By Elise Viebeck - 06/24/14 06:00 AM EDT
Responsibility for dealing with the massive new flow of illegal immigrant children on the southern border has fallen to a government agency that fumbled ObamaCare’s rollout — the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
The number of children caught crossing the Mexican border without an adult has jumped tenfold and is overwhelming officials charged with caring for them in federal custody.
But a new wave of immigrants from Central America means the workload could soar to 90,000 unaccompanied kids this fiscal year and 127,000 in 2015, advocates told The Hill.
President Obama is asking Congress to more than double the program’s budget with an extra $1.4 billion for shelter, food, clothing and services.
It’s a steep challenge for HHS, which runs the effort as part of its Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“You’ve got a program that is deeply out of sync with the number of kids coming through,” said Wendy Young, president of the advocacy group Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
“The administration wants to both control the number of kids crossing the border and also ensure their protection in custody. It’s a difficult balancing act, and HHS is right at the center.”
The fact that the child immigrant surge must be tackled by the embattled agency still working to implement
ObamaCare has caught Capitol Hill largely off guard.
Immigration was barely mentioned during the recent confirmation hearings for HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell, but custody of child immigrants is her first major challenge at the department.
The issue has become more pressing as the influx of children rises each year, straining resources and stoking debate over immigration laws.
Federal officials and advocates say the surge is a “humanitarian crisis.” Some people crossing the border are ignorant of immigration policy and believe children will get amnesty when they arrive.
Others are asylum seekers, escaping violence in their home countries.
Once apprehended, children are supposed to be in HHS’s custody within 72 hours, a standard advocates say is rarely met.
After that, nearly every child spends an average of a month in one of five mammoth immigration shelters scattered across Texas, Oklahoma, California and Arizona.
HHS noted that it has a total of 100 permanent UAC shelters around the country.
The department provides services, including basic medical care, until it passes the children to relatives who will serve as temporary guardians while their immigration cases are settled.
That transition is a headache for HHS, which is supposed to screen each relative before releasing children to him or her.
House lawmakers are to hold a hearing on the crisis on Tuesday. Others are probing the administration’s response, especially its approach to screening potential guardians for the children.
“The children who have made this journey are alone and vulnerable — facing the threat of murder, kidnapping, rape, sexual slavery and forced labor,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) wrote to HHS last week.
“We ask that you work with us to ensure … your department is mitigating this growing humanitarian crisis,” they wrote.
Other lawmakers have focused on the cost and logistical challenge of housing the children.
“I am deeply concerned with HHS’s lack of transparency and preparation,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) wrote.
“What other [shelter] sites are currently planned? Have any leases been signed? ... What do you anticipate to be the final cost of housing [the children] to taxpayers?”
The Obama administration originally requested $868 million for the unaccompanied minor program this fiscal year, the same level as last year despite a rise in the number of children at the border.
Now, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said the influx could cost the government up to $2 billion, and it’s asking Congress to pay.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted this month to provide $2 billion, but it is unclear whether the GOP-controlled House will follow.
Advocates are urging Congress and Obama to find the money to support the children and families in custody.
“There is a humanitarian emergency right here on our southern border,” said Nancy Langer, interim vice president with the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
“We hope the administration gives it the resources that it requires. To shortchange the needs of these women and children is not a good idea.”
Wendy Young of KIND urged Burwell to focus on the problem before the secretary gets bogged down in other issues at the department.
“The unaccompanied minors program has received modest attention and lived in relative obscurity until now,” Young said. “Now, it’s something that has to be at the top of her agenda.”
--This report was updated at 12:29 p.m.