WASHINGTON - The Trump administration's Department of Health and Human Services is scaling back or canceling education, legal aid and recreation services for "unaccompanied alien children" due to a lack of funding, after entering into "deficiency status" earlier this week, according to an HHS official.
At this time, some, but not all, of the 168 shelters across 23 states have begun to scale back or discontinue activities "that are not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety" of the children, said Evelyn Stauffer, spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families, which falls under the HHS.
Stauffer said due to the lack of funding, the ACF is operating as if they are under a government shutdown, forced to go under "deficiency status," which then triggers the Antideficiency Act.
The act requires HHS "to take certain actions to avoid or minimize a deficiency in funding." This means the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is an office of the ACF, "can continue to provide only those services which are directly linked to the safety of human life."
"We have a humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system that is putting tremendous strain on the ORR and UAC program," Stauffer said. "ORR is facing a dramatic spike in referrals of UAC."
Last week, the HHS sent a letter to the White House's Office of Management and Budget, alerting them that the department was going to enter "deficiency status" and enact the Antideficiency Act due to the lack of funding, Stauffer said. It's unclear what the White House's response was.
HHS is seeking an emergency appropriation of $2.88 billion to increase shelter capacity in order to meet the needs of the minors in custody while the ORR works to find sponsors -- usually family members -- for the children, according to Stauffer.
The federal shelters' current length of care is 48 days before the children are placed with a sponsor.
"ORR is legally required to provide for the care and custody of all UAC referred to ORR until they are released to appropriate sponsors, usually a parent or close relative, while their immigration cases proceed," the HHS said.
This year, more than 40,800 unaccompanied minors have been placed into HHS custody after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. That number is a 57 percent increase from last year, which puts the ORR on track to care for the largest number of unaccompanied minors in the program's history, the Washington Post first reported. Stauffer confirmed those figures.
In June, an average of 13,200 children and youths are being held in federal shelters across the nation, according to Stauffer.
On Feb. 15, 2019, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, citing a humanitarian crisis and threat to security at the southern border of the U.S.
"At that time, dramatic increases in the number of large-scale groups of family units and unaccompanied alien children were seeking entry into the United States from non-contiguous countries, notably El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and seeking to claim asylum," according to a statement by the HHS.
This week, the House passed a $19 billion disaster aid bill. The White House had attempted to attach a $4.5 billion emergency spending request for the border wall to the legislation, which included $2.88 billion for HHS, but lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on that portion of the bill, the Washington Post reported.
Democratic leaders have said any funding would be limited to humanitarian aid, mostly for families and unaccompanied minors, Politico reported. But a majority of members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus say they are "deeply skeptical" that the Trump administration would use the funds for the humanitarian crisis instead of enforcing the White House's border policies, the report said.
According to a timeline of HHS funding requests provided by the agency, on May 1, the ACF alerted Congress that HHS was seeking an emergency appropriation of $2.88 billion. Then, on May 17, the ACF notified Congress of an anticipated deficiency in ORR's Unaccompanied Alien Children program, saying that it was on pace to run out of funding and would need supplemental funding.
"This historical influx is challenging the capacity of the Federal Government to shelter UAC and presents child welfare concerns beyond the treacherous journey that these minor children take across the southern border," the HHS said in a statement.
Carlos Holguin, a lawyer who represented minors in a key 1997 lawsuit that set basic standards of care for children in custody, slammed the cuts as illegal, the Washington Post reported. The federal court settlement and state licensing requirements mandate education and recreation for minors in federal custody, the report said.
This story was reported in Los Angeles.