TIME Immigration

A Mayor’s Advice on the Unaccompanied-Minor Crisis

U.S. Agents Take Undocumented Immigrants Into Custody Near Tex-Mex Border
An undocumented immigrant awaits transportation to a processing center after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents some 60 miles north of the U.S. Mexico border near Falfurrias, Texas on July 23, 2014. John Moore—Getty Images

Education is a basic need

My town, Riverdale Park, Maryland, has grappled with unaccompanied minors arriving from Central America for years. I’ve been the mayor for the last nine, and for even longer, I’ve been an educator in our local school system with a very large immigrant population. Riverdale Park is one-third first-generation immigrant, mostly from Latin America.

The first step toward grappling with new arrivals is to recognize them as neighbors—both as residents and from countries that are now neighbors as well. I know this sounds simple, but until it becomes a reality no real improvement is likely. Neighbors work together and help each other cope with common problems.

As I came to accept the Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Mexican ex-patriots living around me as neighbors, I discovered new partners in addressing the many problems that we, as neighbors, all needed addressing. An influx of de-facto orphans is no different; the only way to constructively deal with the problem will mean real engagement with the broader community of immigrants—the families or sympathetic members of the same ethnic group must be part of the solution.

Modern technology and rapid transportation obliterate distance, and create what I call the “worm hole” effect. Even relatively poor immigrants in my town are able to maintain close and regularly reinforced connections to their lands of origin. Riverdale Park has a worm hole leading to the Mexican state of Puebla, El Salvador and Guatemala. If I were to ignore that tunnel when addressing the issues of my community, I would be doomed to much needless frustration and much avoidable difficulty.

Because of the “worm hole” I know my community will get some of the influx of minors above and beyond the flow that we always see. The kids with family here will naturally end up here for a time anyway, and sympathy for the orphaned will mean the children of distant relatives or friends from the old country are going to naturally draw them here.

As the kids arrive in my region, Riverdale Park is working to ease the situation and cooperate with Governor Martin O’Malley’s placement priority for them—first with family, second with foster care, and lastly in congregated housing. Area churches are always part of the first line of assistance for those in need and I’m lucky to have great partners in helping with basics like clothing, food, hygiene and school supplies. We also are blessed to have several great organizations that focus their efforts on immigrant kids and their specific needs for things like English acquisition and constructive after-school activities. I also put my neighbors in the immigrant community on alert and seek regular updates on how this looks from the street level–for example finding and working with the kids who got through on their own and aren’t identified by the system.

For the young immigrants, whether they are here only a short time or permanently, a basic concern is education. Regardless of whether kids’ destinies are in the United States or a Central American country they need an education to be a productive member of society. In the schools in my area, we have increasingly adapted to teaching students who are in the process of learning English, while speaking another language at home. Systems have traditionally viewed this as a problem, but we see being truly bilingual as an asset and mark of a quality education. Clearly though local jurisdictions need the state and federal governments to insure that no local jurisdiction is overwhelmed beyond their ability to provide classroom space and a reasonable teacher-to-student ratio.

What about the other end of the worm hole? How can we help stem the flow of people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras northward? Talk of root causes and development in Central America almost always misses discussing their greatest need of assistance: creating a strong universal education system. Every official I’ve ever spoken to in Guatemala has emphasized this need. Central American education is poor by every measure, and this state virtually guarantees continued poverty and lack of opportunities for many in these countries. Border control, legal reform (here and there!), drug interdiction, agricultural improvements and a host of other topics clearly are part of the whole picture; however, without an educated population, the countries of Central America will remain locked in a cycle of poverty, desperation and flight to the United States.

Vernon Archer is five term Mayor of the Town of Riverdale Park, Maryland, and teaches social studies, history and English as a second language at William Wirt Middle School in Prince George’s County Public Schools.

TIME Texas

First National Guard Troops at Texas-Mexico Border

Governor Rick Perry pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on August 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas.
Governor Rick Perry pauses as he addresses attendees at the 2014 Red State Gathering on August 8, 2014, in Fort Worth, Texas. Tony Gutierrez—AP

(HIDALGO, Texas) — The first wave of National Guard troops has taken up observation posts along the Texas-Mexico border.

