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Americans Aren't Allowed to Donate to and Volunteer at Migrant Detention Centers. There's No Good Reason for That Policy

Julissa Arce
Americans aren't allowed to donate or volunteer at migrant detention center. Julissa Arce asks: Why is that policy in place?

Last month, Patty Rodriguez saw a picture online that broke her heart: a young boy wearing aluminum foil as shoes. He had recently been released from a detention center and was at a nonprofit shelter. “He was about my son Oliver’s age, 2 or 3 years old,” she told me.

Rodriguez, the co-founder of the bilingual publishing company Lil’ Libros and a senior producer for On Air With Ryan Seacrest, wanted to help but at first wasn’t sure she could. She knew that facilities run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) were not accepting donations. She had seen the reports of Clint, Tex., residents showing up with diapers and toys to donate and being turned away. “I thought there was no way to donate and help,” she told me.

After some research, she got in touch with the Humanitarian Respite Center at the Catholic Charities in McAllen, Tex., and was able to send more than 350 pairs of shoes after raising $9,000 through her Instagram account. These donations will undoubtedly be put to good use – asylum seekers who are released from CBP custody to wait as their cases make it through the system, instead of being turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for further detention as is the case for many migrants, often have nothing more than the clothes they are wearing. But this doesn’t change the fact that there’s currently no way to get similar items to kids in U.S. government custody in detention camps across America.

Rodriguez isn’t alone in her desire to help, nor was her initial confusion about how to take action unusual. Elora Mukherjee, a professor at Columbia Law School and the director of the university’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, interviewed children at the Clint facility in June and was one of the attorneys who spoke out about unsanitary conditions in the facility. She testified before Congress last week that during her visit she observed a colleague ask a CBP lawyer about the possibility of donating hygienic items like toothbrushes and age-appropriate toys like teddy bears. The answer was no.

Terry Canales, a Democratic House representative from Texas, tried to organize help for facilities in the Rio Grande Valley immediately after reports of overcrowding surfaced. “The federal government is often slow to act,” he wrote in a letter to CPB. “It would be a great honor to coordinate with you and local area charities to help provide donations to the children and adults in these facilities.” Hours later, Canales tweeted that CBP responded to his request saying they do not accept donations.

This month Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz wrote to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan with a similar request. “Americans have long banded together to form charities and faith-based organizations to aid those in need. But I understand that many of these organizations are currently having difficulties making donations because DHS and CBP currently lack procedures to accept their donations,” he wrote. “I thus urge you to establish and publicize a process for accepting donations from charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, and NGOs to aid individuals in CBP custody. Even with the additional supplemental emergency funding, I am confident that DHS and CBP can still use the generosity of the American people to help manage the humanitarian crisis on our border.” So far things remain the same, even with policymakers on both sides of the aisle calling for change.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, a former CBP policy adviser and director of immigration and cross border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, has suggested that accepting donations would be in violation of the Antideficiency Act. The law prohibits federal agencies from spending funds in excess of what Congress has appropriated and from accepting volunteer services. According to Brown, accepting donations would cause CBP and ICE to overspend, and she gave the example of CBP not being able to accept the money from the GoFundMe fundraiser to build the wall as a case scenario of when government agencies cannot accept donations from the public. She also pointed out ethical concerns about the government receiving help from private-sector companies.

Neither CBP nor ICE, however, has publicly cited the Antideficiency Act as an official reason for not accepting basic hygiene items as humanitarian aid. “With respect to accepting donations from private persons and entities: CBP must comply with Federal law and relevant DHS policy in order to receive and manage donations,” a CBP spokesperson said in a statement. “At this time we are coordinating among relevant CBP offices, including our Office of Chief Counsel to determine how we can most efficiently accept and manage donations from the public, in compliance with law and policy. CBP also notes there are a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) along the Southwest Border area that are helping with the humanitarian crisis in the region. These are the organizations that many migrants rely on for assistance and support after they have been processed and released from CBP custody. These organizations are also overwhelmed with the large number of families they are helping and may be in need of donations.”

