Religions condemn family separations but are their charities helping implement them?

The Department of Health and Human Services has $378 million in contracts with faith-based non-profits for its Unaccompanied Alien Children programs.

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Archbishop for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, in 2015. CREDIT: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

The Trump administration’s policy of separating immigrating families at the border and putting babies and children into detention facilities as “unaccompanied” has drawn virtually universal condemnation from the leaders of almost every American religion. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the policy change on April 6, and since then, thousands of children have been torn from their parents, according to DHS data.

The program through which this cruel policy is being implemented — the Department of Health and Human Service’s (HHS) Unaccomplished Alien Children (UAC) program — has hundreds of millions of dollars worth of current contracts with the charitable arms of many of those faith groups. They receive hundreds of millions of dollars from the government to care for these and other undocumented kids.

ThinkProgress reviewed USASpending data for fiscal year 2018 and found more than $378 million in HHS contracts to faith-based non-profits and religious groups for the UAC program. These contracts went to tax-exempt groups affiliated with the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, and the Baptist, Jewish, and Lutheran communities, as well as to non-denominational Christian charities. These agreements were to provide various types of care for “unaccompanied minors” which may include those separated from their parents by the Trump administration and those who migrated to the U.S. not accompanied by family.

Most of these agreements were put into place long before the “zero-tolerance” policy was put in place. But now these religious groups must decide whether to continue to work in this system — a decision one non-profit executive called a moral “conundrum.”


Ronald E. Richter, CEO of the Jewish Child Care Association on New York, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview that his agency entered into a contract during the Obama administration to provide foster care for unaccompanied minors for whom family cannot be found. While his agency has not yet been asked to care for any youths who have been separated from their families, he is not sure what its answer would be.

“It’s an abhorrent policy, one that JCCA does not in any way support. These kids will be traumatized for life and JCCA did not enter into a contract with the federal government in order to support that policy. We never would,” he noted. But he said it’s a harder question to consider whether they’d care for “these infants being caged like animals,” rather than leaving them in worse conditions. “If it’s done and I can’t control what the government does, [child welfare agencies] have an obligation to care for those children with the highest quality.”

ThinkProgress reached out to each asking whether they were now rethinking these agreements in light of the recent revelations about the program and their faith tenets. Some responded.

The contractees include:


BCFS Health and Human Services, a group of non-profits previously known as Baptist Child and Family Services and historically affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, received more than $165 million in UAC contracts. A BCFS employee told ThinkProgress that the organization was not taking any reporter calls and referred all questions to a Washington, D.C. number that turned out to be a Department of Health and Human Services press line. Later, a BCFS public information officer said in an email that BCFS “has never been involved in making immigration policy,” but rather provides “professional compassionate care to the hurting, disenfranchised and vulnerable who have been affected by life circumstances and disasters” and “outstanding, high quality care for unaccompanied minors.”


“If it was not for organizations within the BCFS System and other providers, these children would not be able to stay in shelters that provide badly needed food, health care and counseling,” the email said. “Turning our back on them would not be morally acceptable. The alternative for the children would be to remain in overcrowded law enforcement facilities, and we consider this a totally unacceptable solution to the situation at hand. Further, throughout our history, we have always believed children should remain with their families, unless they are victims of abuse, neglect or harm. We, as an organization, on a daily basis work diligently to assist US families in many communities to remain together and healthy.”

Leaders of both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have opposed separating families.


United States Conference of Catholic Bishops received more than $17.8 million in UAC contracts. The president of the Conference, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, strongly condemned the policy of family separation last week, saying, “Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together.”

The Catholic Bishop of Chicago received more than $9.7 million in UAC contracts. A spokesperson referred ThinkProgress to a statement Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Archbishop of Chicago, in which he said, “There is nothing remotely Christian, American, or morally defensible about a policy that takes children away from their parents and warehouses them in cages. This is being carried out in our name and the shame is on us all.”

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston received more than $11.3 million in UAC contracts. Its archbishop is Cardinal DiNardo, who condemned the policy on behalf of the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Miami received more than $6 million in UAC contracts.

