Faced with the challenge of caring for thousands of migrant children who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is asking workers from other federal agencies to volunteer to go to the border region on temporary assignments.
During deployments of between 30 and 120 days, the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement wants the volunteers to help with tasks such as supervising children and collecting contact information for their relatives inside the United States so that they can be handed to over to their family’s care while they go through immigration proceedings.
Children who are taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection are transferred to HHS facilities until they can be placed with a sponsor. Health and Human Services says in more than 80 percent of cases, a child has a family member in the United States, and that about half of those are a parent or legal guardian.
There are currently about 18,000 children in custody, including at HHS facilities located in convention centers in Dallas, Texas, and San Diego, California.
While authorities expel most adults who cross the U.S.-Mexico border under a public health order that former President Donald Trump issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic, President Joe Biden’s administration has not reinstated expulsions of unaccompanied migrant children.
Adam Fernandez, vice president of policy and strategic engagement at Lawyers for Good Government, said that divided policy, often referred to as Title 42, “keeps people from entering the U.S. as a family, and it leads to an effective family separation.”
Fernandez told VOA the background for the current effort to recruit volunteers to help with HHS operations at the border is a 1997 agreement that calls for unaccompanied migrant children to be quickly placed with a sponsor.
“They’re trying to abide by that and to try to get them out of immigrant detention,” Fernandez said. “But if you really want to solve the problem, you need to get rid of Title 42 to keep families together, and allow them to apply for asylum together.”
The Department of Health and Human Services says its preference is for volunteers to be federal workers who are proficient in Spanish or familiar with indigenous dialects spoken in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. They will also have to undergo child care background checks. These federal volunteers would receive their regular salary and a per diem while they are volunteering to do this work.
Miriam Abaya, senior director for immigration and children’s rights at First Focus on Children, said there are federal workers who have specific expertise, such as experience working with children or having gone through the immigration themselves, that is important to have as the government works to ensure the children are properly cared for.
“Absolutely I think language skills are important. I think that people who have prior experience working with children, who have an understanding of child development, of childhood trauma, of child medical care and mental health services,” Abaya told VOA. “I think all of that experience is important to bring to bear and to make sure that those who are caring for children see these children as children first and are able to meet their specific needs.”
During the Trump administration, there were several initiatives involving sending more people to the southern border as the president declared a national emergency existed there.
Those efforts involved the Defense Department sending up to 4,000 personnel, mostly National Guard troops, to support Department of Homeland Security operations. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that there has been no additional request for assistance.
Two years ago, then-Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen asked for federal workers at her agency and others who were not involved in operations at the border to volunteer to help with border security.
Employees at the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which oversees Voice of America, were among those who received the memo issued last week seeking volunteers for the current border effort. Yolanda López, VOA’s acting director, said in a note to staff members Tuesday that in order to avoid any conflicts of interest, VOA journalists are not eligible to participate.
Carla Babb and Chris Hannas contributed to this report.