Several dozen soldiers deployed in the Rio Grande Valley are part of the up to 1,000 troops called up by Gov. Rick Perry last month, Texas National Guard Master Sgt. Ken Walker of the Joint Counterdrug Task Force said Thursday.

Several guardsmen were seen Thursday afternoon manning an observation tower along the busy road leading to the Hidalgo International Bridge.

This first batch of soldiers was specifically trained to man such observation towers in the area belonging to local law enforcement agencies and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Walker said. They will serve as extra eyes on the border and report suspicious activity to authorities.

State officials have estimated the deployment will cost $12 million per month. Perry said the soldiers were necessary to help secure the border while the Border Patrol was busy with a surge in illegal immigration.

From October to July, 63,000 unaccompanied children were arrested after entering the U.S. illegally, double the number from the same period a year earlier. Another 63,000 families — mothers or fathers with young children — were arrested during that period.

“They’re just there for support,” Walker said of the soldiers. “We’re just trying to give some relief to the guys at Customs and Border Protection” and other law enforcement agencies.

The guardsmen seen Thursday were manning a tower owned by the Hidalgo Police Department.

Hidalgo Police Chief Rodolfo Espinoza said he would normally not have his department’s two towers manned. They have cameras that can pan the area and record activity, but having a person that can recognize something suspicious and report it is more valuable, he said.

“It is good to have them,” Espinoza said of the soldiers. “It is a positive benefit for everybody.”

TIME 2014 Election

Immigration Not Top Election Issue on Arizona-Mexico Border

Martha McSally
Republican candidate for Arizona Congressional District 2, Martha McSally talks at a news conference Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Tucson, Ariz. Ross D. Franklin—AP

Even on the southern border, economic concerns reign supreme

From a distance, freshman Rep. Ron Barber’s seat in southeastern Arizona, which sits along a long stretch of the Mexican border with Latinos making up over 25% of the population, seems like it would be ground zero in the midterm election battle over immigration. The race is one of the tightest in the country, with Barber likely facing retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, a Republican who came within one percent of beating Barber two years ago.

But if you look up close, immigration is not exactly the issue of the day in Arizona’s 2nd District. In interviews with TIME, Arizona Democratic and Republican donors and activists said that economic issues were eclipsing immigration in the battleground. “Immigration I think is a piece of it, [but] I don’t think it’s a determining factor,” says Edmund Marquez, a senior member of the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce who supports McSally based upon her “strong” personality. “I think it’s more economy, more jobs, more fiscal responsibility.”

Arizona Democrats counter that Barber is best suited on economic issues, particularly on how to save the Davis-Monthan Air Force base—a top-three employer in Tucson, the largest city in the district—from potential cuts, despite McSally’s military background. The Administration requested in its budget for fiscal year 2015 to retire the A-10 aircraft, the main plane flown out of the base. “Congressman Barber has been working hard for several years with many of the civilian and military groups to protect the A-10 squadron,” says Dr. Don Jorgensen, the Chairman of the Pima County Democrats. “It’s Ron Barber who’s gotten the attention for the work he has done in essentially saving that investment.”

The local Democratic chair said local voter concern over immigration has actually faded in recent years. “Immigration is still there, just not the same level of intensity of two years ago…when it was front and center,” says Bill Roe, the chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party.

Outside groups have poured money into the race at unprecedented levels, but not on immigration issues. During the Administration’s fumbled rollout of the online health care exchange HealthCare.gov, conservative outside group Americans for Prosperity slammed Barber over the President’s “if you like the [health care] plan you have, you can keep it” line. The Democratic House Majority PAC, in turn, has hit at the ads funded in part by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers, charging that McSally is tied to an anti-Social Security, minimum wage and Medicare agenda. Both campaigns refute the negative attacks.

The McSally and Barber campaigns have so far spent their money on positive ads that distance themselves from a historically unpopular Congress. In McSally’s only 2014 campaign video on her website, pictures of her in uniform—she was the first American woman to fly a fighter aircraft in combat (the A-10) and command a squadron—are interspersed with broad attacks on Washington. Barber’s first ad, “Home,” portrays himself as a longtime local businessman who was the fourth most likely Congressman to vote independent of his or her party. The ad does present securing the border as an issue, as well as blocking congressional pay raises, protecting Medicare and saving the A-10. According to Elizabeth Wilner, the senior political vice president for campaign ad tracker Kantar Media Intelligence, no ad in the race has focused on the border crisis.

