For over ten years, YouthCare has been running a program called Casa de Los Amigos (Casa) for unaccompanied youth arriving at the U.S. border. The majority of youth served at Casa are fleeing war, gang violence, human trafficking, and extreme poverty. They arrive at Casa alone, with next to nothing.

Casa, which is supported by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), works to reunify youth with family in the United States while providing loving and dignified care. This includes customized supports, bilingual and trauma-informed case management, access to legal aid, physical and mental health care, and education.

Unaccompanied, undocumented children have historically been protected in the United States under the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA). The law mandates that the U.S. determine if unaccompanied youth who arrive at the border are at risk of trafficking or fear returning to their home counties; it also directs Customs and Border Protection to transfer care and custody of these youth to ORR within 72 hours to be placed into full immigration court proceedings.

However, since March 2020, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been violating the TVPRA under the guise of national security. DHS has illegally applied Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) guidance as a means to justify expelling nearly 9,000 unaccompanied minors. This is immoral and wrong.

The pandemic is no excuse to shutter programs for youth, especially when sending them back home can be a death sentence. YouthCare has not closed any programs for young people during this pandemic; to the contrary, we have strived to the best of our ability to mitigate the risk of exposure to COVID while providing 24/7 care. The U.S. government should be doing the same. We can—and should be—transferring these youth to shelter programs like YouthCare’s Casa de Los Amigos where they can find safety and stability while working to reunify with family.

Here is what safety looks like in our under-18 programs, including Casa de Los Amigos:

  • Temperature checks and health questionnaire upon entry for all staff
  • Prohibition of volunteers or other guests
  • Telephonic medical appointments for non-urgent issues to reduce exposure at hospitals/clinics
  • Temperature and symptom checks of youth twice a day
  • Increased cleaning protocols and frequent sanitization of high-touch areas
  • Mask-wearing for all staff and youth at all times
  • Re-arrangement of common areas and school to promote safe social distancing
  • Adherence of local and state regulations related to gathering sizes and outdoor recreation
  • Emergency response plan for COVID, including isolation and quarantine measures, in case of a positive case

YouthCare’s under-18 programs are small, ranging from 10 to 14 beds, and currently offer each young person their own individual room (our Casa program can accommodate up to 20 youth in two separate locations, yet has not served any young people since June). Using these protocols, none of the youth staying at Casa—or any of YouthCare’s under-18 shelters—have contracted COVID.

Trafficked youth do not pose a risk to this country, nor are they at any more risk of contracting COVID than the rest of us. Those are lies propagated by the U.S. government as a means to implement what has been its goal from the start: closing the border and vilifying immigrants and refugees.

COVID does not give the Department of Homeland Security freedom to break the law. These practices violate the TVPRA and the rights of young people. We urge DHS to process all unaccompanied minors at the border in accordance with the law.