Fed­eral gov­ern­ment pays $670 a day for ‘com­fort­able’ con­di­tions

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY STEPHEN DINAN

The im­age of two il­le­gal im­mi­grant chil­dren sleep­ing on the floor in a chain-link fence “cage” swept the in­ter­net last week­end, spark­ing mis­di­rected anger from ac­tivists who blamed Pres­i­dent Trump for the con­di­tions — which were ac­tu­ally from 2014, when the photo was taken, un­der Pres­i­dent Obama.

Here is an­other im­age: il­le­gal im­mi­grant chil­dren set up in comfy dor­mi­to­ries, col­or­ing with “mul­ti­cul­tural crayons,” watching their fa­vorite soccer teams from back home on the ex­ten­sive ca­ble sys­tem, even kick­ing the ball around them­selves on a beau­ti­ful new soccer field — all paid for by tax­pay­ers.

There’s “Span­ish lan­guage yoga” for those that want it and trips to go bowl­ing, to visit mu­se­ums and even to hit up the amuse­ment park, at $49 a ticket, also on tax­pay­ers’ tab. The chil­dren chow on three meals a day plus snacks, since fed­eral rules say they must be fed “un­til they are full.”

Both images are ac­cu­rate: two dis­tinct snap­shots of dif­fer­ent parts of the mas­sive U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem that han­dles hundreds of thou­sands of un­ac­com­pa­nied alien chil­dren, or UAC, who have streamed over the bor­der over the past five years, chal­leng­ing first the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and now Mr. Trump.

The chil­dren ini­tially are kept in stark cells at the bor­der, where they are pro­cessed by the agents who catch them. That is what the photos from 2014 show.

The cells were de­signed for a dif­fer­ent era, when nearly all il­le­gal im­mi­grants jump­ing the bor­der were adults, usu­ally from Mex­ico and pre­dom­i­nantly male, held for a few hours while be­ing pro­cessed and quickly sent back. It was so quick that agents would some­times catch the same per­son more than once in a night.

Fast-for­ward to 2013, when the pat­terns be­gan to change, with the flow shift­ing from Mex­i­cans to Cen­tral Amer­i­cans, and from men to fam­i­lies trav­el­ing to­gether, or even chil­dren trav­el­ing alone — the UAC. So far this year, about a third of the peo­ple nabbed by Bor­der Pa­trol agents fell into one of those spe­cial cat­e­gories.

Un­der Amer­i­can law and gov­ern­ment pol­icy, they can­not be quickly shunted back across the bor­der. The chil­dren can spend up to 72 hours in the Bor­der Pa­trol fa­cil­ity, which has meant sleep­ing in a crowded room, with lit­tle but a My­lar blan­ket, in con­di­tions so cold that the mi­grants call the cells “hiel­era,” or ice box.

But un­der rules that have been in place for years, il­le­gal im­mi­grant chil­dren trav­el­ing as part of fam­i­lies are sent ei­ther sent to dorm-style de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties run by U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment or are re­leased out­right, where they usu­ally dis­ap­pear into the shad­ows with the rest of the unau­tho­rized pop­u­la­tion. They are sup­posed to be re­leased within 20 days. If the chil­dren are UAC, mean­ing they jump the bor­der with­out their par­ents or come as a fam­ily but be­come sep­a­rated af­ter their ar­rival, re­lease comes much faster — 72 hours at the max­i­mum, ac­cord­ing to court-man­dated rules.

Then it’s off to a dorm run by so­cial work­ers con­tracted by the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Depart­ment, which pays for the yoga classes, the mul­ti­cul­tural crayons and all the other trap­pings de­signed to ease the UAC into a pos­si­ble life in the U.S.

While the chil­dren are in the dorms, a branch of HHS, the Of­fice of Refugee Ser­vices, is work­ing to place them with spon­sors — usu­ally their par­ents, who more of­ten than not are in the U.S. il­le­gally.

