About a month after asking states for help finding temporary shelter for undocumented child migrants—sparking much handwringing over the issue—the federal government now says it no longer needs the help.
In a Tuesday afternoon letter, a federal Health and Human Services official thanked Massachusetts for its offer of assistance, writing that “HHS is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at this time,” due to a decline in the number of unaccompanied children apprehended by and in the custody of Customs and Border Protection.
“Thank you for your offer of two Massachusetts facilities to assist with the humanitarian response to unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border,” HHS Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs Principal Deputy Director Emily Barson wrote in the letter. “Your compassion and willingness to help are greatly appreciated.” Standard shelters, she writes, are much cheaper than temporary ones.
The issue percolated to the top of the national conversation over the past few weeks, as most of the nation’s governors were asked to weigh in. A handful wrote angry letters to the administration complaining of a lack of transparency and insecure border and many sought to balance similar criticism of border policy with compassion for the children. Only a few said they were actively exploring options and only Massachusetts made the offer of a large-scale facility.
Gov. Deval Patrick (D), who emotionally cited scripture in announcing that offer last month, said in a statement this week that he was “deeply moved by the outpouring of support” from across the state.
“Once again the people of Massachusetts have displayed great generosity and compassion,” he said. “It appears that there is not a need for Massachusetts to serve these children at this time, but I am proud of our willingness to do so.”
HHS had earlier announced it was suspending operations at three temporary shelters opened this summer on military bases in Texas (Joint Base San Antonio Lackland), California (Naval Base Ventura County-Port Hueneme) and Oklahoma (Fort Sill).
In her letter, Barson notes early signs of progress along the Southwest border since the start of July. Because it is too early to tell if the slowdown will last, HHS will continue processing the children through a combination of standard and surge-capacity shelters.
At least 30,000 children have been temporarily released to sponsors or relatives as they await processing, many of them from Central American countries. The numbers of crossings have surged in recent years and the administration has suggested that rumors of immigration reform—which has failed to materialize—may have helped fuel the recent swell, charted below.
The countries are also home to weak economies and high crime. Honduras, one of the main sources of undocumented migrant children, is the world’s murder capital. The United Nations last month documented the fears of children and families from such countries in a report, which includes several first-hand accounts, including the following from one 12-year-old Honduran girl:
In the village where I lived there were a ton of gang members. All they did was bad things, kidnapping people. My mother and grandmother were afraid that something would happen to me. That’s why my mother sent me here. They rape girls and get them pregnant. The gang got five girls pregnant, and there were other girls who disappeared and their families never heard from them again.
Here’s the text of the letter:
Thank you for your offer of two Massachusetts facilities to assist with the humanitarian response to unaccompanied children crossing the southwest border. Your compassion and willingness to help are greatly appreciated.
Since the beginning of July, we have begun to see some initial signs of progress along our Southwest border, although it is too early to tell whether these trends will be sustained over time. The number of unaccompanied children apprehended and in Customs and Border Protection custody has fallen, while the number of children HHS is releasing to appropriate sponsors as their immigration cases proceed has increased. HHS has also proactively expanded capacity to care for children in standard shelters, which are significantly less costly than temporary shelters.
As a result of this progress, HHS is no longer seeking facilities for temporary shelters for unaccompanied children at this time.
As announced earlier, HHS will also be suspending operations at the three temporary shelters on military bases, opened earlier in the summer to handle the large increase in unaccompanied children.
However, the situation at the border remains fluid. Looking forward, there remains substantial uncertainty about future flows of unaccompanied children. In order to balance managing costs with limited available resources while remaining prepared for sudden increases in arrivals, HHS plans to continue caring for unaccompanied children through a combination of standard shelters and surge capacity shelters. In the near-term, the three temporary shelters on military bases could be re-opened for a limited time if the number of children increases significantly. The number of unaccompanied children crossing the border is still too high and thousands of children are still in HHS custody. We will continue to monitor the situation closely in order to make the best decisions about the resources available to take care of the children.
Again, we thank you for your willingness to help.
Principal Deputy Director
Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs
Department of Health and Human Services