They warned of “rapidly depleting funds caused by the border surge.” Third-quarter funding is already being withheld in almost all U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
Budgetary constraints mean the HHS has started to defund education services, legal services, and recreation for unaccompanied minors in federal migrant shelters on the ground such activities are “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety.”
Safety of children in federal care is “the primary concern” of both HHS and DHS, Azar and McAleenan said in their letter. As of June 10, over 2,500 unaccompanied children were among the 17,000 people in Customs and Border Protection custody. On May 1 they numbered only about 870. The number of arriving children “greatly exceeds existing HHS capacity.”
Catholic leaders are also concerned about the funding shortfall.
Kathryn Kuennen, associate director of children’s services at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Children and Migration Office, told CNA that the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services serves about 2,000 unaccompanied children per year, though programs could serve more children in coming months. These services work through a national network of licensed unaccompanied refugee minor foster care programs until children in its care are approved for release and reunification with a vetted sponsor in the U.S.
At present these Catholic-run services have not been mandated to cut their budgets.
“We are working within the funding and resources available to cover those expenses,” said Kuennen. “We certainly would be concerned if there is not supplemental funding available.”
Catholic migrant services leaders are confident that their educational programs can continue to cover costs “for a short time,” but they are concerned over long-term funding.
“We are at risk of placing programs in jeopardy with their own state licensing requirements for the children in their care,” Kuennen said June 20.
Melissa Velarde Hastings, a policy advisor to the U.S. bishops, said that the USCCB and its Migrant and Refugee Services have been advocating for Congress to appropriate $2.88 billion for HHS supplemental funding that would ensure funding through the rest of the fiscal year and to provide adequate care for children.
The appropriations process is an important way to ensure better treatment for minors in federal custody or care, especially given concerns about some large-scale facilities which detain undocumented border crossers.
“From our perspective we see these facilities as being an important tool to have available in times when the referral numbers are quite high and it needs the additional capacity,” Hastings told CNA. “However, we are advocating for increased oversight and heightened standards for those facilities.”
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She encouraged those concerned to visit the USCCB’s Justice for Immigrants website at justiceforimmigrants.org.
Kuennen saw a need to ensure adequate bed capacity for children and more child-friendly options for migrants.
“There’s absolutely a need to continue to increase available foster home placements or smaller-scale placements for children so that there are alternatives to some of the large-scale facilities that we see and hear about often,” she told CNA. “We continue to support the work in building up a network that is more safe and appropriate for children.”
Earlier this month the Washington Post reported that HHS funding cuts could violate a federal court settlement and state licensing agreements that require education and recreation for minors in federal custody.
One shelter employee, speaking to the Washington Post on condition of anonymity, said the cuts have worried workers who think the care for children will suffer. The educational classes and sports are crucial for the children’s physical and mental health, the employee said.
Unless criteria are met, the Anti-Deficiency Act requires HHS to reallocate up to $167 million to the unaccompanied children program and away from Refugee Support Services, trafficking victims and survivors of torture.