But the gov­ern­ment is in­creas­ingly cre­at­ing un­ac­com­pa­nied chil­dren through the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s “ze­ro­tol­er­ance” pol­icy for peo­ple jump­ing the bor­der. Un­der that pol­icy, an­nounced in April, Home­land Se­cu­rity is sup­posed to re­fer ev­ery new il­le­gal im­mi­grant adult for prose­cu­tion, and U.S. at­tor­neys are sup­posed to bring cases against ev­ery per­son prac­ti­ca­ble.

That means hundreds of par­ents end up in jails and their chil­dren are put into the foster care sys­tem as UAC, farmed out to the dorms and, per­haps later, to spon­sors in the U.S.

For se­cu­rity an­a­lysts, the zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy is an en­dorse­ment of the kind of law-and-or­der ap­proach Mr. Trump promised to bring to im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment. The ef­fects on those en­snared are no dif­fer­ent from those of any­one else who is ac­cused of a crime and sent to prison.

“Op­po­nents of im­mi­gra­tion en­force­ment are try­ing to por­tray im­mi­gra­tion de­ten­tion as some kind of cruel and unusual pun­ish­ment when the pur­pose of it is to be able to en­force the law and give peo­ple their due process,” said Jes­sica Vaughan, pol­icy stud­ies direc­tor at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies.

Op­po­nents, though, spare no ep­i­thets in attacking the pres­i­dent.

“To tar­get chil­dren this way is racism,” said the Rev. Wil­liam J. Bar­ber II, a black pas­tor and co-chair­man of the Poor Peo­ple’s Cam­paign. “What we’re see­ing now, we saw in the days of slav­ery, where chil­dren where sep­a­rated and lost from their fam­i­lies.”

He and other ac­tivists say fam­ily sep­a­ra­tion isn’t just a con­se­quence of zero tol­er­ance but is ac­tu­ally the goal, with Trump of­fi­cials hop­ing to scare would-be mi­grants into for­go­ing the jour­ney.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion says there is a safer av­enue: Show up at bor­der cross­ings and re­quest asy­lum rather than break into the coun­try be­tween the ports of en­try.

Take the mi­grant car­a­van that dom­i­nated head­lines in March and April.

More than 330 mi­grants who came as part of the car­a­van showed up at the of­fi­cial en­try points, were pro­cessed and al­lowed to make asy­lum claims, and nearly all of them have been granted ini­tial en­try into the U.S. By con­trast, 122 tried to jump the bor­der and were ar­rested. Many of them face crim­i­nal charges and jail time.

Ex­act counts of who falls into which cat­e­gory are dif­fi­cult to come by. The New York Times re­ported this year on more than 700 chil­dren sep­a­rated from adults at the bor­der ei­ther be­cause of safety con­cerns or, in a cou­ple of hun­dred cases, be­cause the adults weren’t even re­lated to the chil­dren.

Then nearly 1,500 chil­dren are placed with spon­sors whom the gov­ern­ment was un­able to track down last year.

Trump crit­ics said the gov­ern­ment “lost” those chil­dren.

“If we had lost 1,700 or 1,500 Euro­pean chil­dren or Cana­di­ans from that side, there would be a tremen­dous up­roar,” said Mr. Bar­bar.

Dur­ing a conference call spon­sored by im­mi­grant rights ac­tivists on Wed­nes­day, the pas­tor ac­cused Mr. Trump of racism.

But an­other speaker on the call con­tra­dicted that sen­ti­ment, say­ing the chil­dren aren’t lost, but their spon­sors were just un­able to be con­tacted at one point when the gov­ern­ment reached out to do a check-in.

Still, the crit­i­cism ap­pears to have struck a nerve with Mr. Trump, who took to Twit­ter over the week­end to lament chil­dren sep­a­rated from fam­i­lies. He blamed a “hor­ri­ble law” he said was re­spon­si­ble and urged Democrats to change it.

