From culturally sensitive music to special meals for the lactose intolerant, the organizations the federal government is paying to house and care for the children who have surged across the border illegally are taking pains to make sure they are as comfortable as possible.
Dietitians scrutinize the menus each day to make sure they include enough whole grains but not whole milk. Counselors offer life skills classes in Spanish, and intensive English language training, including use of the Rosetta Stone program. Doctors and dentists treat the children at taxpayers’ expense — often the first medical care of the children’s lives.
The children also are guaranteed phone privileges, including the right to call back to their home countries.
Some facilities go above and beyond. Yolo County, California, which has a grant to house several dozen of the children in its juvenile detention facility, provides an intercom system in each bedroom so children can talk with staff, but the system “also provides the opportunity for youths to listen to music that is sensitive to culture and preference.”
The federal government has been hush-hush about many aspects of housing and caring for the children. It has refused to provide a list of the 100 or so nonfederal facilities where the children are being sheltered.
But documents from the program give a glimpse of the breadth and scope of the effort, which is eating up an ever-larger portion of the Health and Human Services Department’s budget, jumping from $305.9 million last year to $671.3 million so far in fiscal year 2014.
The biggest grants this year are going to Baptist Child & Family Services, which is being paid $280.2 million; Southwest Key Programs Inc., at $122.3 million; and International Educational Services Inc., at $55 million. Translation services and charter airlines also are making millions of dollars from contracts to transport the children around the country, and to help overcome language barriers.
The Washington Times submitted Freedom of Information Act requests early last month seeking copies of the largest grants, but those have yet to be fulfilled.
Nonprofits contacted by The Times said federal officials told them not to answer questions, and to direct all inquiries to HHS.
HHS spokesman Kenneth J. Wolfe told The Times that Congress has ordered the department to keep all information private.
“These policies are based on a number of congressional directives to protect this vulnerable population, including a 2005 House Committee Report urging HHS ‘to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of all information gathered in the course of the care, custody and placement of unaccompanied alien children,’” Mr. Wolfe said. “In addition, the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs HHS’ treatment of unaccompanied children, includes requirements to safeguard records about the children and to preserve the confidentiality of their personal information.”
But public spending databases give a glimpse of many locations, and activists at NumbersUSA, an organization that wants a crackdown on immigration, have culled through the contracts, scrutinized press reports and solicited tips from residents to create a map detailing where children are being housed, sites under consideration and places where the government has had to back off.
The sites are concentrated mainly along the coastal states and southern border, but some are scattered throughout the Upper Midwest.
Rosemary Jenks, government relations manager at NumbersUSA, said the problem isn’t the care the children are receiving, but rather the lack of effort to eventually send them home.
“It is entirely appropriate that we treat these children humanely and give them whatever they need in terms of food and clothing and health care, as long as the goal is to quickly reunite them with their families in their home countries,” she said.
Those living near the facilities often are surprised to learn about them, though the news doesn’t necessarily faze them.
“I had no clue,” said Sylvia Padron, a bookkeeper at the Woodbury Jewish Center, about a five-minute walk from the Mercy First school in Syosset, New York, a posh hamlet on Long Island. “So far, it hasn’t affected us as far as I’m aware of. My attitude is live and let live.”
The Town of Oyster Bay, which includes Syosset, was not part of the $3.6 million federal deal with Mercy First to continue providing residential services to the children this year.
“The town’s jurisdiction in this is nonexistent. There has been very little public comment,” said Marta Kane, a spokeswoman for the town government.
“The amount of children there, we don’t know 100 percent,” she said.
In La Verne, California, the David and Margaret Youth and Family Services touts its shelter services for unaccompanied alien children on its website, along with the center’s programs for drug addiction and mental health services, foster family support and shelter for adolescent girls.
Still, Executive Director Charles C. Rich said that the Obama administration ordered him to direct all inquiries about the unaccompanied alien children to HHS officials. “That’s the instruction that we’ve been given,” he said.
Federal contracting records show that David and Margaret collected more than $3 million this year from HHS to care for the unaccompanied alien children.
La Verne City Manager Bob Russi said city officials were vaguely aware of the children being sheltered at David and Margaret, but local government didn’t have a role to play.
“They don’t have to come through the city for that type [of service] as long as they are within their use,” said Mr. Russi. “They are a separate entity from the city.”
HHS has completed a new round of applications for housing children.
Because of the surge of children, HHS is looking to expand existing locations and find new facilities. That often means braving local opposition.
In Prince William County, which is part of the outer Virginia suburbs of Washington, the Youth for Tomorrow facility has been housing unaccompanied minors for several years. The surge has increased the number of children from two dozen last year to more than 60 as of late May.
The facility’s request for approval to expand created a public backlash. The county Board of Supervisors demanded more information to evaluate whether local taxpayers will end up on the hook for any of the costs.
Meanwhile, the facility hired off-duty police to provide security at the entrance, as a deterrent against the kinds of protests facing some other locations.
Some details can be gleaned from state and local reports. For example, Yolo County’s documents show the experience the facility requires for employees, and the thorough record keeping necessary to keep track of the children for the federal government.
Each child has a progress report that must be started by his or her 10th day in custody and updated every 30 days afterward. The files average 25 pages in length and detail every medical and mental health service, as well as educational testing results.
Yolo County supplied HHS with sample menus, noting that it had the ability to switch out a quiche dish with something more appropriate for a lactose-intolerant detainee, or one with a peanut allergy.
Nearly 63,000 unaccompanied minors were caught on the southwestern border from Oct. 1 through July 31, an increase of 100 percent from the previous fiscal year.
Those from Mexico can be returned to that country quickly, but most of the surge involves children from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Under the Obama administration’s interpretation of U.S. law, those children are required to be processed by Homeland Security and turned over to HHS within 72 hours.
As of earlier this month, 5,500 children were in HHS custody.
HHS officials’ goal is to place the children with relatives in the U.S., whether the families are in the country legally or not, and the facilities end up handling much of that too, including screening the sponsors for any red flags.
Nearly 37,500 children had been transferred from HHS to sponsors from Jan. 1 to July 31, the department said.
HHS makes clear that the minors are considered to be in the legal custody of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, even though they are in the physical custody of the facilities.
“The majority of UAC are expected to stay in ORR custody between 30-35 days, but a UAC’s length of stay with a residential care provider can vary,” HHS said in its work statement soliciting applications.
The government has said the surge is waning, but HHS warned facilities that the numbers could continue to grow: “The size of the entire UAC population in ORR custody will fluctuate depending on the number of UAC the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) apprehends.”
All facilities are required to provide schooling, with a particular emphasis on the English language.
Children are guaranteed the right to wear their own clothes, to have a private place to store belongings, to have guests, to send and receive uncensored mail, and to have phone privileges.
“UAC have the right to make phone calls to family members regardless of the family’s immigration status and includes family members located in the UAC’s country of origin,” HHS said in its work statement.