprecedented number of minors. The issue has been building for over ten years.
Locally, the International Counseling and Community Service program at Lutheran Community Services, Jewish Family Service’s Refugee and Immigrant Service Center (RISC), and Asian Counseling and Referral Service all recently lost contracts with the ORR. The funding had supported programs to help transition refugees into a successful life in America.
Programs include language classes, employment support, interview skills, child care, and help obtaining citizenship and green cards. Most refugees get government support for basic needs for just three months after arrival in the U.S., so these transitional services are the bread and butter for sustaining long-term adjustment.
Margaret Hinson, director of refugee services at RISC, says that the programs that lost funding are crucial for refugee employability.
“We’re going to do what we can, and hope that the money will be reinstated,” said Hinson, who says that the agency is settling more and more refugees every year.
“We’re really going to feel the impact.”
ACRS and the International Counseling and Community Service program, which lost its Washington state contract last week, exist to fill in gaps for mental health issues for refugees, many of whom are victims of torture.
Magically moving money from one pot in order to fill another seems to be a habit for politicians in Washington, D.C., but not everyone agrees it’s the best course of action. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, is firmly opposed to the cuts, having recently visited refugee centers like the ones at JFS.
Calling the cuts a “terrible situation,” his office released a statement expressing support for Obama’s $3.7 billion request for supplemental funds, about a third of which would be used to reinstate the lost services, in addition to providing legal aid and other support to minors at the border. Ironically, champions of the bill are calling the bluff of a 2008 bipartisan piece of legislation signed under former President George W. Bush which established protection for minors fleeing trafficking or violence in their home countries.
“It is the exact wrong approach to say that we should respond to this humanitarian crisis by weakening that 2008 law,” said Rep. Smith in his July 18th statement.
Despite deep cuts to their programs, refugee organizations are on the same page — they support the kids at the border.
“I’ve read reports that two thirds of the children interviewed have persecution stories…it’s a pretty broad consensus we should be supporting these kids and not making it a choice,” said Hinson. “They should be given due process.”
Many agree that the proposed approach of speeding up deportations and altering the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, is simply un-American.
Matt Adams, legal director at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), explains that many of the minors are placed in deportation hearings without attorneys, even though they have to face attorneys from the Department of Homeland Security in a complex, adversarial process. This is standard practice in immigration courts.
“There’s no way you can say these kids are being given a fair hearing if they don’t have legal representation,” said Adams. Should minors be transferred to Washington, NWIRP will be ready to mobilize lawyers to help with the legal side of things, though they will be outnumbered by demand.
With refugees coming mostly from poor towns in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, the crisis has been on the radar screens of refugee advocates since 2012, when the surge of minors began (our own Sarah Stuteville covered it last month). Driven out by a grisly combination of fear of violence, trafficking, and gangs, the issue is rooted in an international crisis, not local immigration policy.
On a national scale, the crisis has been rolled into larger, hot-button partisan issues of immigration where tensions run high, distracting from the matter at hand.
“It’s totally separate,” remarked Hinson, “these programs that are completely humanitarian should be nonpartisan, and are being used as a part of the political game to get other things passed.”
She’s hopeful that the bill will pass, and they can try to return to business-as-usual in the coming weeks.
“We’re holding our breath.”
Washingtonians have spoken. Over the weekend, supporters of the minors rallied outside the Mexican consulate to protest anti-immigration sentiments. OneAmerica announced the hire of a new temporary staffer on the issue, and sent a letter to Washington’s Congressional District Monday urging humane treatment of unaccompanied minors. The letter was signed by 100 local service providers, faith and advocacy organizations. Leaders urge community members to sign petitions and reach out to representatives to support the passing of Obama’s supplemental funding request.
At the end of the day, “this is about kids,” said Hinson. “They are under 18… the average age is 13. I can’t imagine that the American people would not support policy that gives protection to these kids.”
We’re holding our breath, too.