The border surge, a year later: As crisis overwhelms system, philanthropy steps in

This is the second in a series of posts, one year after the surge of unaccompanied undocumented minors who crossed across the U.S.-Mexico border, examining the effects it has had on communities, schools and children themselves.

READ PART 1: Tens of thousands of immigrant children remain in limbo

When the flow of unaccompanied immigrant children from Central America into the United States swelled last year into a torrent that threatened to overwhelm America’s border towns – and U.S. immigration officials – the Obama administration declared a “humanitarian crisis,’ allocating nearly $2 billion to provide immediate aid.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinated the opening of temporary detention centers to house more than 60,000 immigrant children, while President Obama turned to elected officials and federal agencies to discuss how to handle the crisis.

But to manage their longer-term problems – relocation, education, language, mental health and legal assistance, most of which would be dealt with at the local level – an array of faith-based charities, community and legal advocacy groups and other non-profits stepped in.

"The idea is that the family takes over their care, but the reality is the children come with needs," said Abel Núñez, executive director of the Central American Resource Center (CARECEN) in Washington, D.C. "They come with health needs and educational needs. The family turns to community organizations. Because of their [citizenship] status they [feel they] can’t go to the government."

Federal aid, short-term help

Backed heavily by federal funding – $600 million in 2013-14 – local charities helped provide temporary housing, health screenings and vetted potential guardians who had applied to claim the children.

But the lion’s share of that taxpayer-funded aid was awarded to a Texas-based charity, the Baptist Child and Family Services (BCFS), a relatively obscure group previously awarded government contracts to provide temporary shelter in the wake of hurricanes and earthquakes. At the peak of the immigration surge last year, BCFS received more than $288 million in federal grants through the Department of Health and Human Services. The year before it received $38 million.

But the group also has been criticized for what some say is a lack of transparency about how it spends taxpayer money – and the huge salaries paid to its executive officers. Federal tax records reportedly show the group’s CEO, Kevin Dinnin – who had talked with Obama during the president’s meetings in Dallas – was paid nearly $450,000 in 2012, according to Time magazine, which also reported four other top officials earning more than $200,000 each. Charity Navigator, an online monitor of charity finances, reported that the median salary for non-profit CEOs was about $285,000.

Nonetheless, BCFS played a key role running some of the largest temporary facilities and a number of permanent locations.

Struggle for legal funds, long-term needs

But while the federal government was allocating nearly $2 billion to provide immediate humanitarian aid, little was offered to help cover the massive legal expenses the children would incur as they moved through the court system.

In June 2014, the Justice Department granted just $2 million to cover the cost of 100 lawyers and paralegals to help with children’s legal needs. The Department of Health and Human Services granted another $9 million for two years. Critics say it’s not enough.

Some of the federal funds went to groups like Kids In Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit launched by Angelina Jolie and Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith. The organization has in-staff attorneys, but also partners with law firms who provide pro-bono support. Their funding comes equally from the government, the legal world and private donors.

“Last summer, I walked into my office and a girl was sitting there. Maybe she was 13 or 14 years old and she was holding an infant,” recalled Wendy Young, president of KIND. “I just thought: I don’t know which one of you is my client.”

Not every community received federal dollars. In Maryland and Virginia, epicenters for El Salvadoran immigrants, legal aid is sorely lacking, activists say. The area received 7,000 children and CASA de Maryland – a community group that provides migrants a variety of services from English and adult education to tax preparation workshops -- has provided some type of assistance to about 2,000 of those kids, by their estimate. All without federal funds.

The lack of legal representation is one of the biggest problems, say representatives of the group. They estimate that about 65 percent of the children they work with still have no legal representation. That amount follows a national survey by Syracuse that estimates that two-thirds of the children have no representation [].

Even if CASA representatives could find attorneys willing to work pro bono, the training is tricky as proceedings involve family courts and immigration courts, increasing the complexity of the cases and the time of the attorneys involved.

CASA hasn’t received a federal grant since 2012 – and funding that year was just enough for the organization to hire one paralegal, they say.

“The money just isn’t enough,” said George Escobar, senior director of human services at CASA. “But we’re not going to wait for funding. We’re not going to use the excuse, ‘Oh, we don’t have funding.’ We’re not government, we don’t have the luxury of their excuses.”

Small nonprofits often are so local, that getting recognition for funding can be a problem.

One such group in Brooklyn, N.Y., is Atlas DIY. They serve about 300 immigrant youth – half of whom were unaccompanied and dozens who came in the last year. Atlas DIY provides legal services, but they say it is the support groups that allow the kids to talk about their legal experiences, school issues and family life that keep the kids engaged and returning for other services, such as finding English tutors.

“The last thing you would want is to have young people find a place they trust and then close your doors because funders didn’t look ahead,” said Lauren Burke, an Atlas DIY co-founder.

Local governments look to charities for help

As pressing as their legal needs are, the children desperately need mental health care and family counseling, advocates say. But these require long-term financial and staffing commitments that seem to fall to advocacy groups and local governments to address.

Some long-standing nonprofits in the D.C. metro area worked with local government to chart a course of action. The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), a group that offers legal services and citizenship classes, coordinated with 150 professionals from fields such as social work, health care and the law to publish a report.

“We’ve been educating elected officials about the things they need to address and where to put resources if they don’t want these kids to fall through the cracks or get recruited by gangs or continue a cycle of violence,” said Abel Nuñez, executive director of CARECEN.

The Latin American Youth Center, located across the street from CARECEN, is one of many partners in this mission. In their eyes, the children need engagement and mental health care. The group has partnered with local schools to provide after-school activities and arrange college prep programs.

But it’s mental health that has grassroots groups especially concerned. Mental health care is stigmatized in the Latino community, providers said, and there isn’t funding for something that isn’t finite, like legal aid.

Some local governments have stepped in to support those efforts. Professionals from La Clínica del Pueblo, another healthcare provider in partnership with CARECEN, trained some school officials from Prince George’s County in Maryland to better address the children’s mental health needs.

Some of the students fled their home countries to get away from violence either directed at them or their relatives; they were also vulnerable to danger during their journey here. The county has been receptive to other ideas that may expand care. Meanwhile, Fairfax County in Virginia found ways to grant undocumented children access to mental health, and they are working to publicize those health options.

Alicia Wilson, executive director of La Clínica, reported that the local officials she has worked with see these children as a generation that may remain in their towns for some time, and they want those children – and their towns – to have the best possible outcomes.

“Migration has happened in a number of waves, and local governments have almost resolutely failed in welcoming and laying groundwork for success,” Wilson said. “This is an opportunity for them to get it right.”