Yolo detention center for immigrant youths pressured after cuts by Trump administration

A Trump administration decision to slash funding for recreational and educational programming for unaccompanied minors at migrant shelters nationwide is forcing Yolo County’s juvenile detention facility to re-evaluate how it will support the immigrant youths under its supervision.

The U.S. Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, sent a letter to Yolo County last week stating that after May 22, 2019, “all costs budgeted for recreational or educational activities” would no longer be reimbursed by the federal government.

Yolo County’s juvenile detention facility is one of three high-security facilities in the country that houses undocumented immigrant teenagers deemed to pose a risk to themselves or others by federal immigration officials.

“Well, it doesn’t say much,” said county spokeswoman Beth Gabor regarding the ORR letter sent by federal official Mark Boss. “We’re still trying to figure out what that means ... so as a result we’re not changing our programming at this time.”

Immigrant youths at the Yolo County juvenile detention center “are afforded the same education privileges as that of Yolo County youths in the juvenile hall,” Gabor said.

That includes courses taught in an educational setting, a library, sports and fitness classes, a game room and movie nights, art and poetry writing classes and pet therapy – programs that set the teenagers up to be successful when they leave the juvenile hall, Gabor said.

David Lichtenhan, board chair for the Yolo Interfaith Immigrant Network, said that the loss of funding for recreational and education programming is particularly damaging for migrant teens, who often lack access to youth development resources.

“If the federal government says they’re in a crunch so they’re not going to give you any money for education, that is ludicrous,” Lichtenhan said.

“And if you don’t give children exercise and that team environment of sports, they’re missing a whole part of life. If they don’t have sports available, they just have way too much time on their hands to get in trouble.”

Gabor did not immediately have information on how much the county currently spends on recreational and educational programming for the detention center’s immigrant youths.

Over the last year, an average of about 15 children stayed at the Youth Detention Center as part of the Office of Refugee Resettlement program. There are currently nine children from the program at the detention center.

Rising budget pressures stemming from the influx of migrants across the southern border have forced federal officials to direct funding to essential services, U.S. Health and Humans Services spokesperson Mark Weber told The Washington Post. The cuts were first reported by Reveal.

Recreational and educational activities were deemed “not directly necessary for the protection of life and safety,” Weber told the Post.

An ORR representative could not be immediately reached for comment.

Last year, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted to keep open its juvenile detention facility after a recommendation to close because inadequate staffing was leading to frequent injuries and assaults against employees.

Residents argued at the contentious board meeting that if the immigrant youths had to remain detained in shelters, they would be better served in a more tolerant Yolo County facility rather than being transferred to an unknown or dangerous location.

One of the other high-security detention facilities was sued last year for allegedly keeping detainees in “inhumane” conditions, including violence, psychological abuse and excessive isolation and restraint.

The federal government eventually agreed to give an additional $2 million to the county to boost staffing. A state audit later found that Yolo County paid about $700,000 for certain education, medical and programming services that should have been covered by the federal government.

In April, an average of 12,500 unaccompanied migrant children stayed in federal shelters nationwide, according to HHS.

None of the teens at the Yolo County juvenile detention center are youths who were separated from their family as a result of the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” immigration policy.

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Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
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