There have been recent signs that McSally is willing to go after Barber on the issue of immigration. She released a statement bashing Barber for opposing the $694 million border bill that passed the House with Republican support two weeks ago. “Congressman Barber failed Southern Arizonans by voting against a bill to help secure our border and provide badly needed resources to deal with the humanitarian crisis,” she wrote. “Either he doesn’t understand how important this issue is or is more concerned with following his party’s wishes.”

In a statement to TIME, Barber said the vote was “essentially political theater,” since the House legislation has no chance of passing the Senate. He said the bill “did not provide the resources needed to secure the border or address the humanitarian crisis.” Barber added that he supported a recent proposal by Arizona Republican Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, which never got off the ground. That proposal would make legal changes to speed the deportation of undocumented children, added funding for more judges and increased the number of refugee visas that Central Americans could apply for from their home countries.

TIME Immigration

Influx of Child Immigrants Strains Courts in Louisiana

Michael's Journey - Immigration in New Orleans
Attendees listen to speakers at the weekly meeting of "Congreso," or the Congress of Day Laborers. This is one branch of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, New Orleans, Aug. 6, 2014. William Widmer for TIME

The wave of unaccompanied children streaming across the U.S. border has compounded a court crisis, as advocates warn backlogs and a shortage of lawyers will lead to injustice

For the 1,071 unaccompanied minors who have crossed the southwest border this year and ended up in Louisiana, the path to a future in the U.S. runs through a courtroom on the 24th floor of an office tower in the heart of New Orleans.

Here, past the heavy doors and security guards, a rotating detail of judges determines the fate of the immigrant children streaming across the border and into the state. As they arrive in record numbers, the New Orleans Immigration Court is buckling under the strain.

During the first six months of 2014, the court has taken on 450 juvenile immigration cases, according to government records obtained by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC). That number puts the court on pace to shatter last year’s total of 540 cases. Three years ago, it had 71.

New Orleans’ struggle is part of a pattern. Nationwide, immigration courts have become choke points in the border crisis. Overburdened and underfunded, they are sagging under the weight of the new arrivals, with enormous case backlogs and a lack of attorneys able to perform work that must often be pro bono, or without charge.

At the end of June, the number of cases pending in U.S. immigration courts had climbed to a record high of 375,503, according to data amassed by TRAC. The largest backlogs are in states with the biggest immigrant populations, such as California and Texas, which have also received the greatest number of unaccompanied minors.

But as stressed as those states are, legal activists say the situation is worse in places where the number of immigrants may not be quite as high, but where there’s a shortage of lawyers able to represent a spiking population.

New Orleans is a prime example. The large number of Honduran immigrants resident here has made the Crescent City a magnet for kids fleeing the skyrocketing violence in the troubled Central American country. Over the past year, few cities have absorbed more unaccompanied kids than New Orleans. Yet the entire state of Louisiana has only about a half-dozen nonprofit immigration lawyers devoted to serving them, says Jennifer Rizzo, national pro bono promotion counsel for Human Rights First.

As a result, children are regularly summoned to complex legal proceedings that will shape their future without any legal representation. At the end of June, New Orleans Immigration Court had a total of 1,216 pending juvenile immigration cases. In 991 of them—81%—the child has no lawyer. Overall, 87% of immigrants detained in the state lack an attorney, according to a study by Human Rights First.

“Things have reached a crisis point,” Rizzo says.

Legal representation may be the single largest factor in determining whether an undocumented immigrant wins the right to remain in the U.S. According to TRAC’s analysis of 100,000 case records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), immigrant children represented by an attorney are deported by presiding judges about half the time. In cases when juveniles went without an attorney, the success rate for sidestepping deportation was just one in 10.

“There’s a likelihood that these kids don’t know how to obtain legal representation, because nobody speaks English,” says Hiroko Kusuda, whose law clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans is one of just three listed service providers in the state. “If they don’t have legal representation, the chances of them getting relief from deportation is close to zilch.”

Kathryn Mattingly, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), said in an email that EOIR provides interpreter services for immigrant children for whom English is a challenge. But she acknowledged that some go without a lawyer. “Children are not guaranteed representation in immigration court proceedings, but all respondents have a right to representation at no expense to the government,” Mattingly said, adding that various government initiatives are designed to promote pro bono work.