His aides said that shouldn’t be read as crit­i­cism of the zero-tol­er­ance pol­icy his ad­min­is­tra­tion is pur­su­ing, nor should he be blamed for fam­i­lies that are sep­a­rated.

“This wasn’t a pol­icy that was created un­der this ad­min­is­tra­tion. But un­like pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tions, we ac­tu­ally en­force the law,” she said. “We ac­tu­ally think the law means some­thing, and we’re en­forc­ing it. But the pres­i­dent wants to see that change be­cause he wants these loop­holes closed.”

While the two sides ar­gue over meth­ods and mo­tives, it’s tax­pay­ers who are shelling out to cover the costs.

HHS paid more than $1.4 bil­lion last year to ac­com­mo­date nearly 41,000 UAC in its shel­ters. They stayed an av­er­age of 41 days, which means tax­pay­ers paid about $670 a day for each child. The cost of holding some­one in a fed­eral prison — a com­par­i­son some im­mi­gra­tion ac­tivists make to the UAC sit­u­a­tion — is just $85 a day.

The causes of the higher costs for the chil­dren be­come clear from an ex­am­i­na­tion of the con­tract doc­u­ments de­scrib­ing UAC dor­mi­to­ries.

The Wash­ing­ton Times sub­mit­ted open-records re­quests in 2014 for the doc­u­ments, when the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was first grap­pling with a surge of UAC. The records were pro­vided in March.

The doc­u­ments de­scribed con­di­tions at fa­cil­i­ties run by two of the biggest shel­ter providers, South­west Key Pro­gram Inc. and BCFS Health and Hu­man Ser­vices.

South­west Key touted its pro­vi­sion of “mul­ti­cul­tural crayons,” new sets of clothes for each mi­grant, gym equip­ment and reg­u­lar field trips to get away from the dorm — activities in­clud­ing movie nights, swim­ming and bowl­ing.

BCFS, mean­while, was ef­fu­sive in de­scrib­ing the steps it takes to help the il­le­gal im­mi­grant chil­dren be pre­pared for per­ma­nent life in the U.S. while mak­ing sure they also re­main con­nected to their homes through spe­cial foods, cel­e­bra­tion of their cul­tural hol­i­days and that ro­bust ca­ble tele­vi­sion pack­age to make sure they don’t miss out on their shows.

“On-site recre­ation may in­clude: soccer tour­na­ments; movie night; play­ing games on the Wii; bingo and board games; bas­ket­ball and vol­ley­ball tour­na­ments; and Span­ish lan­guage yoga. Dur­ing the sum­mer chil­dren en­gage in wa­ter-based activities such as swim­ming, fish­ing, and play­ing in the sprin­klers,” BCFS said in the doc­u­ments.

They can call back home a cou­ple of times a week, they get com­pre­hen­sive health care, and un­der gov­ern­ment rules, the chil­dren are guar­an­teed three meals a day, plus two snacks.

BCFS didn’t re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment. South­west Key re­ferred ques­tions about its poli­cies back to HHS.

HHS pointed back to a state­ment from Deputy Health Sec­re­tary Eric Har­gan, who backed the White House in blam­ing mis­guided Amer­i­can poli­cies for en­tic­ing UAC and fam­i­lies to try to jump the bor­der.

“Un­til these laws are fixed, the Amer­i­can tax­payer is pay­ing the bill for costly pro­grams that ag­gra­vate the prob­lem and put chil­dren in danger­ous sit­u­a­tions,” Mr. Har­gan said.


For­eign chil­dren re­ceive ba­sic in­tro­duc­tions in English. U.S. schools have been deal­ing with the fall­out from dra­matic waves in chil­dren and teenagers who cross into the United States un­ac­com­pa­nied by fam­ily. The Supreme Court has ruled that the U.S. has an obli­ga­tion to ed­u­cate all stu­dents re­gard­less of im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

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