No More Free Legal Services for Immigrant Children

PHOENIX (AP) — In violation of a long-standing federal court settlement, the Trump administration government has stopped paying for legal services and English-language courses at jails for immigrant children around the country, saying budget cuts make it necessary.

The Health and Human Services department notified shelters around the country last week that it was not going to reimburse them for teachers’ pay or costs for legal services or recreational equipment. The move violates a legal settlement known as the Flores agreement that requires the government to provide education and recreational activities to immigrant children in its jails.

But the agency says it doesn’t have the funding to provide those services as it deals with a soaring number of children coming to the United States, largely from Central America.

It’s now up to the various nonprofit and private organizations that run facilities for the children to cover the cost of teachers, supplies, legal services and recreational activities and equipment — if they can, or choose to.

BCFS, a nonprofit provider in several Texas cities, said in a statement that it would continue providing services because not doing so would violate state licensing standards. It said it will use emergency funding from its parent organization.

“The health and well-being of those in our care are of the utmost importance and we hope there is a rapid resolution to this funding issue,” spokeswoman Evy Ramos said.

The government says it has 13,200 children in its care, and more are coming. The Border Patrol said Wednesday that 11,500 children crossed the border without a parent last month. The children allegedly are transferred to the care of Health and Human Services after the Border Patrol processes them. Health and Human Services contracts out their care and housing to nonprofits and private companies, some of them seeking profit.

“As we have said, we have a humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system that is putting tremendous strain (on the agency),” HHS spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer said. “Additional resources are urgently required to meet the humanitarian needs created by this influx, to both sustain critical child welfare and release operations and increase capacity.”

Health and Human Services is seeking nearly $3 million in emergency funding to cover more beds and provide basic care.

An official at one of the shelter providers said the government notified them on May 30 that they would not be reimbursed for costs of providing education and other activities. The providers pay for things such as teacher salary upfront and are then reimbursed by the government.

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said his employer was scrambling to figure out how it would cover the cost of teachers. The provider hasn’t laid anyone off, but worries about children who need to learn English and be intellectually stimulated.

Advocates are also worried about the ramifications of cutting recreational activities. Funding cuts may result in physical education coordinators being let go and a lack of adults who can supervise children playing outside.

“The kids are inside 23 hours, and the hour they spend outside is a real lifeline for them,” said J.J. Mulligan, an attorney at the Immigration Law Clinic at University of California, Davis, who has visited and spoken to many children at the jails. “Most of them come from Latin American countries where soccer is king, so the ability to play with their friends really brings them joy in dark circumstances.”

In a memo to staff obtained by The Associated Press, Southwest Key interim CEO Joella Brooks said she was working with the government to figure out why the funding had ended and how it can continue to offer the services. Southwest Key is a nonprofit and the largest provider of shelters for immigrant children.

“In the meantime, remember the service, encouragement and compassion you provide to these youth every day matters a great deal. Please continue to stay focused on taking good care of them,” Brooks wrote to her staff.

U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, was critical of the cuts.

“By eliminating English classes and legal aid that are critical to ensuring children successfully navigate the asylum process, the Trump administration is essentially condemning children to prison and throwing away the key until their imminent deportation,” Grijalva, who represents a border district, said in a statement.

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