The small community of immigration lawyers in the New Orleans area wants to help. Along with national advocates, they are scrambling to enlist new recruits. Kathleen Gasparian, an immigration lawyer in Metairie, La., started a program called PB&J: Pro Bono and Juveniles, which recruits pro bono attorneys and matches them with immigrant kids who have recently crossed the southern border and cannot afford legal services. Rizzo recently organized a conference to tackle Louisiana’s crisis in immigration representation, and convenes a monthly working group of local stakeholders. “The immigration court system is broken,” Gasparian says.

The issues were multiplying even before children started arriving. Louisiana has just two immigration courts, and the second, in the small city of Oakdale, more than three hours northwest of New Orleans, handles only detention cases. The backlog of pending cases statewide has soared to 6,703, up from just 732 a decade ago. “Now, you don’t even get your first hearing for a year,” says Ken Mayeaux, a professor at Louisiana State University Law Center in Baton Rouge who runs an immigration clinic for students. The average wait time for pending cases in the EOIR has climbed to 587 days.

Compounding that lengthening backlog, the New Orleans court is without a single devoted judge. Instead, a rotating trio of judges handle the docket, usually commuting from the Oakdale facility. Sometimes cases are decided over video conference.

The lack of a permanent judge is a symptom of a national problem, created by a hiring freeze imposed in 2011 by Attorney General Eric Holder as DOJ sought to cut costs in the teeth of the recession. The hiring freeze was lifted in February, but Mattingly declined to say when a new full-time judge will start at New Orleans immigration court.

On a steamy Thursday morning this month, TIME visited the court, on Canal Street downtown, in an attempt to observe proceedings. There were about six cases on the docket for the day, according to a printed list in the entryway, but two security guards barred this correspondent from entering, citing instructions from the presiding judge.

“In certain cases, including hearings involving credible fear reviews, the hearing is closed to the public unless the alien states for the record that he or she waves that requirement,” Mattingly later wrote in an email. On that day, she added, “there were no open cases.”

TIME Immigration

Number of Illegal Migrants from Haiti and Cuba Stopped at Sea at 5-Year High

Two boats with 10 Cuban migrants are pictured anchored in Cayman Brac waters in this handout photo
Two boats with 10 Cuban migrants are pictured anchored in Cayman Brac waters on July 20, 2014 in the Cayman Islands. Reuters

Over 4,300 Haitians and 2,985 Cubans apprehended since Oct. 1, Coast Guard says

The number of illegal migrants apprehended while trying to reach the United States by sea from Haiti and Cuba has hit a five-year high, Coast Guard officials said.

Over 4,300 Haitians have either been stopped at sea or are known to have arrived in Puerto Rico or the U.S. mainland since Oct. 1, while the number of Cubans stands at 2,985, NBC reports, a total of around 850 more than last year.

Coast Guard officials said they are the highest numbers of the last five years.

The journey is dangerous and many Haitians and Cubans drown along the way, federal officials say.

The surge in captured migrants comes partly due to aggressive activity by Haitian smugglers, as well as relaxed travel policies introduced under Cuban President Raul Castro.

[NBC]

TIME 2016 Election

Steve King Shows 2016 Risk of Campaign Trail Ambushes For GOP

Rep. Steve King speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's Friends of the Family Banquet in Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 9, 2013.
Rep. Steve King speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition's Friends of the Family Banquet in Des Moines, Iowa, Nov. 9, 2013. Justin Hayworth—AP

Candidate ambushes staged by immigration groups could hurt Republicans' 2016 chances

The August recess has begun, and so have the August recess ambushes. Republicans have a reason to worry.

On Monday, in Okoboji, Iowa, two undocumented youths confronted Iowa Rep. Steve King in a publicity stunt that charts a clear path to political pain for Republicans as the 2016 campaign season approaches. It is a quirk of the American system that to get elected President, candidates must meet with lots of regular people, along with full-time advocates posing as regular people, along the path to the White House. More often than not, these interactions are captured on video for eternity.

