The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to create a host-family program to house up to 50 unaccompanied immigrant minors -- placing the county in the midst of the national debate over the wave of children and youth, mostly from Central America, who have been illegally crossing the U.S. border in large numbers for the past several years.
The board voted 4 to 1 on the issue, with Board President Mike Wasserman opposing the program due to county resources he said are already stretched thin.
The program will cost an estimated $200,000 to create, according to the county. The estimated monthly cost to place each child is $2,000.
County administration is now tasked with returning to the board on Aug. 26 with a full implementation plan for the program, including
a service model with community partners
the status of obtaining necessary state and federal approvals and financial commitments
a plan for recruitment and support for local host families
logistics for transportation and placement of children in Santa Clara County
a strategy for helping reunify children with their families, in cooperation with the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement
The board also directed county counsel to explore and report back on efforts to identify pro bono attorneys who can provide legal representation to the children.
The host-family model will be similar to a student-exchange program, according to the county's statement. Volunteer families would be screened and children would be evaluated and placed in homes for support, housing and daily care.
The host-family program will be separate from the current foster care system, according to the county, and does not interfere with or use foster care resources. Unlike the foster-family model, families of these children have not relinquished parental rights and their cases are pending in refugee court rather than juvenile court.
If the board approves the program on Aug. 26, the county will begin preparing to place up to 50 children. The county said that reimbursement is expected from the federal government.
Citing the program's costs, Wasserman maintained his opposition to the program.
"I cannot support the creation of a new program, further stretching our resources, when I know we have so many unmet needs in our community already," he said.
According to the county, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office estimates that more than 90,000 unaccompanied children will cross into the United States in 2014. This is almost three times the known number in 2013.
Some of those children, who are most often fleeing gang violence and/or unstable family situations, are leaving with the goal of getting to Santa Clara and San Mateo counties to reunify with family members living here, particularly in East Palo Alto, Redwood City and San Mateo, according to Community Legal Services of East Palo Alto attorney Helen Beasley.
Beasley, who focuses on juvenile immigration cases, said she has seen young clients coming to the area from Central America primarily El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras since 2011, though the numbers have steadily increased since then. (Read Local nonprofit aids in Central American immigrant crisis)
"We each have a moral obligation to help relieve human suffering," Supervisor Dave Cortese said in a statement. "Santa Clara County is standing with those communities around the nation who have offered to provide a safe haven for these refugee children who are awaiting federal asylum hearings."
A 2008 federal anti-trafficking law ensures that unaccompanied immigrant minors caught at the border have a chance to stay in the United States rather than be deported immediately. The William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act guarantees an automatic legal hearing to unaccompanied children who are not from Mexico or Canada and who have crossed the border illegally.
The Act also directs them to be placed under the care of the federal Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is charged with reuniting the children with U.S.-based family members, if possible. During this process, they are housed in ORR shelters, which are located not just at the border but across the country (including one across the San Francisco Bay in Pleasant Hill, near Walnut Creek).
Santa Clara County's host-family program will be developed in collaboration with local community organizations that currently provide related services, including the Bill Wilson Center, Catholic Charities, EMQ Families First, Community Health Partnership, Center for Employment Training (CET), Working Partnerships USA, Services Refugee Rights & Education Network (SIREN) and Unity Care.