Christian Agencies Fight to Keep Programs for Migrant Children as Trump Administration Considers Funding Cuts

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As the federal government threatens to stop funding English lessons, soccer games, and other programs deemed “not directly necessary” for migrant children in US care, Christian groups have defended the crucial role of these activities and pledged to keep them going for kids whose lives have been turned upside down by instability.

“These services are a child’s basic right and vitally important to the health and development of these children,” said Dona Abbott, vice president for refugee and immigrant services at Bethany Christian Services (BCS), which cares for around 200 unaccompanied minors in five states.

The Michigan-based evangelical adoption and foster agency said in a statement that it plans to continue privately funding “recreational or educational activities for unaccompanied minors in our care” if the government withdraws its support.

Last week, the Washington Post reported on Trump administration plans to end funding for educational offerings, recreational activities, and legal aid services for unaccompanied immigrant minors. The US Department of Health and Human Services later classified those services as “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety.”

State governments and Christians working with unaccompanied minors have pushed back against the decision, and HHS filed a request for $3 billion to keep the migrant shelter program funded beyond June, when it is set to run out of money, Abbott told Christianity Today.

“We’re really, really hopeful that Congress will enact the supplemental funding requests,” she said.

Unless additional funding comes through, the federal agencies must scale back on non-essential services to avoid spending beyond their congressional allotments. However, the obligations of government contractors—like BCS, which partners with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to place children in foster and group homes—may not be determined by budget alone.

Advocates say defunding certain services could violate the Flores Agreement, a 1997 court settlement that dictates the conditions under which unaccompanied minors from other countries can be detained and held in the US. In addition to the Flores Agreement, BCS must comply with the laws in states where they provide immigrant housing and foster care services, some of which require schooling and recreation.

“Our country has always prioritized the needs of children,” Abbott said, lamenting the wellbeing of vulnerable children hanging in a precarious political balance. “They’re not the cause of the problem.”

Many Christian relief efforts for immigrants and refugees center around educational and health services. World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, and Save the Children run care facilities called child-friendly spaces for children around the world displaced by conflict, natural disasters, or oppression.

These centers are designed to teach them about the resources available in their new cities or countries, offer support, and sometimes continue their education.

“Giving them a safe space to play, to learn, to be a child, helps reconstitute themselves, to build confidence,” said Ken Isaacs, Samaritan’s Purse’s vice president of programs and government relations, in a 2018 CT article about the role of play in trauma recovery.

In addition to the basic necessities, children need “psycho-social activities, an encouragement, a hug,” he said. “They need to know there’s going to be a tomorrow.”

World Vision spokesperson Perrise Thomas similarly called playtime “a significant factor in psychosocial health, especially where the external environment is threatening/uncertain.” While World Vision’s child-friendly spaces are outside the US, asylum-seeking children experience similar trauma along their journey and uncertainty upon arrival.

BCS holds contracts with the Office of Refugee Resettlement to care for unaccompanied minors in five states: Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, Maryland, and Indiana. It is working toward extending the program into New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Most of the immigrant children in BCS care—around 200 at any given time, Abbott said— are placed in transitional foster homes, which serve as short-term housing for the very young, medically fragile, pregnant teens, or children with diagnosed disabilities.

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Source: Christianity Today