RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The number of unaccompanied children crossing the U.S.-Mexico border reached a record high last month in May. Thousands of those minors held in federal shelters are in English classes. They get to play soccer games. They also get legal aid. Now many of those services could go away. A spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department says they will be scaling back on activities that are, quote, "not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety" - end quote.
Wendy Young is the president of a group called Kids in Need of Defense. It's a nonprofit based here in Washington that supports refugee and immigrant children. Thank you so much for coming in to the studio.
WENDY YOUNG: Thank you.
MARTIN: What do you make of this decision? What was your reaction?
YOUNG: This is really a tragic decision because, in fact, the services that are being cancelled - education, recreation and legal services - are essential to the health and well-being of these children. Legal services in particular are provided because these children are fleeing extreme violence in Central America. They're placed in deportation proceedings, and they need a lawyer to help them navigate the very complex U.S. immigration system. These are literally life-and-death decisions that are being made in these children's cases because the decision will be made whether they need protection in the United States or must be returned back to Central America, where they may face further violence. So legal services, in fact, is a lifesaving service for these kids.
MARTIN: So you reject the claim by Health and Human Services that they are just - these are just ancillary, that these are extra things that aren't critical for these kids.
YOUNG: I completely reject that. This is not a luxury service. This is an essential service for these kids. It's also good for the system because kids who are represented by counsel, the proceedings move much more efficiently. Due process can be delivered. The courtroom process is - delivers fundamental fairness and due process to these children. So it's important for the system as well that counsel be involved.
MARTIN: So just taking that a little bit further, what happens when these children will not have legal aid? I mean, what happens to them?
YOUNG: I've been in an immigration court and seen a 5-year-old appear before a robed immigration judge while there's a trial attorney from Homeland Security arguing for the child's deportation. And there stands the 5-year-old with no lawyer by their side being asked to raise a defense against deportation. It's impossible for these children to get through this system without the help of a lawyer.
MARTIN: So then what happens to them? What happened to that child? Do you know?
YOUNG: Well, children can be deported. In this particular case, we were actually able to connect her with counsel. It took about two years, but she was granted status and was able to remain in the United States.
MARTIN: Can you describe these shelters? Presumably you have been to one or some of them.
YOUNG: Yes, I've been to many of the shelters, most recently a relatively new facility that was opened in South Texas, Casa Padre, which is a very large institutional setting. It's a converted Wal-Mart that's now housing roughly 1,200 children. This is a trend we're seeing in the program under the current administration where they're moving towards these mega facilities that are very institutionalized and almost prison-like in their feel and very difficult to provide appropriate care to these children in such a large setting.
MARTIN: What's their daily life like?
YOUNG: Well, it's critical that services come in because these kids, like any child, they need education, they need recreation, they need something to help keep their minds off the fact that they're in a very complicated system where their future is still in question. So thinking about these kids in these facilities without those kind of services going in is quite troubling. I don't know what that looks like at that point.
MARTIN: You argue that this is a decision by HHS that will be easily challenged in federal court. On what grounds do you think?
YOUNG: There are laws in place and a class-action settlement agreement - the Flores agreement - which define a framework of protection for unaccompanied children in federal custody. And a lot of the laws and the agreement address the kind of services that these kids need in order to be provided appropriate care and to get through the immigration system. So I'm confident that this will be challenged in court unless Congress steps forward, provides the appropriate funding so that the Department of Health and Human Services can get back on track.
MARTIN: Have you or your organization been involved in conversations with the HHS about what you view as the detrimental effects of this decision?
YOUNG: We are in very consistent conversation with the administration, with the Department of Health and Human Services, with Congress to encourage and promote the appropriate services being delivered to these kids. So we have expressed our concern about this elimination of programs.
MARTIN: Wendy Young - she's the president of Kids in Need of Defense. It's a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., supporting immigrant children.
Thank you so much. We appreciate your time this morning.
YOUNG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.