This process gives enormous opportunity and advantage to well-organized advocacy groups. In the 2008 election, a handful of groups from global warming advocates to anti-poverty crusaders fanned out across the early caucus and primary states to repeatedly ask the presidential candidates the same questions, effectively elevating their issue. Today, no group is doing this same thing as effectively as immigration reform activists, as the King video makes clear:

Notice Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the likely 2016 Presidential candidate, in the background at the beginning. His aide wisely advises him to leave his sandwich behind and clear out of the screen — and it’s a good thing he does. King, whose role in the political debate over immigration is basically the opposite of a firefighter’s role at a fire, does not disappoint. In a matter of minutes, he briefly but violently grabs the young woman’s hand in a misfired effort to quiet her, he notes condescendingly “you are very good at English,” he doubles down on his comment that drug smugglers at the southern border have calves “like cantaloupes,” he repeatedly calls Mexico a “lawless country,” and he accuses the two young people, both well-educated activists without legal documentation, of having no respect for the law.

Whatever position Republicans end up taking on immigration reform in the coming years, this is all political dynamite for the party. In the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney won only about 27% of the Latino vote, a number that will almost certainly have to increase if a Republican is to win in 2016. A majority of those voters have family roots in Mexico, a functioning country with significant law enforcement struggles, but one that King dismisses as “lawless.”

On the eve of the 2012 election, Latino Decisions did a poll of likely Latino voters, who made up about 10% of the electorate. The results showed clearly that Romney faced an overwhelming problem in selling those voters: Only 14% of the voters in the poll said Romney cared about the Latino community, compared with 66% who said Barack Obama cared. A significant percentage of this bias against Romney was born of mistakes he had made during the primary that had less to do with policy than attitude. As Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus later said, “Using the word ‘self-deportation’—I mean, it’s a horrific comment to make.”

A poll taken after the 2012 election found that a strong majority of Americans—57% in total, including 60% of independents and 35% of Republicans—supported President Obama’s effort to give job permits to some undocumented immigrants who had been brought to country illegally as minors. This is the policy House Republicans voted last week to defund, with Steve King leading the charge. That makes him an easy target for activists. Ambushes like this are stunts. But in the system we have, they work. And this is just the beginning.

TIME Religion

Faith Leaders on Kids at the Border: Give Us the Children

Immigration Overload Numbers
Central American migrants ride a freight train during their journey toward the U.S.-Mexico border in Ixtepec, Mexico on July 12, 2014. Eduardo Verdugo—AP

Dear government and faith leaders: What if we adopted Mother Teresa’s compassionate response to the unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border?

Mother Teresa inspired millions at the 1994 National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., when she told attendees how she responded to mothers with unwanted pregnancies. “We have sent word to the clinics, to the hospitals and police stations: “Please don’t destroy the child; we will take the child.”

Mother Teresa’s eyes barely peeked above the podium, but she spoke with powerful resolve and appealing love. “Please give me the child,” she asked.

Today, there are thousands of children who are unable to be cared for by their communities or their governments. They are showing up like refugees at the southwest border of the U.S., often risking their lives on what is called the “el tren de la muerte” (the train of death), as they travel north through Mexico.

As the leaders of two Christian organizations doing relief and development work in the U.S. and Central America, we are asking government and faith leaders: Instead of seeing these children as a political crisis or legal dilemmas, what if we adopted Mother Teresa’s compassionate response? Give us the children.

Right now a boy named Chava (a pseudonym) is riding el tren de la muerte after fleeing El Salvador, where he lived until four weeks ago.

It’s amazing that Chava didn’t leave years ago. For the last four years he has been moving from city to city in El Salvador running from the gangs. It started when Chava refused to join one. “They tried shooting me several times. I just ran and saved my life, but I was forced to leave my hometown and moved to a different community.”

Chava thought he was safe because the gang he fled wasn’t active in the new community, but instead a different gang tried to recruit him. “They kill for a living, that’s what they do,” he said. “They do not respect anybody and try to enroll everyone, especially youth.”

Instead of attending high school the last four years, Chava has been running for his life. He only has a middle school education. He has few employment options and hasn’t been able to settle down in a community before the gangs catch up with him. “Many youth are in the same situation, we all have to move from one community to another to be safe and not get killed.”

Now that Chava has left El Salvador, returning home is even more dangerous. “If I go back, the gangs will kill me.” With two brothers already living in the U.S., Chava wants to join them.

