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Rep. Donna Shalala On Migrant Children Program Cuts


The Department of Health and Human Services says they've run out of money to fund education, recreation and legal services for migrant children who are in U.S. custody. They say the large number of migrant crossings has strained the budget of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of HHS, so they have to scale back the programs that are, quote, "not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety."

We're joined now by Florida Congresswoman Donna Shalala. She was HHS secretary during the Clinton administration. Thanks so much for being with us, Representative.

DONNA SHALALA: You're welcome.

SIMON: One thousand - one hundred and forty-four thousand-plus individuals were either detained at or turned away from the U.S.-Mexico border in May. That's nearly triple the amount of a year ago. That includes almost 12,000 unaccompanied children who typically end up in HHS detention centers. You once ran that department. If the money just isn't there, doesn't the department have to make hard choices?

SHALALA: No, it doesn't because the money is there in the federal government, and we intend to give them more money. But cutting out legal services, recreational services and other kinds of services to these children is just unacceptable, particularly cutting out their schooling. And the for-profit agency that is running these services is making lots of money. All the not-for-profits have announced that they're going to continue these services. The for-profit agency that they hired has said it will not. So it's simply blackmail to get the Congress to appropriate more money. We're in the appropriations process. I will be introducing an amendment to make sure these services continue, as will my colleagues.

But this is cruelty. If these children were in a federal prison, they would get more services than they're currently getting. They would have four times as much time to talk to their family members on the telephone. They would have twice as much time to eat. Federal prisoners - criminals - get a lot better services than these children. This is really a stain on our soul. We should not be doing this to children - unbelievable cruelty. More importantly, they should be using the money to get these children to their sponsors, to their family members. They're spending twice as much time as any previous administration to move these children out quickly to family members. And I think they've misdiagnosed the problem, and they've mishandled...

SIMON: Well...

SHALALA: ...The whole situation.

SIMON: ...You seem to be suggesting that they're trying to hold up Congress for more money by withholding services from children and families especially. I will just remind everybody, Democrats control the House, don't they? Why don't they just vote for more money? Do you have to be convinced on that?

SHALALA: No, we don't have to be convinced on that. But they simply submitted that request a couple of weeks ago, and it's being reviewed, and the debate on appropriations is beginning next week. But they have the money within the government. Look; we've just spent $100 million to protect the president as he plays golf, and that $100 million came from the...

SIMON: Well, we're talking about $2.88 billion here, yeah.

SHALALA: Yes, but much of that is to go to his building a wall, not just for the services for children. We can find the money to take care of services for the children, but what's important here is the cruelty of the way we're administering this program and what's happening to these children. They're mishandling the whole situation. These children should not be kept in detention for long periods of time. They must move them out as quickly as possible to their families and to sponsors. That they're not doing. They're using for-profit organizations that have every interest in keeping these children in detention.

SIMON: Representative Donna Shalala of Florida, thanks so much.

SHALALA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.