If the Trump administration succeeds with its latest attack on immigrants, the Office of Refugee Resettlement will cut English, math, science and reading classes, along with outdoor activities such as soccer and basketball, for 13,000 minors.
But those activities are not optional: By law, ORR must care for traumatized children and support their development, not jail them. The administration’s proposal is cruel, lawless and inconsistent with research on the needs of young people — much of which has been funded by the very same agency that is already starting to eliminate these activities.
I know how critical education and recreation are for traumatized children. For eight years, I was the assistant secretary for the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the Clinton administration — the Department of Health and Human Services agency that oversees ORR. And in the years following that role, I was the director of the District of Columbia Child and Family Services Agency, responsible for meeting the needs of children whose families were unable to support their health, education and well-being.
Children need care and protection
I can’t think of any good faith rationale why an agency charged with supporting children would cut the education and outdoor activities that research proves are important to their development. In fact, a big reason ORR cares for unaccompanied children today is that Congress believed it would be more responsive to children than immigration authorities would be.
The majority of children in ORR custody are ages 13-17 and have experienced great trauma in their home countries and often on their journey here. ORR’s treatment of these children upholds the fundamental principle — reflected in international, federal and state laws — that children need special protections that support their development, regardless of their circumstance of arrival.
In 1997, when the former Immigration and Naturalization Service still cared for children, the Flores settlement compelled the federal government to hold children in the least restrictive setting possible, preferably with family members. In 2002, the Homeland Security Act transferred the care of unaccompanied children from the former INS to ORR.
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In 2008, the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act further codified and expanded protections for unaccompanied children. Because of these changes, the government began to prioritize children’s best interests, with minors transferred to ORR within 72 hours and then placed with sponsors (often parents or relatives already in the United States) or into ORR-funded facilities.
Administration officials, who have tried to overturn the Flores settlement, claim they are suspending educational and recreational activities due to insufficient resources — but that’s a crisis of their own making. Trump administration policies and practices (including threatening family members with deportation if they came forward to offer a home to a child) mean fewer children getting timely placements with family sponsors.
Kids are pawns in dangerous political game
That is contrary to what children need, as I know from our experience in child welfare settings, where law, research and practice confirm that children benefit from families. It’s inexcusable to use policies that create overcrowded institutions as a rationale for making those institutions even worse.
The Department of Homeland Security has since scaled back policies that sharply expanded the number of children in ORR facilities — and Congress has since restricted DHS from using information about family sponsors to conduct immigration enforcement activities. But as Congress and the administration argue over restrictions on DHS funding that would preclude the most egregious enforcement actions, the administration is using children as pawns in a dangerous political game.
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Both HHS and Congress should fix this misguided proposal immediately. ACF and ORR should honor their mission to protect vulnerable children, restore educational and recreational programming, and stop undermining protections for unaccompanied children. Congress should hold the administration accountable for treating children as children and promoting their development, as the law requires, rather than jailing them. Congress must also ensure that funds can’t be used on expanded enforcement actions, including harmful measures that subject children to prolonged detention and harm their family members.
Olivia Golden, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, was assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 1993 to 2001. Follow her on Twitter @CLASPOlivia