Federal Coordinating Officer
Federal Emergency Management Agency
Coordinated emergency assistance when tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America crossed the Southwest border, providing them food, shelter and medical care, and helping unite the children with family members.
In the summer of 2014, the surge of tens of thousands of unaccompanied Central American children illegally crossing the Southwest border created a humanitarian crisis, overwhelming immigration officials who sought to provide housing, food and medical care for the vulnerable youngsters while simultaneously trying to halt the flow of refugees.
As the situation escalated, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) were dispatched to the South Texas border to coordinate the government’s response involving Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the military and Texas authorities. Led by Kevin Hannes, FEMA’s job was to ensure these agencies more quickly provided the children with clean, safe places to eat and sleep, medical care and proper legal assistance as the authorities concentrated on immigration issues.
Brent Peters, a U.S. Border Patrol assistant chief, said the “unprecedented numbers of unaccompanied minors backed up the border stations due to a shortfall in bed capacity and transportation assets,” and “stretched our operational capacity by having border patrol agents caring for these kids instead of conducting border security.”
“The HHS shelter capacity was overwhelmed and we needed help in this crisis,” said Peters. “Kevin Hannes and his FEMA personnel quickly gained knowledge of the complexity and peculiarities of how unaccompanied minors are handled. They were able to see the situation from the outside, recognize where efficiencies could be gleaned and how to quickly bring about interagency agreements and coordination to enhance our capabilities.”
Sandy Coachman, a FEMA coordinating officer and Hannes’ supervisor, said Hannes was “a very strong leader who guided the effort,” and with his FEMA Operation Precious Cargo Team in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, “helped bring the agencies together” to deal with the difficult and politically-sensitive refugee crisis.
The FEMA team streamlined the process of getting the children out of crowded detention centers and uniting them with family members in U.S., cutting that time by more than 75 percent.
“We were able to get many children in shelters from detention in less than 24-hours, and we also made decisions to ensure siblings were together and going to the same shelter,” said Hannes. “At the beginning of the crisis, it took about 45 to 60 days from apprehension by CBP to get the kids united with relatives in the United States. By the end, we got that down to less than 10 days from apprehension.”
CBP can legally hold unaccompanied minors for no more than 72 hours before they must be turned over to an HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for administering shelters. Under the law, youngsters are placed in deportation proceedings after they are caught, but refugee officials must try to find parents or other relatives who can care for the children while they move through the immigration courts. If no relative or adult sponsor can be found, the children remain in federal care until their deportation cases are completed.
This system, however, was breaking down. Between Oct. 1, 2013 and June of 2014 when Hannes and his team were officially dispatched to Texas, some 47,000 children traveling without parents were caught crossing the Southwest border, with the majority apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. By the end of the year, 69,000 children had been detained, many having fled gang violence and poverty in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
As a result of the huge influx and lack of capacity and organization, children were being held by CBP in overcrowded, temporary shelters for weeks on end instead of just a maximum of three days as required by law. Siblings were separated, problems tracking cases mounted and it was taking up to two months or longer for authorities to find relatives of the children in the U.S.
“We just couldn’t keep up with the spike in refugees in May and June. Our bed capacity was at a maximum and very quickly there were more than 1,000 kids who were in CBP custody for more than 72 hours,” said Kate Wolff of the HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement. “FEMA came in and put together a unified coordination group with representatives from all over government. The goal was to get everyone in the same place at the same time to improve communication.”
Hannes and his team of about 40 people set up an emergency operations center, established new administrative procedures to better track cases, brought in bilingual speakers to assist in the processing of cases, helped facilitate the efforts by the Army and Air Force to open new shelters at installations in California, Oklahoma and Texas, coordinated the work of volunteer agencies, assisted public health workers and brought in volunteers from FEMA Corps, a partnership with the Corporation for National and Community Service, to hand out food, water and clothing.
Peters of CBP said Hannes and his team made a big difference.
“Kevin and his team dedicated many hours to this effort and he was a great ally, contributing significantly to ensuring these kids were put in safe and secure environments as quickly and efficiently as possible,” said Peters.