Seton Home, part of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of San Antonio, received  more than $5.6 million in UAC contracts.


Catholic Guardian, a New York-based non-profit created by the St. Vincent de Paul Society, received more than $12.7 million in UAC contracts.

MercyFirst, a New York-based ministry of the the Sisters of Mercy, received more than $11.6 million in UAC contracts.

Holy Family Institute, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit created by the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, received more than $6.6 million in UAC contracts. The group’s CEO Sister Linda Yankoski pointed ThinkProgress to comments she’d made in the Post-Gazette, noting that her charity provides “very short-term placement” to  unaccompanied children between age 4 and 17. These kids come from a variety of countries and situations — not just families separated by the administration– she noted and the Institute aims to make those kids “feel safe and secure.”

St. Peter – St. Joseph Children’s Home, a San Antonio-based non-profit created by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and affiliated with the Archdiocese of San Antonio, received more than $12.4 million in UAC contracts.

In addition to the strong condemnation of family separation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Pope Francis himself have also made clear their opposition to this Trump administration policy.


Jewish Child Care Association of New York, a non-profit created by the Hebrew Benevolent Society, received more than $2.2 million in UAC contracts.

Dozens of Jewish organizations have condemned the policy, saying it “undermines the values of our nation and jeopardizes the safety and well-being of thousands of people.”


Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service received more than $39.9 million in UAC contracts. A spokesperson told ThinkProgress: “We at LIRS deeply oppose any policy that separates children from their parents for the purpose of deterring immigration to the United States. However, the young children who have been separated from their parents should not be doubly punished. We are compelled to ensure that these children are placed into safe and loving homes until they can join a sponsor or be reunited with their families. Our short-term foster care programs present alternatives to detention that follow child welfare best practices to place children in smaller, least restrictive settings. Every home we find for these children lessens the possibility that they will be placed in a large scale shelter. This is the work that LIRS has been doing for years with our network partners across the country, and we will continue to ensure that the children who come through our doors will be given the care and support they need.”

Lutheran Social Services of Metropolitan New York received more than $5.7 million in UAC contracts. In a press release, the organization’s president said “It is at the very core of LSSNY’s mission to preserve and unite families. We work to ensure that children are reunited with their families, quickly and safely.” He added that, “As a faith-based provider, it is because of our Christian tradition that we remain committed to serving the most vulnerable among us with compassion, dignity and respect. And it is through our caring staff, volunteers and foster parents that we continue to serve as an example of Christ’s love in action.”

Lutheran Social Services of the South (Upbring) received more than $23.9 million in UAC contracts.

The presiding bishop of the largest Lutheran denomination in the United States, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, joined an interfaith statement condemning family separation as “unnecessarily cruel and detrimental to the well-being of parents and children.”


Board of Child Care of the United Methodist Church received more than $10.9 million in UAC contracts. Its chief operating officer Kristian Sekse told ThinkProgress in an email that its contract is “to provide care for children who have crossed into the United States and are awaiting immigration proceedings.” Sekse said that the contract requires all media inquires be addressed to HHS.

The church’s Council of the Bishops joined the interfaith statement condemning these separations and hundreds of clergy and laypeople file an official church complaint against fellow Methodist Attorney General Jeff Sessions for his role in the policy creation. Sessions could ultimately be expelled from his church for his role in announcing, implementing, and promoting the policy.

Non-denominational Christians

His House, a Florida-based Christian faith-based non-profit, received more than $15.1 million in UAC contracts. Executive Director Silvia Smith-Torres said in an email: “In the past 30 years, His House has provided homes (and will continue to provide homes) to both dependent children and unaccompanied alien children where the parents have abandoned, abused, or neglected their children, or are unable to care for them due to incarceration. All children at His House are treated with love, compassion and humanity.”

Youth for Tomorrow’s New Life Center, a Virginia-based Christian faith-based non-profit founded by former NFL coach Joe Gibbs, received more than $20.6 million in UAC contracts.

The leaders of nearly every major American Christian denomination have opposed family separation.

Danielle McLean contributed to this report.

This post has been updated to include additional comment.