Harder Demands Answers After Children and Babies in Modesto Shelter Denied Access to Legal Aid

September 10, 2019
Press Release

WASHINGTON – Today, Representative Josh Harder (CA-10), in a letter, has asked the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to provide an update regarding the status of legal services provided to children and babies in the Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) program at a small group home in Modesto. The ORR contracts with local organizations to house and support unaccompanied children and is required by federal law to ensure children have access to legal services.

“The Trump Administration needs to guarantee these kids have the help they’re legally entitled to,” said Rep. Harder. “Local organizations have done the best they can in filling in the gaps, but that’s not their job – it’s up to the federal government to fix this. We need answers.”

Harder Voices Concerns Regarding Modesto Facility for Immigrant Children 

“KIND sees on a daily basis how legal services for unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children changes children’s lives, and in many cases, saves them,” said Jennifer Podkul, Esq., Interim Vice President for Policy, Advocacy and Communications, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND). “Many of the children we serve feared for their lives in their home countries and are seeking safety here, but cannot make their case in our immigration system without an attorney. These children, who range in age from toddlers to teenagers, deserve a fair chance to make their claim for U.S. protection, which is only possible with the help of an attorney.”

The Office of Refugee Resettlement funds a shelter in Modesto which houses up to a dozen unaccompanied children. The residents are predominantly teenagers and small children who crossed the border alone or sought asylum without a parent. ORR contracts with local organizations, to provide a safe place for unaccompanied children to stay until they are reunified with their families or their cases are decided.

Two organizations, Kids in Need of Defense and Legal Services for Children, have provided pro bono services to the children, but their offices are located in Fresno and San Francisco, meaning attorneys must travel for hours to provide free services. These organizations do not have the funding necessary to hire additional staff.

The Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was just reauthorized in 2017, requires the federal government to provide immigrant children with access to legal help to the “greatest extent practicable.” Although ORR has not actively prevented access to legal aid to these children, they have failed to facilitate access. Reports from ORR that there are no hold-ups with the contracts appear to be misleading. Earlier this year, Congress allocated additional funding to ensure ORR facilitates are able to provide children with access to legal services, but the agency has not finalized a contract for Modesto even though the facility has been operating for months.

The text of the letter is below and an original copy is available here.

 

Dear Secretary Azar:

Thank you for your timely attention to this critical matter. I write today to strongly urge you to finalize pending contracts with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR)’s Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) Program to provide legal aid services to minors in the custody of the Health and Human Services (HHS) Department.

Local providers informed my office that contract modifications have been stalled for well over two months, despite efforts by the Vera Institute of Justice, Kids In Need of Defense (KIND) of San Francisco, and Legal Services for Children of San Francisco to finalize the contracts in a timely manner.

I am extremely disappointed to learn that despite statements to the contrary reported by HuffPost on September 9, 2019,[1] the Vera network has made clear that the necessary contract modifications have in fact not been completed, and that the delays stem from HHS. Despite legal requirements made by the Congressional branch, including the $4.6B Bipartisan Border Supplemental package[2] that Congress passed earlier this year and was signed into law, requiring ORR to legally fulfill these obligations[3] ORR has refused to allow legal service providers to officially work in newly opened shelters across the country, including one in Modesto, California, in my jurisdiction.

I am alarmed to learn of the apparent new practice by ORR to open facilities without making a good faith effort to inform national partners, such as the Vera Network, or to ensure that legal services will be available to children upon their arrival at your new facilities. The stakes are literally life and death. According to Jennifer Podkul, KIND’s interim vice president, and a provider of legal aid services to the Modesto shelter, “If a kid does not know how to tell their story to an adjudicator, our government runs the risk of sending a child back to their death.”[4]

Failing to provide age-appropriate legal rights and guidance for children in ORR custody is not only a likely violation of the Flores Settlement Agreement,[5] which has been legal precedent since the 1990s, it also is likely in violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which has been in place since 2000, and was reauthorized by this body last Congress.[6]

I write to urge you to finalize these necessary contracts and uphold your obligation to ensure minors in your custody are receiving full access to the legal aid and other services which the law requires. Again, HHS personnel claim these contracts are finalized, I request that you confirm the current status of these contracts with my staff, and that if these contracts have not been finalized that you complete them immediately.

Thank you for your time and consideration regarding this request, if you have any questions, or to provide a response, please contact Sarah Monteith in my office at Sarah.Monteith@mail.house.gov.

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