The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After Trump-era cutbacks and a pandemic, immigrant advocacy groups prepare to meet a rising need

A migrant family sits on the U.S. side after running across the Rio Grande on March 29 in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Even before the pandemic hit immigrant relief organizations — forcing them to cut hours, freeze volunteer programs, move online and scrap for funding as donations dried up — groups that serve newly arrived immigrants were struggling to keep some programs afloat.

Four years of the Trump administration’s immigration policies, depressed refugee admission rates and anxiety among immigrant communities meant fewer people were coming forward to claim unaccompanied minors. It also meant fewer refugees and asylum seekers were being admitted into the United States, and fewer foster families and volunteers were needed.

The infrastructure that keeps such groups afloat were eroding. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, the shutdowns, the online-only everything. For many organizations, it felt like a sucker punch, a blow that hit while they already were down.

More than year into the public health crisis, immigrant-services organizations are ramping up again. Groups that provide social welfare, housing and family reunification services are pushing their programs to expand, recruiting record numbers of foster families to take in unaccompanied children and signaling to the Biden administration that they are willing and able to accommodate more migrants.

“We are all so ready to do more; we want to do more,” said Kristyn Peck, chief executive of Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, an organization that provides resettlement programs for refugees and asylum seekers, as well as foster care for unaccompanied children and teens.

On Monday, President Biden announced that the federal government will raise the cap on how many refugees can be admitted to the United States from the Trump-era limit of 15,000 to more than four times that amount: 62,500.

“It’s all a cycle,” Peck added. Establishing a higher number of migrants allowed to enter the United States “allows us to put the gears and the infrastructure in place to respond to an even higher number.”

For years, that cycle has been working in reverse.

The Trump administration’s decision to turn the flow of refugees and asylum seekers into a trickle meant programs to serve those individuals were getting less funding from government programs and grants.

For some, officials said, it no longer made sense to keep licensed clinicians on staff when the need was low. Volunteer foster families weren’t getting calls for placement.

Then last year, as a highly contagious virus spread, volunteer programs were shuttered. Donors’ galas and other fundraising activities disappeared or were moved to virtual formats — often a less lucrative alternative.

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The demands of clients have shifted, too. Several groups said they were forced to jump-start programs that address issues of food and housing insecurity as immigrant families struggled with lost wages and sick or dying relatives.

Bethany Christian Services, which provides temporary foster homes to children and teens who may require special services — very young children, sibling sets, pregnant teen moms and kids with health conditions or special needs — said it received almost no referrals for the placement of migrant children in its Maryland-based foster program from March through November of last year.

When there is a drop in need, several groups said, programs wither. It puts organizations at a disadvantage when the government reverses course and the need rebounds.

“Because children weren’t coming into care, we were unable to rehire staff, per the government's orders,” said Nathan Bult, Bethany’s senior vice president of public and government affairs. “When kids started to come in again, it was like, ‘Okay, we have to scale up and we can get to about 75 percent,’ but we needed to be at 100 percent yesterday. It’s an ongoing struggle.”

As of April — less than five months later — Bethany Christian Services has placed children in 36 foster homes in the Maryland suburbs.

Officials credit images of desperate families and unaccompanied migrant children who arrive daily at the U.S.-Mexico border for spurring volunteers to reach out.

Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area has for the past three years seen an average of about 169 foster parent inquiries annually.

As the Trump administration limited the number of migrants allowed to enter the United States under refugee and asylum programs, organizations that provide services to those groups made cutbacks. Foster families that previously had hosted children fell out of touch. Some programs were cut.

But this year, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area has received 135 inquiries — nearly four times its typical rate by this point in the year.

At one of the organization’s recent foster family orientations, more than 70 people signed up. Over the past several years, organizers said, the session had topped out around 20.

It’s a trend playing out across the country.

Corazón Arizona, a branch of Faith in Action that provides social services to migrants, said it typically relies on faith communities to spread the word about volunteer and donation opportunities, but people are calling before they get the chance to launch a campaign.

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“They’re just calling to ask how they can help,” said Alicia Contreras, Corazón’s executive director. “Right now versus a few years ago, there is just a new sense of hope and understanding and compassion that we’re seeing.”

Officials at Bethany Christian Services, which offers social services and settlement programs in more than 30 states, said they noticed another finding: The number of family members stepping forward and registering as a sponsor for an unaccompanied minor has increased significantly since the November election.

Family members living in the United States without legal authorization often were afraid to step forward under the Trump administration, said Tawnya Brown, senior vice president of global refugee and immigrant services.

“We had families disappearing on us. We would go for a visit and they just wouldn’t be there. They would call us and say there were some [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids in our neighborhood, so we left,” Brown said. “That broke my heart.”

But now, she said, families are returning to participate in programs and sponsor their relatives.

For these groups, demonstrating that they have the capacity to accommodate greater numbers of migrants is an essential step that several administratorsanticipated couldhelp convince the Biden administration to raise the cap on refugee admissions.

Last year, the Trump administration instituted a record-low cap of 15,000 refugees, a number that has remained in place as the new administration weighed whether and by how much it might alter that number.

After weeks of back-and-forth, the White House announced that the cap on refugees who can be admitted would increase to the administration’s original target, despite weeks of mixed messages.

Immigrant advocacy groups have long advocated for a higher cap, and officials said they are hopeful it will signal an upward trend in the number of refugee admissions.

Biden added that the next fiscal year’s goal will be even higher, at 125,000 refugee admissions.

Refugee cap Biden administration touted — then ditched — is back on table

As of the last week in April, more than 22,100 minors were under the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, according to government data. More are transferred daily from U.S. Customs and Border Protection stations.

According to government data, the Washington metro area receives more unaccompanied minors per capita than anywhere in the country. Other leading destinations include the Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles metro areas — all of which have large Central American communities.

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Organizations that provide temporary foster housing seek to move children out of holding tents and group-style shelters and into single-family homes. As with other groups, Bethany officials said, the number of people signing up to serve as foster families has recently exceeded their expectations.

“Everyone is seeing what’s happening at the border in the media right now,” said Mateo Salazar, a site supervisor for Bethany’s temporary foster care program in Crofton, Md., “so we’re seeing this very fast uptick in interest.”