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Gillibrand urges Congress to limit funds for migrant children shelters, citing "mistreatment"

Mumps outbreak in migrant detention centers

Washington — Citing the "mistreatment" of migrant children in U.S. custody, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democratic presidential candidate, is urging her fellow lawmakers in Congress to limit funding allocated to certain shelters used by the government to house unaccompanied migrant minors. 

In a letter to the top Republican and Democratic appropriators in the Senate, Gillibrand said Congress should restrict funding to facilities overseen by the Office Refugee Resettlement (ORR) — an agency within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) which takes care of unaccompanied migrant children after they are detained by Border Patrol — that are not licensed by the state or fail to meet standards set forth by a court settlement.

"Far too many reports have surfaced of children being abused, and in some instances dying, while under ORR care," Gillibrand said in a statement. "Despite a record amount of children being held in government custody, the Trump Administration has implemented policies that keep children in these facilities for longer than necessary, rather than ensuring they are placed in safe homes right away." 

"This is cruel and heartless, and Congress must hold the Trump administration accountable rather than let it use these children as a negotiating tool," she added.

In her letter, the New York senator cited thousands of sexual abuse allegations reported by children in HHS custody, as well as concerns by immigrant advocates and attorneys that the Trump administration is violating the Flores agreement, a court settlement which bars the government from detaining migrant families and children for more than 20 days and set standards for the care of minors, including educational and legal services. 

Under U.S. law, Border Patrol officers, who are usually the first to encounter migrants near the southern border, are required to transfer unaccompanied migrant children to HHS within 72 hours. The minors are usually in HHS custody until a sponsor can be located. 

Although most of the shelters which house migrant children are subject to inspections by state child welfare authorities, some temporary ones — including the largest one in Homestead, Florida — are not required do undergo inspections since they are located on federal land. 

Gillibrand's proposal would limit funding to emergency facilities like the one at Homestead, which houses thousands of children. HHS has said it is preparing to open a new emergency shelter in south Texas and is inspecting several military bases to potentially house more children.

Migrant children describe life at Homestead shelter

More than 40,000 children have been transferred to HHS custody this year, according to the department, which has warned it is facing an unsustainable "spike" in referrals of migrant minors. There are currently approximately 13,000 children in HHS custody. 

For weeks, lawmakers in both the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-led Senate have been negotiating to accommodate a multi-billion-dollar request by the administration to deal with the months-long surge of migrant families and unaccompanied children coming to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America. As part of the request, HHS is asking for $2.88 billion in emergency funding to increase housing capacity in children shelters, which are overseen by the government but operated by private contractors.

Earlier this month, citing a "tremendous strain" on the agency fueled by the unprecedented flow of migration from Central America, the department moved to shut down all educational, recreational and legal services offered to migrant children in U.S. custody. The move is expected to end legal assistance, ESL classes, soccer games and other activities provided to migrant children. 

House Democrats have said they are ready to appropriate more funding to the department but only if "proper protections" are in place to ensure migrant children are "well taken care of." They also want the Trump administration to pledge not to take enforcement actions against family members living in the U.S. who try to sponsor these children. 

In her letter, Gillibrand also urged lawmakers to include provisions in any spending bill that would prohibit funding to programs that share information gathered from children in HHS custody — including immigration status information about family members and sponsors — with immigration enforcement agencies within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). 

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