Washington prepares for 600 unaccompanied minors from Central America

OneAmerica hosted a youth rally for immigration reform this past spring. Tensions have risen from conflating the unaccompanied minor issue with immigration reform, at large. (Photo courtesy of OneAmerica)

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.

Recently released photos show the crowded detention center where thousands of minors are residing, awaiting hearings or deportation. (Photo courtesy Breitbart Texas / U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar)

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.

A delegation from Jewish Family Service, who are poised to lose funding from the Office of Refugee Resettlement, lobby in Olympia for restoring assistance to refugee families in February. (Photo courtesy Deb Frockt / Jewish Family Service)

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.

Protesters outside the Mexican Consulate last week end in response to anti-immigration sentiments aiming to deport minors to their home countries. (Photo courtesy Freedom Socialist Party)
Protesters outside the Mexican Consulate last week end in response to anti-immigration sentiments aiming to deport minors to their home countries. (Photo courtesy Freedom Socialist Party)

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.


  1. I want to ask the Americans who are bending over backwards to support illegals whether they think we should be using American tax payer dollars and donations to help Americans first?? We have so many problems of our own that it’s unfathomable, yet they want to throw the money into the bottomless hole of illegals arriving on our doorstep. WE ARE NOT SEPARATING FAMILIES!!! They separate their own families when they leave their home countries. They are using violence against the children as an excuse– it’s not worse than it ever was, it’s because Obama and his Democrats are sending the message that no one will be deported, and they know it. This is an administration-made crisis and Obama’s means of slowly amnestying everyone who wants to be here. We are headed for 3rd world status because we cannot sustain this number of uneducated, impoverished people. How many of you non-thinking Americans are just fine and dandy with having half your kids’ classrooms filled with ESL students that your taxes are supporting! Hey! You get to pay for their education while grossly lowering the standards of your own kids’ educations! WAKE UP!!!

  2. We’re holding a fundraiser to purchase 150 backpacks for the children. They will be sent to the Food Bank RGV in Pharr, Texas (this location handles the donation intake for the relief effort). If you’d like to help out, please donate below. $5 buys a backpack and please share. http://www.gofundme.com/bz54zo

  3. The probable location for these children and families on North Fort Lewis is a very poor choice. The former ROTC Summer Camp barracks compound consists of unit wooden barracks built 70 years ago. They are made of wood and the amount of time for one to burn to the ground is 9 minutes. For refugees escaping violence, war, and drug war excess, locating them near the North Fort riffle and pistol ranges and under helicopter flight paths will be a real delight for traumatized minds. Access will be nearly impossible for any groups without DoD authorization. Terrible, terrible, terrible. End Detention, End Deportation. Now.

  4. So where should we place them Timothy Smith…the Five Seasons in downtown Seattle? The Bravern in Bellevue? How about since your so enthusiastic about these undocumented Democrats enriching our shores, you put up five of them. You can shell out for food, healthcare,housing,education,clothing… just around 5 grand a month for the lot. Brother you are being manipulated and lied to by your Marxist SCC professors. They want to replace you with lower IQed 3rd world immigrants who will toil away like unchained slaves for a bowl of rice and a cardboard shack. Your not helping the less fortunate your doing the corporate elites dirty work and destroying your grandchildren’s chance at any kind of a life.

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