Bethany Christian Services is seeking to open a Bucks County shelter for a dozen migrant children who crossed the U.S. border with Mexico, becoming at least the third group to attempt to house undocumented youths in the Philadelphia region.

The global nonprofit says it’s acting solely out of a deep-rooted desire to help children. But efforts to establish these kinds of shelters have been hugely controversial in the Philadelphia area, with immigration activists staging protests against the confinement of children who came to the United States seeking safety.

The Bethany program would be relatively small, housing boys aged 15 to 17 at an existing property in Bensalem. The children would come from among the thousands of “unaccompanied minors” who entered the country alone, usually fleeing dangerous conditions in Central America.

The federal government spends billions of dollars on programs to aid, house, and care for those children, and contracts to shelter them can be worth millions.

Nathan Bult, Bethany’s vice president of public and government affairs, declined to estimate how much Bethany would be paid, saying that was a topic of negotiation with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR).

In Devon, behavioral health provider Devereux is slated to receive an initial payment of up to $14 million to house 42 undocumented children ages 5 to 12. That money also will help Devereux plan and potentially open four new shelters and a foster care program in other states.

Earlier this month, protesters blocked the street leading to the headquarters of Devereux, which seeks to open a shelter in Devon that would house migrant children who crossed the southern border alone.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Earlier this month, protesters blocked the street leading to the headquarters of Devereux, which seeks to open a shelter in Devon that would house migrant children who crossed the southern border alone.

In North Philadelphia, Arizona-based VisionQuest will be paid up to $5.3 million to house 60 boys ages 12 to 17. That for-profit company has already renovated the Logan neighborhood site where its previous youth program closed in 2017 after staff members were found to have punched and choked children under their care.

Neither program has opened. Both have been targets of protesters who say migrant youth shelters are little more than comfortable jails, run by agencies aiming to profit off the misery of brown and black children.

The opposition has been led by Juntos, the Latino advocacy group, and Never Again Action, a Jewish-led organization. On Thursday, Juntos executive director Erika Almiron called Bethany yet another provider “seeking to profit off the incarceration of our children.”

“We must push back against the expansion of child detention in the U.S.,” she said. “Our children deserve better than that.”

VisionQuest’s proposed shelter in Logan has been stalled by zoning and court challenges. Last week, about 40 activists rallied outside the headquarters of Devereux, which says its efforts are driven by an ethical imperative to help young people.

The housing of migrant children has become a growth industry in the U.S., as large numbers of young people trek north. The number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border spiked to 72,873 in the first 11 months of fiscal year 2019, surpassing the record of 68,541 in 2014, according to the Congressional Research Service. About 90% of the children come from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador, where gangs and street violence are endemic.

Bethany’s mission is to demonstrate the compassion of Christ by protecting children, empowering youth, and strengthening families through quality social services, according to its most recent federal tax statement.

The group is based in Grand Rapids, Mich., and operates in at least 34 states and seven foreign countries. It had revenues of $114 million and expenses of $112 million in 2017. In Pennsylvania, Bethany is best known for its work in foster care and adoption.

Online employment advertisements show Bethany is hiring for its Bensalem program, seeking a bilingual teacher and bilingual case manager.

Bult said no federal funding has been awarded and no lease signed. He declined to name the site where the children would be housed, though others identified the proposed locale as the St. Francis-St. Vincent Homes on Bristol Pike.

A typical bedroom inside the VisionQuest facility on Old York Road in Philadelphia, where the agency plans to house unaccompanied migrant children.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
A typical bedroom inside the VisionQuest facility on Old York Road in Philadelphia, where the agency plans to house unaccompanied migrant children.

Bethany would provide the children with education, health, and counseling services while working to unite them with relatives already in the country or with sponsor families, Bult said. The population of teens would rotate, with new youths arriving to take the place of those who depart to placements.

Bethany has publicly opposed the separation of families at the border and spoken out against the large-scale confinement of children, such as in the tent cities that rose in Texas. It has endorsed small group homes as a means to provide comfort, activities, and community outings.

In the last five years, Bethany says, its programs in other states have reunified more than 5,000 children with family members. Bult said almost all those children were placed in 45 to 60 days. That’s about equal to the systemwide average of 50 days for the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Conditions at the border can make it difficult or impossible to determine who is truly “unaccompanied.” Generally, that term refers to a child who comes to the country without a parent or legal guardian. But lawyers and investigators have reported that children who enter the United States with an aunt, uncle, or other relative who is not a parent are being separated from those family members.

Once apprehended by U.S. border authorities, children are to be transferred within 72 hours to ORR custody, and from there placed within a network of shelters. Those facilities hold the children until they can be released to a sponsor or family member.

“Our team is committed to the kids,” Bult said, “to keeping them safe and to reuniting them with their families.”