Chava’s story illustrates why a comprehensive response is essential. Unaccompanied children arriving at our border must be treated fairly and humanely, but we must also address the root causes of the crisis—the conditions marked by violence and lack of economic opportunities in the children’s home communities in Central America.

These children are not merely seeking better jobs but are fleeing an intolerable situation. With this understanding, we are calling on the presidents of the U.S., Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador to work closely together to strengthen child protection systems and reduce violence in migrants’ home countries as well as to ensure the humane treatment of children arriving in the U.S.

We believe that our governments together with our relief agencies can find ways to address comprehensively the issues of widespread gang-violence, extreme poverty, corruption, and other root causes of the massive immigration of children and young families.

We also call on our own Christian communities to do more to respond to the humanitarian crisis that is taking place all the way from the U.S. border to Central America. Already churches are taking in children in the U.S., ministering to migrants en route, and tackling the long-term causes of violence, poverty, human-trafficking, and corruption that are at the root of the crisis.

We know that faith-based organizations have a unique role to play in resolving this situation. In Honduras, youth leaders are rising up through a Bible-based curriculum called Channels of Hope that teaches young people about healthy life choices, how to handle sexual pressure and avoid pregnancy, self-esteem, and communication. This World Vision-backed program is turning into an alternative social support structure for youth who refuse to join the gangs. “We gathered weekly, and God was the center of everything,” said Ernesto, one of the leaders.

The network of youth groups have grown to include eight neighboring communities, and despite conflict with the gangs, they launched a summer camp. In an area where shootings are a daily occurrence, this group of nine youth networks is raising up future community leaders who are seeking to build a healthy neighborhoods. “God has a purpose for everything and we trust that Channels of Hope is leaving a big mark in the transformation of our lives. New children and youth with the desire to change the community have entered the network as I did at the beginning,” says Ernesto.

In addition, the National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NaLEC) is partnering with its congregations in the United States to provide shelter and care for children fleeing violence into the United States. NaLEC has also partnered with Esperanza and the Alianza Evangélica Latina to ensure we bolster church-sponsored sustainable programs for children and families in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

Unfortunately, much more is needed across Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala to provide children with hope for the future within safe communities. We need compassionate leaders who, like Mother Teresa, have the courage to lead this great nation to say, “Please, give me the child.”

Richard Stearns is president of World Vision U.S. Gabriel Salguero is president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition

TIME Immigration

This Baptist Charity Is Being Paid Hundreds of Millions to Shelter Child Migrants

Contractors have taken on the huge task of sheltering thousands of unaccompanied child migrants

In the late afternoon of July 9, Air Force One touched down at Love Field in Dallas. President Barack Obama ducked into a private room at the airport for a discussion about the crisis of undocumented children crossing the southwest border. Assembled around a wooden table were top Texas officials, including Governor Rick Perry and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, as well as the leaders of several faith-based charities. One of them was a man so anonymous, the White House pool report misspelled his name.

Kevin Dinnin is the CEO of a faith-based, nonprofit organization called BCFS, formerly known as Baptist Child and Family Services. This obscure charity has emerged as one of the biggest players in the federal government’s response to the influx of more than 57,000 unaccompanied children who have trudged across the southern border so far this year. It runs two of the largest facilities for temporarily housing immigrant children, as well as six permanent shelters in California and Texas. Since December, BCFS has received more than $280 million in federal grants to operate these shelters, according to government records. On July 7, two days before Dinnin met Obama in Dallas, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded BCFS $190,707,505 in a single grant.

BCFS is just one part of a sprawling system of shelters for unaccompanied children across the country. As the numbers of children entering the country balloon, so do the dollars required to care for them. To shield vulnerable kids from angry opponents of immigration and the media spotlight, the government declines to disclose the locations and activities of many of the facilities operated by BCFS and similar organizations. That protectiveness comes at a political cost. Governors in states across the U.S. have assailed the federal government for sending kids to their states without notifying local officials, and congressional critics say that massive amounts of taxpayer money are being spent without proper oversight.

A dormitory at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio where unaccompanied migrant girls are being housed. Health and Human Services Administrations—The New York Times/Redux

Senator Charles Grassley, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell on July 17, requesting information about BCFS contracts to ensure that taxpayer money wasn’t being misused. “Despite being almost completely dependent on the public, BCFS has faced heavy criticism for attempting to avoid public scrutiny,” the Iowa Republican wrote. “This aversion to basic transparency is extremely disturbing.”

