Refuge for migrant children could benefit from El Paso expertise
As the Biden administration works to improve conditions at its emergency shelters for migrant children, El Paso MP urges the federal government to work with local organizations that have expertise in helping immigrants and children’s services.
Visit of the American representative Veronica Escobar (D-El Paso) an “emergency reception” site on Fort Bliss this week, where the federal Department of Health and Human Services is currently housing over 4,000 children who have crossed the border without a parent or legal guardian.
She said she found aspects of the operation – the size of her tent dormitories, the number of contractors on site, the slowness of case management – “unacceptable” and “deeply alarming”.
“We have a community which has very experienced NGOs and a strong network of social services and a group of organizations,” she said. “I asked (the Biden administration) to participate in a roundtable with our local stakeholders and experts for a community consultation. Obviously, what is happening now is clearly insufficient. And we should be prepared to take whatever help we can get. ”
Children have crossed the US-Mexico border by the thousands in recent months, traveling without a parent or guardian, and seeking refuge or an opportunity to reunite with family members in the United States.
The Department of Health and Human Services is responsible for the care of unaccompanied children, but the agency’s network of state-approved shelters has been unable to accommodate the number of children arriving.
The Biden administration quickly set up thousands of beds in “emergency reception” sites, including one at Fort Bliss. Escobar, children’s advocates and some workers say they are very concerned about the conditions in emergency facilities.
Marisa Limón Garza, deputy director of the non-profit Hope Border Institute in El Paso, said the roundtable was a good idea, but the federal government shouldn’t stop there.
“We absolutely have to have connections and commitment,” she said. “This is essential. We insist to the Biden administration in particular that local NGOs and humanitarian organizations are critical infrastructure and should not be seen as a last resort.”
The government should engage directly with border communities on immigration policy issues and meeting the needs of migrants, she said.
El Paso is home to five permanent shelters approved by the State for unaccompanied minors managed by non-profit and for-profit companies under HHS grants.
These facilities operate under strict regulations required for licensing by the State of Texas. Historically, there has been little collaboration between nonprofit and faith-based organizations in the region and state-approved shelters for unaccompanied minors.
For better or worse, “emergency care” sites are not subject to the same regulations. The Fort Bliss site was opened on March 30 at the sprawling El Paso military base, where the federal government has plenty of room and regulatory leeway to operate the shelter.
Ruben Garcia, of the House of the Annunciation, said he responded to calls from the Biden administration earlier this year to ask if the non-profit migrant shelter organization had the capacity to host minors.
Annunciation House focuses on migrant families and adults, he told the administration, and is not authorized by the state to care for refugee minors traveling alone. But, he said, there are other organizations – especially in the religious community – that could.
“It’s part of what the Biden administration is facing: the expectations of how we want unaccompanied children to be treated are pretty high,” he said. “And they should be high.”
Annunciation House has taken in several unaccompanied children who quickly ‘aged’ from the HHS system and the Fort Bliss emergency site after turning 18.
“They can’t keep you in an institution” once you’re an adult, he said. “Under Trump, the odds would have been very, very high that they’d at least kicked you out under Title 42. Now Biden won’t allow that.”
In recent years, the Catholic Dioceses of El Paso and Las Cruces have quickly set up shelters for migrant families and adults when the number of people arriving has exceeded the government’s capacity to accommodate them. Community organizations in Deming and Albuquerque also stepped in to create a shelter.
“Two years ago, when we really had the big wave, we had a albergue, a refuge, at the pastoral center, “said Fernando Ceniceros, communications director of the Diocese of El Paso.” We have already made temporary shelters, not for unaccompanied minors, but for adults and families. “
The HHS has a codified responsibility for caring for unaccompanied minors, who have been identified by Congress as an exceptionally vulnerable group in need of protection.
But in the face of “emergency” conditions, local organizations may have a role to play, Escobar said.
Escobar said she shared her suggestion for increased collaboration with local stakeholders with HHS Sec. Xavier Becerra during a visit to the Fort Bliss “emergency catch” site on May 23.
“Because this is an emergency reception facility, we have the ability to tap into the resources and support of the community,” she said, adding that by “resources”, it means “intelligence, suggestions, connections, possibly subcontracting”.
“Over the past week we have spent a lot of time on this issue,” she said.
Lauren Villagran can be contacted at [email protected]