Congressman Henry Cuellar included language in the fiscal year 2019 Appropriations package addressing issues pertaining to immigrant family separations and unaccompanied immigrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border. This legislation, which includes the Department of Defense, and Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education Appropriations bills, passed both chambers of congress and was signed by the President at the end of September.
The first provision would allow the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) detention facilities to accept in-kind (non-monetary) donations such as toys, medical services, and educational materials. The second would hold HHS-funded detention facilities accountable for any Federal, State, or local code violations in order to protect immigrant children. Finally, a third would increase transparency with regard to the status of reunifying immigrant families.
The Congressman also co-sponsored amendments that direct the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to work in collaboration with the Secretary of DHS to address issues of immigrant family separation in a variety of ways. Specifically, these amendments direct federal agencies to improve transparency in their efforts to reunite immigrant families, ensure that the nutritional and medical needs of immigrant children are met, require separated immigrant children to be kept together with their siblings whenever possible, and increase open lines of communication between parents and children.
Congressman Cuellar’s secured provisions:
1. In-kind Donations Amendment - Enables the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to accept in-kind donations from the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, and other groups independent from the Federal government. This amendment ensures that the ORR is given ample supplies in the form of in-kind donations, including medical goods and services, school supplies, toys, clothing, and any other items that will help provide for the care of unaccompanied immigrant children in HHS custody.
2. Detention Facility Violations Amendment - Directs the ORR to maintain strict oversight of the care provider facilities it funds and to immediately address any violations of Federal, State or local codes related to the wellbeing of children and standards of childcare.
3. Reunification Reporting Amendment - Directs the ORR to regularly report on the number of children in its custody who have been separated, the length of those separations, the status of subsequent reunification efforts, and the number of successful reunifications.
Congressman Cuellar’s Co-Sponsored Amendments:
1. Expedited Reunification Amendment - Directs HHS ORR to return separated children to their families expeditiously and to report back to Congress on its efforts. This amendment will ensure that the ORR maintains its commitment to reunify all families as quickly as possible.
2. Basic Health Needs Amendment – Directs ORR to provide for the basic needs of children in its custody and to report on its efforts, with a focus on trauma and mental health. This amendment also sets strict standards of oversight regarding the status of the most innocent and vulnerable detainees at the border.
3. Detainment with Siblings Amendment - Ensures that separated immigrant children who are detained at the border are held with their siblings whenever possible.
4. Open Lines of Communication Amendment- Directs HHS to create open lines of communication between unaccompanied or separated immigrant children in custody and their parents, relatives, legal guardians, or primary caregivers who are also in custody, living abroad, or in the U.S. Efforts will be made to communicate the location of the children and their condition as well as determine any special care considerations, with emphasis on medical needs.
In previous appropriations bills, Congressman Cuellar secured language directing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make available food, water, and medical care to families in custody at the border. His language also increased unannounced inspections of ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facilities, ensuring that these centers are in compliance with regulations and treat the immigrants in their custody humanely. This document includes Congressman Cuellar’s appropriations language on improving conditions and increasing oversight at detention centers from fiscal year 2015 through 2019.
Earlier this year, the Administration implemented a strict, “zero-tolerance” immigration policy. This created thousands of separated or unaccompanied immigrant children in states across the United States in shelters subcontracted by HHS. These shelters are intended to provide housing, nutrition, physical and mental healthcare, education, and recreation such as television and sports for unaccompanied minors, and the facilities are operated by nonprofit grantees certified by state authorities responsible for regulating facilities housing children.
To bring additional attention the separated children at the border, Congressman Cuellar also sent a letter in June to President Trump. The letter urged him to visit the U.S.-Mexico border to see firsthand the impact separation is having on innocent children and their families, and to keep immigrant families together while finding ways to achieve practical solutions that minimize trauma to unaccompanied alien children. (See the letter to President Trump here).
“The well-being of undocumented immigrants and their families while in custody or detention has been a top priority of mine for years. In 2014, I was one of the first people to bring national attention to the mass detention of unaccompanied minors arriving at the border,” said Congressman Cuellar. “Since then, I have secured language through the Appropriations process to increase oversight and transparency in our country’s detention facilities and improve our immigration system, ensuring appropriate treatment of immigrant detainees while in HHS custody and addressing the root causes of immigration.”
“While I believe in upholding our immigration laws, I also believe in the humane and dignified treatment of every person that comes to America’s borders. Although we have taken proper steps to address the issue of family separation, more needs to be done. That is why I supported and included provisions in the FY19 labor, health, and education spending bill that ensure HHS has ample resources to deal with the migration of thousands of families and unaccompanied minors to our southern border. This language will increase accountability and oversight when it comes to treating immigrant families fairly and with dignity.”
Congressman Cuellar added, “I want to thank my fellow Appropriators and Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Tom Cole and Ranking Member Rosa DeLauro for helping include this funding that will help address the issue of immigrant family separation at our southern border. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on finding practical, long-term solutions to fix our broken immigration system.”
Watch Congressman Cuellar speak on the House Floor