There are currently more than 13,000 migrant children housed in over 100 shelters across America, where, as they await a caseworker to pair them with a sponsor, kids attend English classes, receive legal aid, and go outside at least once a day to play on an athletic field.
But on Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that those luxuries would soon be cut: In a statement, the Health and Human Services Department declared that shelters housing migrant youths will “begin scaling back or discontinuing awards for U.A.C. (unaccompanied minor) activities that are not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety, including education services, legal services, and recreation.” HHS said that those funds would be rerouted to “critical” child welfare and additional beds for undocumented migrant children arriving at the southern border — a population that is growing at a critical rate. In May, Border Patrol officers encountered over 144,000 undocumented immigrants on the Mexican border, the largest monthly total in 13 years.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, the division within HHS responsible for young migrants in custody, is legally required to direct funding to essential services, and the “dramatic spike” in unaccompanied minors could mean that ORR will run out of funding in June. To cover costs, the department has asked Congress for $2.9 billion in emergency funding, and announced the cuts of basic programs for minors already within shelters, which the Washington Post first reported after obtaining an email from HHS that notified shelters that the government will not pay for “unallowable” education or recreation costs dating back to May 22.
But a 1997 settlement could determine that this move to slash education and recreation violates federal law. In the settlement agreement of Flores v. Reno, courts determined that the government must release children from custody without unnecessary delays, and that Immigration officials must provide basic necessities while children are in detention. “To those of us whose job it is to promote the health and safety of children, this is a shocking directive,” psychiatrist Amy Cohen told the New York Times. “It violates every tenet of basic child welfare practice and will further harm the medical and psychological health of children fleeing extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in their home countries.”
Detained migrant children spend an average of 48 days in U.S. custody, where they will no longer be able to play soccer or attend English classes if the HHS order holds. “What are you going to do all day?” one shelter employee told the Washington Post. “If you’re not going to have any sort of organized recreation or physical activity, what are you going to do, just let them sit in their rooms?” A 17-year-old from Guatemala who spoke to HuffPost in May put it more directly: “It feels like we are prisoners.”