OKLAHOMA CITY -- Even as it prepares to move hundreds of immigrant children to Oklahoma, the cash-strapped federal agency tasked with caring for them said Tuesday it has been forced to scale back or cut the education, legal and recreation programs it offers the youth.
The "humanitarian crisis at the border brought on by a broken immigration system" is putting a tremendous strain on the Office of Refugee Resettlement and its unaccompanied minor program, said spokeswoman Evelyn Stauffer in an email. The agency has eliminated programs not necessary for the protection of life and safety.
Stauffer said the Department of Health and Human Services needs $2.88 billion in emergency funding from Congress so it can adequately care for thousands of unaccompanied minors who have arrived at the border without a parent or guardian.
"Additional resources are urgently required to meet the humanitarian needs created by this influx -- to both sustain critical child welfare and release operations and increase capacity," she said.
As many as 1,400 unaccompanied immigrant children are expected to arrive in Oklahoma. They'll live temporarily in an emergency shelter at Fort Sill, the U.S. Army base in Lawton. Officials said Tuesday they had not yet determined an arrival date for the youth.
Immigrant children caught in the country without proper documentation -- and without parents -- must be held in special facilities until they can be reunited with an adult.
Their numbers have skyrocketed in recent months, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement operated by Department of Health and Human Services. The federal agency plans to use vacant facilities on the base to house the youth.
In budget year 2019, the department reported already receiving referrals for nearly 41,000 unaccompanied children. That's up nearly 57 percent from the same period the previous year, according to data provided by the federal Administration for Children and Families.
"There's no question that not only (Health and Human Services), but all the immigration agencies have been overwhelmed by the numbers of people arriving illegally," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies with the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based research institute.
She said nearly two-thirds of the people arriving illegally are families with children or youth arriving alone. Those youth often are smuggled or trafficked to the border, she said.
"Right now the families with kids are being released, but there are still tens of thousands of unaccompanied kids arriving," she said. "We have to be careful not only how they're treated, but how their cases are handled."
She said former President Barack Obama's administration focused on transferring minors as quickly as possible to sponsors. But that approach led to some "disasters," she said. Those included children ending up as indentured servants at an egg farm or youth being placed in the custody of abusers or gangs.
President Donald Trump's administration prefers a more thorough screening in effort to ensure placement is safe, she said. That requires children to be held longer, which taxes the capacity of the system, Vaughan said.
The entire shelter system has increased in costs over the years because more and more youth are arriving and are being held longer, she said.
Congress, meanwhile, hasn't given the federal agency the resources to keep up.
"The agency is getting squeezed on both ends," Vaughan said. "They can't keep going at the same level of services. They made a decision to cut back in some ways on the services provided so that they can still avoid releasing kids to inappropriate placements and keep up with the numbers."
Despite the cutbacks, Vaughan said the conditions at the shelters are safe. The children are being fed, have access to health care and are provided access to some activities, just not as many as before, she said.
"I think anyone would recognize that it would be better to put the limited funding toward health care than soccer games if it comes down to it," she said.
Vaughan said it will be interesting to see if Oklahoma's community groups step in to fill the gaps when the youth arrive at Fort Sill.
In an email, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said Republicans believe ensuring proper care for children in the government's care is important. He remains willing to work with Democrats to provide the necessary funds to do so.
"President Trump made a reasonable funding request to address the humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border, including money to process and care for the growing number of vulnerable unaccompanied children arriving -- some of whom may be housed at Fort Sill in the coming days," he said.
Cole, whose congressional district includes Lawton, said Republicans hoped to see that request included in a recently passed disaster relief bill, but Democrats refused that request.
"The fact is that HHS is running out of money and options if Democrats refuse to act on this request," he said. "Further delay is irresponsible."
U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said a Senate committee is set to consider a measure this week that would provide additional funding and secure the border.
"Because we have more unaccompanied minors apprehended crossing the border at this time than at any point in the last decade, we need to make sure (Health and Human Services) has sufficient resources to care for these minors without having to take them from the military," he said in an email.
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.