David Sinski, Executive Director, Heartland Human Care Services
The current federal administration continues to make shameful policies that seek to destroy protections put in place for those seeking refuge in the United States. This makes our work to advance the rights and respond to the needs of marginalized populations – particularly the poor, the isolated and the displaced – more important than ever.
We are deeply committed to the fair treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and have been committed to advancing human rights throughout our 130-year history. For the past 23 years, Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS), an affiliate of Heartland Alliance, has operated shelters to care for migrant children who arrive at the border unaccompanied – on average, we take care of about 3,000 children per year in our shelters, the vast majority staying with us for just one to two months as we provide safe harbor while connecting them with family.
Over the past year, this work has been even more challenging. This includes dealing with the aftermath of the Family Separation Policy last summer and the latest federal budget deficiency actions that would erode immigrant, refugee and unaccompanied children’s services across our nation prohibiting the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) from funding legal supports, education and recreation programs for youth in our shelters, and supplemental services for refugees.
This latest action, which we oppose, would for example eliminate activities such as English as a second language classes, lessons in math, art, social studies and reading, organized sports, and field trips – programming that is not only required for shelters licensed by the State of Illinois’ Department of Children and Family Services, but is at the core of providing a nurturing and supportive environment for the children in our care. We find this decision unacceptable, and are fighting against these cuts, urging Congress and the administration to resolve the supplemental appropriation immediately so critical services are not lost.
The refugees and children we care for are very diverse in race and ethnicity, they have often traveled thousands of miles – alone – and many are fleeing violence or very dangerous situations. They are often scared and very sad when they arrive. They might be sick, or perhaps they’ve been robbed or abused, and they often arrive with next to nothing. In particular, unaccompanied children are highly vulnerable to being misled or exploited. Many refugees and unaccompanied children are also dealing with the experience of significant trauma—often their reason for fleeing—including witnessing or being a victim of violence perpetrated by gangs, drug cartels, the government, or their own family members. When they come through our doors, we provide a peaceful, healing environment, staffed by caring professionals who are dedicated to their well-being and who work to reconnect them with their family or sponsor as quickly as possible.
These shelters exist to provide a safe haven for children who cross our borders – without them, we fear for where these children could end up and leaving children alone at the border to fend for themselves is also unacceptable. Unaccompanied minors who cross into the United States seeking safety and refuge are vulnerable to trafficking and other abuses, and our mission is to protect them and connect them to a safe environment in the U.S. Calling for the elimination of protections and services harkens back to an unfortunate time when children were held in detention facilities that were managed through a criminal justice approach. We will always fight for the fair treatment of and opportunities for immigrants and their families and we oppose the criminal prosecution and imprisonment of asylum seekers and their families. We know that immigrants and refugees make our city and country stronger.