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Federal Agencies Seek Workers for Humanitarian Relief at Border

March 30, 2021, 8:14 PM

Federal agencies are asking their workers to volunteer to assist in humanitarian relief efforts at the U.S.-Mexico border as a surge of migrants, many of them children, overwhelm U.S. personnel there.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Chair Charlotte Burrows asked the civil rights agency’s employees to apply for deployment in 30- to 120-day stints, as part of an initiative spearheaded by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to a communiqué obtained by Bloomberg Law.

“These children are alone, frightened, separated from family, and currently being housed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in holding areas that were not meant for children beyond a short period of time,” Burrows said in an email Tuesday to EEOC employees. “To help solve this problem, we must rely on our family of exceptional Federal public servants to lend support to this humanitarian effort through a newly-announced detail opportunity.”

Burrows, a Democrat, said the border is facing an “unprecedented” influx of unaccompanied children.

The Labor Department confirmed to Bloomberg Law that it too has been asked to deploy workers to the border, the first such request made under the Obama, Trump, or Biden administrations. A similar effort is underway at the Environmental Protection Agency as well.

The calls to action are in line with a March 25 memo from the Office of Personnel Management that asked federal agencies to support efforts at the border by allowing willing workers to deploy. A total of about 1,000 volunteers are being sought from U.S. agencies, according to OPM.

The requests to DOL and EEOC employees came after President Joe Biden parried press conference questions about the rising tide of migrants in recent weeks, a trend he attributed to more favorable travel conditions than in the hotter North American months to come, rather than any change in policy by his administration.

U.S. senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) journeyed with others to the border on March 26, one day after Biden’s press conference, where they blamed the situation on the president’s reversal of policies enacted by his predecessor. Biden has tasked Vice President Kamala Harris with addressing the surge at the border.

Expanding the Call

U.S. Customs and Border Protection in February reported 9,457 encounters with unaccompanied children—migrants under 18 years of age without a legal parent or guardian—up from 5,858 such encounters in January and 4,993 in December 2020.

Those numbers are only slightly higher than previous influxes in migration at the border in 2019, said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council. The number of unaccompanied children encountered at the border began increasing last spring, he said, then rose rapidly in late January, and has continued to steadily climb since then, similar to the numbers from 2019.

Reichlin-Melnick said he wasn’t aware of non-Homeland Security employees or non-Justice Department employees being asked to respond to the border in those previous cycles.

The wider call to federal employees “does seem to reflect the whole of government approach that the Biden administration is taking towards processing children out of federal custody quickly,” he said. “Efforts to expand the volunteer workforce to non-enforcement agencies suggest to me the Biden administration is focused on looking at this more holistically.”

Customs and Border Protection representatives didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment on the additional staffing requests.

Border Tasks

Labor Department employees will be working as youth care workers and case managers, depending on Spanish language proficiency, Egan Reich, an agency spokesperson, said in an emailed response.

The EEOC employee detail is reimbursable and “all travel, lodging, and per diem” will be provided by the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, according to the agency’s call to action. However, “the detail is not a promotion opportunity.”

Covid-19 vaccinations aren’t required for EEOC workers to deploy, according to the EEOC memo. “Mental health support will be provided to volunteers on-site, as conditions may be unsettling for some,” the EEOC said.

Similar notices are being sent out to employees at other agencies.

The Office of Personnel Management is working with HHS to identify federal workers who can assist with efforts to care for and place unaccompanied children at the southern border, OPM spokeswoman Shelby Wagenseller said in a statement.

“We are actively working to screen, process and deploy these volunteers while continuing our recruitment efforts and exploration of other avenues to bolster staff resources at the border,” Wagenseller said.

OPM Acting Director Kathleen McGettigan in her March 25 memo to federal agencies said volunteers will need to undergo a child-care background investigation as required by the Crime Control Act before they can work independently with children. Those who haven’t been investigated can work on the detail “within sight and under the supervision of a staff person” who has completed such an investigation, McGettigan said.

Limited Appeal

The call for volunteers may not result in a lot of takers, because many federal agencies are understaffed, said Steve Lenkart, executive director of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

“The thought of leaving to come back to a headache is probably pretty limiting in terms of appeal,” Lenkart said. Plus, kudos from the White House “won’t do much good come performance time” if supervisors aren’t pleased with employees’ extended absences, he said.

The national office of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents workers at a variety of federal agencies, including the DOL and the EEOC, declined to comment.

While the deployment to the border is unprecedented, this type of federal agency undertaking is not. Labor Department workers have been sent to help with U.S. disaster response, for example to assist after hurricanes.

The DOL most recently sent about 45 volunteers to Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands after hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, an agency spokesperson said in an email. The EEOC too has sent employees to assist with hurricane relief, EEOC spokesperson Christine Nazer said in an emailed statement.

To contact the reporters on this story: Paige Smith in Washington at psmith@bloomberglaw.com; Louis C. LaBrecque in Washington at llabrecque@bloomberglaw.com; Genevieve Douglas in Washington at gdouglas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew Harris at aharris@bloomberglaw.com; Travis Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

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