The Trump administration announced last month that they would no longer provide legal aid, English classes and recreational programs for unaccompanied minors in government custody, but for now, individuals and organizations cannot step in to fill the void. Dr. Colleen Kraft, the past president of American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), told CNN that CBP agents carry out an important job as law enforcement, but “they’re not trained to take care of children.” President Trump seems to agree as he tweeted two weeks ago, “Our Border Patrol people are not hospital workers, doctors, or nurses.” The AAP has a solution for this: “We have pediatricians who would volunteer to go to the border tomorrow and work with these children and advise medical personnel and train them,” Kraft said earlier this month. “That’s still our ask, but it’s gotten nowhere.” So far they’ve provided CBP with a training video.

There are examples of federal agencies allowing the public to volunteer, namely the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). More than 9,300 volunteers were able to provide services at federal prisons during 2017, thanks to laws that recognize the benefits. The Second Chance Act, for instance, requires the Attorney General to make grants to nonprofit organizations for “providing mentoring and other transitional services for reentering offenders into the community.” The Office of Public Affairs for BOP also confirmed in an email that they follow the requirements of the Antideficiency Act, explaining that “the Comptroller General, who is the head of the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), has held that federal agencies can accept gratuitous services without violating the Antideficiency Act, thus allowing BOP to accept gratuitous services in its institutions.” As such, organizations like the Unusual Suspects in Los Angeles teach screenwriting, improvisation techniques and onstage performance to youth in juvenile detention camps. The Prison Education Project provides college students and other volunteers the chance to teach academic and career development to inmates in 14 California correctional facilities.

But outside of religious counseling in a handful of detention centers, no volunteer opportunities exist for private citizens to serve at CBP or ICE detention centers despite the similarities with jails. Migrants are not allowed to leave, have little, if any, contact with family members and have limited access to sunlight. In 2008, Illinois passed the Access to Religious Ministry Act, which allows volunteers to provide pastoral care to people in immigration custody. As a result, organizations like the Interfaith Community for Detained Immigrants have been able to visit thousands of immigrants at facilities such as the Kenosha County Detention Center and the Jerome Combs Detention Center. They also place cash into detainees’ commissary accounts to use for necessities. World Relief Seattle has been offering religious visitation since 2000 at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash. Matthew Soerens, the U.S director of church mobilization there, told me in an email that the program was started by its former director, Cal Uomoto, who died a few years ago, but Soerens wasn’t aware “in Washington State that we’ve ever faced restrictions on access for ministers to access the facilities, as I know has been a problem in other states.”

We are in the midst of what is undeniably a humanitarian crisis. ICE is holding a record 50,000 migrants in detention facilities across America, the agency reported in May, and while McAleenan has denied that children were held in unhygienic conditions, he has admitted that this is an “extraordinarily challenging situation.” The Antideficiency Act allows federal agencies to accept voluntary services “in cases of emergency involving the safety of human life or the protection of property.” The safety of human life is exactly what is at stake here: At least seven children have died while in U.S. custody since last year. “The administration could invoke the emergency exception in the Antideficiency Act,” Mukherjee told me. “It doesn’t have to be this way. This isn’t a matter of the law. It’s about cruelty.” Whether or not you believe that our country should have to depend on charity to take care of those within its borders, the need is real.

But if the agencies won’t act quickly, Congress should. This month Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez and Republican Rep. Chip Roy, both of Texas, each introduced acts that would officially amend the Antideficiency Act to allow for outside donations. The well-being of children should not be seen as a partisan issue, and legislators should come together to put forth a bill that would let the public contribute not only goods but also services.

The President has branded the reports from the border as Fake News, despite his own Justice Department arguing in federal court that the U.S. government does not have a responsibility to provide things like toothbrushes and soap to migrants in their custody. If the President and his administration do not feel it is their duty to treat humans with dignity, they should let the American public exercise our conscience and donate. Or at the very least, let us offer our time to volunteer.