News and analysis
November 14, 2014

Even as Border Crossings Slow, Work for Nonprofits Ramps Up

In past years, the Latin American Association in Atlanta provided full legal representation to about 40 undocumented immigrant children seeking asylum in the United States, according to Executive Director Jeffrey Tapia.

This year, it’s taking on 120 cases.

"We have children who arrive here not speaking for months because they have endured trauma and violence that is unimaginable," Ms. Tapia said.

This fall, the Obama administration touted its success in curbing the number of unaccompanied minors entering the United States following a one-year record that saw 68,541 new arrivals, most from violence-ridden Central America. But at nonprofits providing legal and other services to undocumented children, the work is just ramping up. And groups are grappling with an array of pressures, including needs for increased staffing, additional office space, supplemental training, and intensified fundraising efforts.

"It is going to be a long haul," said Diana Campoamor, president of Hispanics in Philanthropy, which has played a central role in the philanthropic response to the influx of children. "Unless the core issues that sent them here are resolved, I think we are going to continue to see refugee children coming into the states."

Growing Need

The Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, in Washington, will provide legal services to about 1,000 children this year, twice the number it served in 2013, according to Executive Director Kathy Doan.

"We have slowly been increasing our children’s program, but this summer it basically just exploded," Ms. Doan said. "In the last couple of months we have essentially doubled our staff. I’m now subleasing three additional offices in [our] building so we are now on four floors."

Ayuda, a nonprofit with offices in Washington and Falls Church, Va., served 94 undocumented children in 2013, according to interim executive director Barbara Laur. In the first 10 months of 2014, it saw 198. The nonprofit currently has about 30 full-time staff members, including seven lawyers who each spend at least some time on cases involving children, Ms. Laur says. Legal representation costs about $1,500 per child, she estimated.

"Space—we are really cramped," Ms. Laur said, noting the pressure the influx of children has caused at the nonprofit. "It is pushing us in terms of our operational systems and the ability to handle more staff, more pieces of paper, more requests, more invoices, and that kind of thing."

More Support

Public attention on the spike in unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border has meant at least some increased public and private funding but not enough to meet the needs, nonprofit officials said. In September, the Obama administration said it would spend $9-million over two years to provide legal services for 2,600 immigrant children. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill creating a $3-million fund for legal services. New York City and San Francisco created their own funds, committing $4.9-million and $2.1-million, respectively.

In October, the California Endowment said it had raised $1.5-million in cash and millions more in free media time for a special fund to support newly arrived immigrant children. Major donors included Salesforce.com founder Marc Benioff, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Marguerite Casey Foundation.

Hispanics in Philanthropy is administering the fund based on analysis of the needs conducted by Grantmakers Concerned With Immigrants and Refugees. Grants range from $15,000 to $180,000. Recipients include the Latin American Association in Atlanta, Centro Legal de la Raza in Oakland, and Catholic Charities affiliates in several cities.

"The grants are made. The lawyers are on board. The most immediate need is for these children to have an opportunity to have their cases heard," Ms. Campoamor said. "But there are many other needs."

Mental-Health Services

Among the most pressing are mental-health services, nonprofit professionals say. Many of the newly arrived children have lived one trauma after another: gang and domestic violence in their home countries, assault on the journey north, and fraught reunifications with family members they hardly know in the United States.

During nearly five years at Ayuda, supervising social worker Lisa Groat has worked on scores of difficult cases. Still, as her roster of clients grew this year even she was struck by the stories shared in her Virginia office. A dearth of Spanish-speaking therapists with experience treating young trauma victims has her dipping into her own wallet to pay for additional training.

"There is no one I can refer [them] to," said Ms. Groat, who originally trained in adult therapy. "I have felt morally obligated to try and offer that service myself."

Late last month, she passed out information at a resource fair at a nearby elementary school with a large number of immigrant families. And Ayuda has seen an increase in the number of requests for trainings for service providers working with undocumented families, she said.

Ms. Tapia of the Latin American Association said she and her colleagues are working with local service providers to gather mental-health resources.

Still, for all of the challenges presented by the increased numbers of children passing through their offices this year, nonprofit officials said they remained committed, even upbeat, about the work.

"It is very critical work, and if we are able to help them get legal representation, and potentially protection in the United States for those who are eligible, that is huge transformational service," Ms. Tapia said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.