BCFS began in 1944 as a home for orphaned children. In recent years, a sleepy San Antonio–based charity grew into a global nonprofit with regional offices around the U.S., as well as in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. On contract for the federal government, it has provided temporary shelter and emergency services in the wake of natural disasters ranging from Texas hurricanes to Haitian earthquakes. When the state needed to relocate the members of a Texas polygamous sect in 2008, it turned to BCFS, which provided emergency housing. The current crisis is the largest and longest response BCFS has ever faced. It has deployed some 1,400 personnel to manage the temporary shelters this year.

For BCFS executives, the work can be lucrative. According to federal tax records, Dinnin received nearly $450,000 in compensation in 2012. At least four other top officials earned more than $200,000. The median salary for the CEOs of nonprofit organizations like BCFS was about $285,000 in 2011, according to a 2013 survey by Charity Navigator.

The salaries, BCFS spokeswoman Krista Piferrer says, are determined by factors in the group’s contract with HHS. When disaster situations strike, a crisis pay scale replaces a regular one to account for extended 12-hour shifts in two-to-three-week stints. In 2012, an influx of children at the border required an emergency response, according to Piferrer. “It is similar to making an appointment to see a primary-care physician vs. going to the emergency room,” she says. “The emergency room is more expensive.”

The federal grant money for sheltering unaccompanied children, provided by HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, has so far totaled $671 million during the 2014 fiscal year. BCFS has received 40% of those funds, making it the largest recipient of money disbursed to contractors to temporarily house unaccompanied children until they can be reunited with family members or placed in foster care. Dozens of other organizations are involved in the effort, including Southwest Key Programs, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

BCFS is responsible for running two of the three temporary facilities recently set up to house large numbers of undocumented children apprehended by federal agents. One is at the Department of Defense’s Joint Base Lackland, in BCFS’s home city of San Antonio. Lackland is currently housing more than 700 children and has processed more than 3,600 overall since opening in May, says Kenneth Wolfe, an HHS spokesman. Another is Oklahoma’s Fort Sill, which is currently holding about 400 children and has discharged nearly 1,500 to date. Children stay at these facilities for an average of less than 35 days while the government works to find a family member with whom to place them. Because they are temporary shelters, some journalists, faith leaders, members of Congress and foreign dignitaries have been allowed into the facilities at Lackland and Fort Sill. Both facilities are expected to close by the end of August.

These facilities make up just a fraction of the extensive network in place to house child migrants. The Office of Refugee Resettlement’s Unaccompanied Alien Children program (UAC) has been given custody of more than 53,000 children over the past several months. The majority have been cycled through this network of about 100 smaller, permanent facilities, scattered across 14 U.S. states.

Unlike the temporary shelters, the permanent facilities are largely inaccessible to media and the taxpayers that fund them. Their locations are not officially disclosed, and they are “generally unnamed or unmarked,” according to Wolfe. Contractors are prohibited from speaking with the media without permission, BCFS says. As a result, it’s hard to gauge the conditions under which thousands of children are being held, or to assess whether taxpayer money is being well spent.

Wolfe, the HHS spokesman, says the secrecy stems from federal policy designed to protect the children’s privacy and ensure their safety. “We don’t identify the permanent facilities for the security of the children and the staff and the program,” he says. “Like any grant, we have federal staff assigned to oversight.”

A spokesperson for Southwest Key Programs, a Texas nonprofit that has been awarded more than $122 million in federal grants since December to shelter unaccompanied children, making it the second largest recipient after BCFS, said the organization was required to refer press inquiries to HHS. On a recent July afternoon, after multiple emails went unanswered, a TIME reporter drove to a Southwest Key facility in Phoenix. It was a colorful building ringed by tall metal bars and “No Trespassing” signs, situated off a freeway in a part of town where most signs are in Spanish. There was no guard out front to greet visitors, and entry required punching in a code at the locked gate.

The level of secrecy surrounding the facilities is unusual, says Neil Gordon, an investigator for the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight. But observers say it may be warranted. From Arizona to Michigan, clusters of citizens have held armed protests to oppose the relocation of undocumented children to facilities in their communities. “This situation is pretty unique in that they don’t want the mobs to come out and cause problems,” Gordon says. “That might be the reason they’re being so tight-lipped.”

