2021 | Government

County Council committees support spending $5.4M to help migrant children

Funds proposed for staffing in county health department, schools

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This story was updated at around noon on July 23, 2021, to correct part of what Diego Uriburu said at Thursday’s meeting.

Two County Council committees on Thursday supported spending about $5.4 million to help serve migrant children and their families seeking asylum in Montgomery County.

It’s up to the full County Council to approve the money.

If approved, the money would be used to hire more than three dozen support workers within the county’s Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Montgomery County Public Schools. It includes a coordinator position in each to help lead those efforts.

According to a presentation from DHHS and MCPS officials, there are 473 unaccompanied children countywide who have crossed the southern border through May, of whom, 182 of whom came in April or May.

County officials are preparing for the possibility of unaccompanied migrant children, although It’s not clear how many that might be.  

County Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz, the chair of the council’s Health and Human Services Committee, said he recently toured McAllen, Texas, and the areas across the border in Mexico a few months ago to assess the situation.

Families in Mexico, right across from McAllen, are living in extreme poverty and distress, Albornoz said.

Even though immigration laws often fall to federal lawmakers, he said, it’s important for local officials, including those in Montgomery County, to do their part and offer opportunities for children and families seeking asylum.

“Because of the national federal policies that have been enacted by previous presidents … we are seeing a humanitarian crisis that is unfolding before our very eyes,” Albornoz said. 

The funds would also be used for staffing to help teach English to students and families in schools, along with professional development.

On the health side, case workers would be added, along with various professionals in behavioral and mental health and general health services, among other positions. 

Council Member Nancy Navarro said her colleagues and county officials better understand the issue and how to address it than when she was first elected.

Navarro asked school officials what is being done to hire linguistically proficient staff to prepare for more asylum seekers. She said she is happy that officials have taken the issue seriously, and have a plan.

“There is a lot of work to do, but it is also important to recognize that all of this is happening in our own hemisphere. … I know … all politics is local, but there always is a geopolitical connection,” she said of the importance of helping those crossing the border.

Raymond Crowel, the director of DHHS, said he and colleagues expect many more children in the coming months, due to them fleeing poverty and dangerous situations in Mexico.

Navarro proposed an amendment — which the council’s Health and Human Services Committee and Education and Culture Committee supported unanimously — adding about $300,000 to the initial $5.1 million proposal, for a new total of $5.4 million. The extra $300,000 is proposed for four street outreach network positions, to help the coordinators assist migrants and connect them to services offered in Montgomery County.

Diego Uriburu, who sits on the county’s Latino Health Steering Committee, said the funding is a good first step. But he urged council members to think about including money for recreation opportunities and gang prevention intervention. 

Council members from both committees agreed that the funding they supported Thursday was just the start of addressing the issue.

“This is a great phase-one approach,” Navarro said. “But there’s no doubt that we need to come back and address a structural approach to all of these issues.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com