Federal Employees Volunteer to Assist Unaccompanied Minors at the Border
Lisa Baron, EdD
NCS3 Northeast Regional Project Director
Project Director, Center for Trauma Care in Schools
Who among us hasn’t cringed at the sight of children huddled together in blankets on the floor of cavernous congregate care facilities? Images we’ve seen repeatedly over the past 2-3 years at immigration detention centers located along the U.S. border with Mexico. As the impact of the pandemic has disproportionately affected the economies of Central and South America, the United States has seen an influx of people seeking refuge, both families and unaccompanied youth. In March alone, almost 19,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border, causing children to remain in emergency shelters for longer than the 72-hour timeframe typically required for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to process the newcomers’ paperwork and send them to HHS custodial care facilities. COVID-19-related safety and distance protocols are further stressing the system’s capacity to accommodate the surge.
Therefore, to assist with the multiple needs of thousands of unaccompanied children and the backlog of related paperwork, the Biden administration has sent a memo to Federal agencies asking for Federal employee volunteers to deploy to the southern border to help process and care for these families as well as unaccompanied children. The goal is to recruit 1,000 volunteers, each of whom serves a 1 to 4-month assignment and reports to the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) at facilities in Texas and California (Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Bliss and San Diego). It is possible that additional facilities will be accepting volunteers, as well. These federal employees are working directly with migrant children alongside HHS, CBP and non-governmental staff. During the previous administration, government staff and military troops were sent to the border, but in the name of national security. The current mission is very different, with the focus on helping children unite with sponsor families in the U.S., many of whom are parents and other relatives.
As the Project Director of a federal grant serving unaccompanied minors impacted by trauma, including trauma experienced over the course of the migration journey, I was heartened to learn of the willingness of government employees to put their jobs and personal lives on hold for 4 months and travel to the border to serve newcomer children. I wondered, to myself, if I would have been willing to do the same. Shortly thereafter, I was told that our own Grants Program Officer (GPO), the HHS employee who oversees some of our grant-funded activities, volunteered, as well! A social worker by training, she hopes to work directly with the children and is preparing to be away for the full 4-month detail.
We don’t often hear stories about the good things that are happening in our government, much less about the thousands of selfless and dedicated government employees who are putting aside their personal and professional lives for months at a time to volunteer on behalf of vulnerable children. It gives me hope that these children will look back and recall encounters with adults who were warm and caring, who welcomed them to this country, rather than as sources of additional stress and fear along their journey to a new life in the United States. It’s a story I hope to hear much more about in the months and years ahead.