A temporary shelter for unaccompanied minors who have entered the country illegally is seen at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio on June 23, 2014. Eric Gay—AP

A string of scams have also highlighted the importance of shielding the residents’ privacy. Grifters have been preying on the relatives of unaccompanied children, promising to help reunite them with their family members for fees ranging from $300 to $6,000, according to the Associated Press. The FBI is investigating the scams, which have targeted the families of children staying at BCFS facilities like Lackland, the AP reports.

Critics in Congress say the federal government is skirting transparency obligations. On July 1, Oklahoma Representative Jim Bridenstine, a Republican, was denied access to the BCFS facility at Fort Sill. “There is no excuse for denying a federal representative from Oklahoma access to a federal facility in Oklahoma where unaccompanied children are being held,” he said. “What are they trying to hide?” Soon after, the conservative media erupted over reports that BCFS planned to purchase a Texas hotel and turn it into a 600-bed facility for housing unaccompanied minors. (BCFS scuttled the idea, citing a backlash fed by inaccurate reporting.)

The UAC grant applications provide a glimpse of the extensive requirements to which organizations like BCFS must adhere. In addition to meeting all state and federal statutes, shelters must provide two hours per weekday of outdoor activity, offer classroom instruction on subjects like reading and science, supply counseling and personalized medical care, and grant phone calls to family members and access to visitors. The documents dictate that providers “utilize a positive, strength-based behavior-management approach, and shall never subject [residents] to corporal punishment, humiliation, mental abuse or punitive interference with the daily functions of living, such as eating or sleeping.”

Immigrant advocates say unaccompanied children are particularly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. In January, the National Immigrant Justice Center issued a policy brief based on interviews with hundreds of unaccompanied children in the Chicago area. The minors reported grim conditions in the custody of the Department of Homeland Security, before transfer to shelters run by contractors. According to the policy paper, 56% said they had been placed in three-point shackles, which restrain individuals at the wrists, waist and ankles. More than 70% reported being placed in unheated cells during the winter. Some said they were barely fed.

The lack of public or congressional oversight of the facilities sheltering unaccompanied children should not be construed as concealing anything untoward, say groups that have visited them and worked with BCFS. The care at BCFS sites is extensive, Piferrer says, with the chief of the respiratory-disease branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention embedded at the site to track every illness the children faced, from broken ankles to fevers to GI-tract infections. “You don’t find another organization like this,” Gary Ledbetter of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention says of BCFS. “It’s basically a turnkey operation.”

“There’s not one bit of care that those kids were receiving that wasn’t first class,” says Chris Liebrum of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a Baptist network with which BCFS is affiliated. “The federal government has come to Kevin. When the government says, ‘We need thousands of kids taken care of, can you do it?’ He’s done it.”

TIME

Livestream: Obama Speaks from Martha’s Vineyeard

President Barack Obama is expected to address foreign policy issues followings his phone call with Putin and the collapse of a ceasefire in Gaza.

TIME Congress

As Time Runs Out, Congress Is Gridlocked on Immigration Reform

John Boehner
House Speaker John Boehner, center, walks to the House chamber on Capitol Hill on July 31, 2014 J. Scott Applewhite—AP

The House of Representatives has consequently had to delay its recess by a day

On Thursday, Republicans in the Senate stymied the bill that would have allotted $2.7 billion to resolving the issue of Central American minors illegally crossing the border into the U.S., which many politicians have deemed a national crisis.

The bill received 50 yeas and 44 nays, falling short of the 60 it needed in order to end up on President Barack Obama’s desk. In July, Obama had asked legislators for a comprehensive emergency plan dedicated to resolving the immigration issue.

Republicans, according to a CNN report, took issue with the legislation’s dearth of provisions concerning the deportation of illegal immigrants. A bloc of far-right Congressmen within the party also managed to successfully suspend the vote on a bill in the House of Representatives intended to facilitate the deportation process, deeming the legislation too moderate.

The squabbling has forced the House to delay its August recess by one day.

Not all was gridlocked in Congress, though. The Senate voted almost unanimously in favor of a bill that will provide the Department of Veterans Affairs with over $16 billion to address some issues concerning health care services for veterans, including reduction of delays and the hiring of more doctors.

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